As Mike Elko and his staff start to build something good for the Duke defense that was among the nation’s worst last season, a big man in the middle up front is a great place to start.
Defensive tackle DeWayne Carter shone while the Blue Devils, as a group, struggled during the 3-9 season that precipitated the end of David Cutcliffe’s 14-season tenure as their head coach.
Elko arrived last November from Texas A&M, where as defensive coordinator the Aggies rated No. 14 nationally by allowing 327.5 yards per game and No. 3 nationally in points allowed per game (15.9). Duke, meanwhile, allowed more yards per game than any of the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams at 517.6 yards per game and finished at No. 127 by allowing 39.8 points per game.
Despite that, Carter put together a solid season that brought him third-team All-ACC honors, giving Elko someone he can count on this season.
“DeWayne’s got a lot of explosion, a lot of twitch,” Elko said. “He can play in the run and pass game. He’s got pass rush values every down at defensive tackle.”
The raw stats show Carter led the ACC in forced fumbles (four) while recording 7.5 tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks.
Pro Football Focus’ analysts gave him an overall 70.1 grade on a 100 scale, putting him among the top two-thirds of interior defensive linemen nationally. His scores on pass rushing (71.7) and pass coverage (85) helped make up for a middling 57.8 score on run defense.
With an approach to start fresh and not base anything off of previous play, Elko said he doesn’t put a lot of stock in last year’s results. However, he’s confident Carter is better equipped now to excel against both the pass and the run.
“The strength gains he made over the summer will help him against the run,” Elko said. “I think he’s a bigger, stronger kid this year and that will certainly help him against the run.”
Overall, on a defense in dire need of experienced, smart, athletic players to improve the overall group, Carter is a bright spot.
When asked during spring practice last April about players who stood out to him, Robb Smith, Duke’s new defensive coordinator, immediately mentioned Carter among “guys who have flashed.”
Carter is eager to show more playing under his new coaches in Smith, who came from Rutgers, and Elko.
“It’s been a lot of positive change,” Carter said. “Honestly, the biggest thing and worry for me, being a vet in the program now, was how the transition was going to go. It’s been very smooth. We’ve laid a good foundation, and most importantly, the best positive change is it’s really like a player and coach relationship partnership almost. We’re working together.”
Voted by his teammates as a captain for the second consecutive year, Carter has started 13 games during his Blue Devils career.
He played in three games during his redshirt season in 2019 and in 11, with one start, in 2020. Those two years, he played on a defensive line that featured Victor Dimukeje, Chris Rumph, Derrick Tangelo and Drew Jordan. Dimukeje (Cardinals) and Rumph (Chargers) are now in their second seasons in the NFL while Tangelo (Falcons) and Jordan (Panthers) are rookies in training camp.
Last season, with all four gone from Duke, Carter became a key cog and, while the unit itself was poor, his play stood out.
When Duke beat Northwestern, 30-23, on Sept. 18, Carter not only forced two fumbles but was credited with a sack, a quarterback pressure and a pass break up along with three tackles.
The offseason work since Elko was hired is aimed towards more Saturdays like that, where Duke winds up a winner. From spring practice to offseason conditioning, it’s all about competition and gaining an edge.
“Anything you can think of. we did it,” Carter said. “Anything you think you can improve on, we did it. And it was just constant day in and day out. That was kind of the challenge to us. How many times can we come back and attack it with the same mentality, the same intensity every single day?”