Back on 20th October 2012, the Blue Devils were coming off a blowout at the hands of Virginia Tech, but had a 10-point lead on North Carolina. However, the Tar Heels came back to take the lead. Duke were 5-2 coming into the game, but faced the meat of their schedule in which every opponent was favored. In previous years, the Blue Devils would have congratulated themselves on a job well done, packed up and went home (they were) with a close loss. Senior quarterback Sean Renfree had other ideas though, leading Duke down the field to throw the winning TD with 13 seconds left and lifting the team to 6-2 and bowl eligibility. The Blue Devils never won again, but they made a bowl game for the first time in 18 years.
Last season, many wondered if times were changing in Durham, and whether Duke could make it back to a bowl game. No one, except perhaps the most zealous fan, could have predicted this. The Blue Devils won 10 games for the first time in their history, made the ACC Championship Game and came within a couple of late interceptions of beating Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A bowl. Now the trick is sustaining the success. Can coach David Cutcliffe continue to build the once downtrodden program?
Cutcliffe is a quarterback guru, so it’s no surprise that he successfully shuttled 2 QBs last season. Anthony Boone was the starter, and passed for 2260 yards and 13 TDs, with 13 interceptions, in 11 games. He also added 214 yards and 5 scores on the ground. Brandon Connette started 3 games, but played in 13. He passed for 1212 yards and another 13 TDs, but only threw 6 interceptions. He was also a reliable option in short yardage, and ran for 337 yards and 14 TDs.
The running game was a lot better than it has been in recent seasons, although it could stand to be more consistent. Juwan Thompson (64-348-1) started the season, but dynamic Josh Snead (107-651-2) took over after 3 games. Jela Duncan (113-562-3) led the team in carries, and despite not being as exciting as Snead, he was a more consistent ground gainer. Shaquille Powell (62-344-2) received increased carries as the season went on, and is another quality young back on for the Blue Devils.
There is no question who the top player on the offense was – that honor belongs to receiver Jamison Crowder, who was one of the best in the ACC, if not the nation. The junior was 6th in the FBS in receptions with 106, and 9th in yards (1360), and he also caught 8 TDs. Also a factor was tight end Braxton Deaver, who was second on the team with 46 receptions, 600 yards and 4 TDs. The other starters, Brandon Braxton and Max McCaffrey, combined for 65 receptions, 643 yards and 6 scores.
The offensive line took a big step forward last season, paving the way for a running attack that gained 2492 yards and 28 TDs (4.6 YPC), and allowing just 17 sacks. Laken Tomlinson was a big signing for the Blue Devils a couple of years ago, and he showed his worth last season with an all-conference nod. Right tackle Perry Simmons also made the all-ACC team.
In the spring game, Connette looked better at quarterback than Boone, but any fall camp shootout was put to rest when Connette transferred to Fresno State to be closer to his ailing grandmother. He’s a big loss, not just as a passer, but as a short yardage runner. Boone needs to cut down on his errant throws, but he’s good enough to move the chains. The big contest in fall will be for the backup job.
The running backs will have to shoulder more of the load when the hard yards are needed, but Powell and Duncan are capable of splitting that load, as both are tough runners. Snead will provide excitement, while true freshman Shaun Wilson could be a factor.
The only receiver who caught a pass last season that doesn’t return is Braxton. He needs to be replaced, but 6’6 Issac Blakeney (19-244-4) and Johnell Barnes (15-217-0) flashed some ability. Incoming freshman Trevon Lee could be Crowder’s replacement next season, but he should get the chance to learn on the job in 2014.
The line needs to replace Simmons and Dave Harding, which may be a problem, due to their experience. Tomlinson is back, as is left tackle Takoby Cofield, while center Matt Skura is on the Rimington watch list. The Blue Devils have recruited well here recently, so the loss of experienced veterans may be less of a factor. Lucas Patrick is expected to replace Harding, while Tanner Stone should be the new tackle. The Blue Devils were lucky with injuries on the front line last season, only losing 1 start, but depth could be a concern this season.
The Blue Devils defense wasn’t bad last season. It certainly wasn’t good, but it did enough for the team to win 10 games. They allowed just 26.6 points per game, the lowest since 2008, and 418 yards, the lowest since 2009. The secret of their success was turnovers, with a solid 26, and the ability to get teams off the field on third down, allowing just 37.3% to be converted. The unit really struggled when they played anyone with a pulse,but they generally put the offense in a position to win games.
The line was a solid unit, getting after the quarterback despite netting just 23 sacks. They had their struggles against the run, but they lacked the bulk in the middle to plug the run. The guys tasked with the job, Jamal Bruce and Sydney Sarmiento, combined for 53 tackles, but just 4 tackles for loss. Saramiento did knock down 3 passes though. End Kenny Anunike was the star of the show, making 67 tackles, with 13.5 in the backfield and 6 sacks. Justin Foxx made 54 tackles opposite him, with 5.5 for loss, and came second in the team with 4 sacks.
The linebacking combo of David Helton (weakside) and Kelby Brown (middle) was a good one. Helton led the team with 133 tackles, making 4 in the backfield, and also broke up 2 passes and was credited with 2 hurries. Brown was third on the team with a ‘mere’ 114 tackles, 11 for loss. He also broke up 2 passes, intercepted 2 more, had 7 hurries and forced 2 fumbles. Jeremy Cash was the hybrid ‘Strike’ safety, and was moved around a lot to take advantage of his many talents. The all-ACC sophomore had the strength to play close to the line of scrimmage, and the speed to cover receivers. He was second on the team with 121 tackles, 9.5 for loss, and had 4 interceptions, 4 PBUs, 2 hurries and forced 2 fumbles.
The secondary was decent last season, although they struggled against the better quarterbacks. Although they leaked 244 yards per game and allowed 25 TDs, they also came up with 18 interceptions and held opponents to a respectable 57.4% completion percentage. Corner Ross Cockrell was the star. He made 46 tackles, but also broke up 12 passes and made 3 interceptions. The all-ACC senior was as close to being a shutdown corner as Duke has had in a long time. There were too many lineup changes at the safety position for consistency to be a factor. Deondre Singleton and DeVon Edwards started the most of the latter half of the season at safety, and did a good job. The pair combined for 126 tackles, 10 PBUs and 4 interceptions.
The defense has some big question marks heading into 2014, with 5 senior starters needing to be replaced, including Anunike and Cockrell. Bruce is the only returning starter up front, but they have some experienced reserves on board to move up. Carlos Wray played regularly as a reserve last season, making 31 tackles and 4 hurries, and will get a chance to start this season, although sophomore AJ Wolf will give him a push. A couple of senior ends look to take the place of Anunike and Foxx. Dezmond Johnson was a solid reserve, making 22 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 4 hurries and 2 recovering 2 fumbles. Jonathan Woodruff also played regularly, posting 17 tackles and 3 sacks. This should be a decent unit again, but whether they can overcome their woes against the run remains to be seen.
If linebacker wasn’t the strength of the defense last season, it should be this year, with Brown, Helton and Cash returning, plus a bunch of experienced reserves.
Edwards and Singleton should return as the starting safeties, while their predecessors as starters will provide solid backup. Corner could be a concern without Cockrell, and to a lesser extent, Garett Patterson. A pair of sophomores, Bryon Fields and Breon Borders played well last year, so there is hope. Fields had 42 tackles and 6 PBUs, while Borders had 26 tackles, 8 PBUs and 4 interceptions. Depth could be an issue though.
, who averaged 42.7 per punt, dropping 21 inside the 20 with just 6 touchbacks. He also hit 14 punts of over 50 yards, including a 72-yarder. Edwards was an outstanding kick returner, averaging 30.2 per return and scoring twice. Crowder was just as good on punts, averaging 16 yards per return and also scoring a pair of TDs. Kick coverage was okay, but the punt team allowed 2 scoring returns. The unit blocked 3 kicks.
The special teams unit returns en masse, and while it may be difficult to repeat last year’s success, expect them to come close. They need to sort out that punt coverage though.
How do the Blue Devils build on last season’s success? They certainly raised to collective eyebrow of the FBS world with 10-win season in 2013, but they won’t be taking anyone by surprise this coming season. They have plenty back on both sides of the ball, and solid recruitment means the depth should be there. An easy OOC should see the Blue Devils off to a 4-0 start, but the Coastal will be competitive again this season, so the margin for error will be small. Trips to Miami, Georgia Tech, and even Pitt and Syracuse, will be very tricky, while Virginia Tech and North Carolina at home late in the season will test their depth. It would be a surprise if Duke failed to make a bowl this season, but winning the division may be out of their reach. An 8-5 record sounds about right.