Sunday, August 9, 2009

season preview: Duke


9/5: Richmond
9/12: @ Army
9/19: @ Kansas
9/26: NC Central
10/3: Virginia Tech
10/10: @ NC State
10/17: BYE
10/24: Maryland
10/31: @ Virginia
11/7: @ North Carolina
11/14: Georgia Tech
11/21: @ Miami
11/28: Wake Forest

Skip: Boston College, Florida State, Clemson

Projected starters:

QB: Thaddeus Lewis (Sr.)
RB: Re’Quan Boyette (5Sr.)
WR: Johnny Williams (So.)
WR: Donovan Varner (So.)
WR: Austin Kelly (Jr.)
TE: Brett Huffman (rJr.)
LT: Kyle Hill (RSo.)
LG: Jarrod Holt (Sr.)
C: Bryan Morgan (Jr.)
RG: Brian Moore (rFr.)
RT: Pontus Bondeson (rJr.)

LDE: Patrick Egboh (rJr.)
NT: Charlie Hatcher (rSo.)
DT: Vince Oghobaase (5Sr.)
RDE: Ayanga Okpokowuruk (5Sr.)
SLB: Damian Thornton (Jr.)
MLB: Vincent Rey (Sr.)
WLB: Abraham Kromah (rJr.)
CB: Leon Wright (Sr.)
CB: Lee Butler (So.)
S: Catron Gainey (Sr.)
S: Matt Daniels (So.)

K: Nick Maggio (Jr.)
P: Kevin Jones (rJr.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: David Cutcliffe (2nd season)


2008 1st team: LB Michael Tauliili
2008 2nd team: QB Thaddeus Lewis, WR Eron Riley
2008 HM: DT Vince Oghobaase
2009 preseason: DT Vince Oghobaase

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Media prediction: 6th, Coastal Division

As was rudely pointed out to us last year in Wallace Wade Stadium, Duke is no longer an automatic conference win, thanks to having a coach in David Cutcliffe who’s an actual legitimate, y’know, coach, and isn’t Ted Roof. That’s not to say they’re suddenly a contender, though. Cutcliffe has to work his way through a lot of deadweight and non-talent before he can get this team up to the point where a bowl would be an expectation and not a bonus.


If anyone is predicting Duke to break a very long bowl-less streak, it’s probably because of Thaddeus Lewis. It’s hard to get a grip on his true talent level, because he’s not surrounded by players of a similar caliber, but the answer is still somewhere far north of average. Lewis lost his favorite target to the NFL, though, and it remains to be seen whether a go-to receiver will emerge from the gaggle of remaining players. Johnny Williams is the only returning player to reach 30 catches last year, but he didn’t score a single touchdown, and it remains to be seen if Duke has anyone who can stretch the field. The top spring game performer at receiver was speedy Donovan Varner, but Varner is also the shortest receiver on the team at 5’9”.

RB Re’Quan Boyette missed all of last season and the running game took a major hit because of it. Boyette’s no superstar, but he’s clearly the most talented back on the roster, and Duke managed only three yards an attempt last year – their leading back and returning reserve, Jay Hollingsworth, couldn’t even scrape 400 yards. Boyette is a major wild card for the Duke offense. If he can be effective, the offense will have some life to it. If he can’t, Duke will be forced into passing mode, likely without having an established go-to receiver.

Of course, Boyette could be Barry Sanders and it wouldn’t matter if the offensive line can’t get it together, and this is an uphill battle. No matter how fall practice shakes out, there will be three new starters on the line. Continuity will likely be a struggle early on. The good news here is that the two most critical positions are manned by returning starters: Bryan Morgan at center and Kyle Hill at left tackle. Their leadership and knowledge of Cutcliffe’s schemes are going to be crucial if the Blue Devils are going to get consistent line play, which looks like a tall order right now.


Discussion of Duke’s defense always begins with DT Vince Oghobaase, widely considered the best defensive lineman in the league going into the season. Throw in Michael Rey as well, who moves to the middle linebacker slot after starting on the outside last season. Rey is the team’s returning leading tackler with 109, and he was all over the field last year making plays in both run defense and pass defense.

Unfortunately for Duke, that’s where the discussion usually ends, too. There’s a lot of linebacker talent that has to be replaced. The defensive line takes a hit too: DE Greg Akinbiyi had a way of sticking his nose into the backfield that will be difficult to replace unless Ayanga Okpokoworuk can step into his shoes. (He’s at least got the name department locked down. One thing Duke had going for it last year was better names on defense than anyone else, hands down. They lost a lot in that area, but between Okpokoworuk and Oghobaase, they have a good chance at keeping the title, especially if they’ll put Sydney Sarmiento on the field at some point.)

At least there’s experience up front, even if it’s not as a starter necessarily. Duke has one of the youngest, maybe the youngest, secondaries in the league. Only two seniors: Catron Gainey and Leon Wright, the only ones bringing much leadership and experience to the secondary. Wright missed part of last year with an injury, but he’s been a starter most of his career. Gainey is a workhorse and a familiar name for Duke fans. They’ll be the ones out there logging the most snaps, but behind them there are just a ton of true freshman, and there’s a pretty excellent chance that at least one or two of them will be thrown into action.


This is much more solid than it looked a year ago. Nick Maggio brought some stability and actual talent to the placekicking job, taking over from the inaccurate Joe Surgan mid-way through 2007 and claiming the starting job for himself. Maggio’s leg is not strong but he is accurate. Kevin Jones added more than two yards to his punting average to bump it north of 40 yards a kick.


Duke is no longer the yardstick by which really crappy BCS teams are measured. However, they’ve embarked on a long, slow slog back to respectability, and haven’t quite achieved it yet. Duke won’t be taken lightly by anyone in the ACC any more, and could start the season 3-1. And then they could easily lose all the rest of their games and finish 3-9. Thaddeus Lewis’s wheels and David Cutcliffe’s bright offensive mind are probably good enough to steal a game or two in the ACC, and it’ll no longer come as a surprise when they do beat someone in the conference. The surprise would be if they ended up bowl-eligible. In the end, Cutcliffe will have to do a lot of scheming to overcome the weakness on the offensive line, and Duke’s long road to contender status in the ACC is going to hit roadblocks this year, in large part due to all the turnover they have at so many key positions. Chances are they’re looking at another basement finish this season.

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