Wednesday, August 4, 2010

season preview: Duke

Duke Blue Devils


9/4: Elon
9/11: @ Wake Forest
9/18: Alabama
9/25: Army
10/2: @ Maryland
10/9: BYE
10/16: Miami
10/23: @ Virginia Tech
10/30: @ Navy
11/6: Virginia
11/13: Boston College
11/20: @ Georgia Tech
11/27: North Carolina

Skip: Clemson, Florida State, NC State

Projected starters:

QB: Sean Renfree (rSo.)
RB: Jay Hollingsworth (Jr.)
WR: Donovan Varner (Jr.)
WR: Conner Vernon (So.)
WR: Austin Kelly (Sr.)
TE: Brett Huffman (5Sr.)
LT: Kyle Hill (rJr.)
LG: Brandon Harper (5Sr.)
C: Bryan Morgan (Sr.)
RG: Brian Moore (5Sr.)
RT: Jon Needham (rJr.)

DE: Patrick Egboh (5Sr.)
NG: Charlie Hatcher (rJr.)
DE: Wes Oglesby (5Sr.)
SLB: Damian Thornton (Sr.)
MLB: Kevin Rojas (rFr.)
WLB: Abraham Kromah (5Sr.)
OLB: Adam Banks (Sr.)
CB: Chris Rwabukamba (5Sr.)
CB: Johnny Williams (Jr.)
S: Lee Butler (Jr.)
S: Matt Daniels (Jr.)

K: Will Snyderwine (rJr.)
P: Kevin Jones (5Sr.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: David Cutcliffe (3rd season)

Media prediction: 5th, Coastal Division


2009 1st team: WR Donovan Varner
2009 2nd team: QB Thaddeus Lewis, LB Vincent Rey, K Will Snyderwine
2009 HM: DT Vince Oghobaase, CB Leon Wright
2010 preseason: WR Donovan Varner

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Gotta love Tennessee. Furious (and the only people surprised) that Lane Kiffin bolted after just one season, they asked David Cutcliffe to leave Duke after two. Cutcliffe has ties in the region much like Kiffin has in California, so it was a worrisome time for Duke football fans, but it worked out in the end, as Cutcliffe stayed on. So Duke will continue to have a legitimate, actual head coach, but the question is, do they have a legitimate, actual football team?


It'd be just the way things go that in Cutcliffe's third season, the one in which it's supposed to all come together for a new head coach, he'd have to start over again at quarterback. The impressive Thad Lewis departs, and Sean Renfree takes over at the trigger. Renfree was a big deal when he committed to Duke: Cutcliffe's biggest catch, and he chose Duke over programs like Nebraska, Arizona State, and Stanford. He gave Duke fans a taste of what they hope is the future in mop-up duty during big wins and losses last year, and put up some impressive numbers.

One of the conference's most - if not the most - impressive returning receiver corps is available to ease Renfree's transition. Donovan Varner had a 1,000-yard campaign in 2009, and he combined with Austin Kelly and Conner Vernon for 174 catches and 2,418 yards. This receiving trio is the highlight of the Duke squad and one that most coaches would kill for.

The passing game had better produce yards like that again, because the running game looks to be as poor as it was last year. Duke just didn't run the ball much last season and they were awful when they did. Jay Hollingsworth is listed as the starter for now, but he'll at least have to split carries with Desmond Scott and a few others; Scott was the leading rusher last season with all of 262 yards. Duke might try and work in a newcomer like early enrollee and small-fry extraordinaire Joshua Snead, but results that poor across the running back board generally mean that the offensive line simply can't run-block, so it probably won't matter who's carrying the ball.

It is an experienced offensive line, but they had the luxury last year of protecting a guy who could make a few things happen with his feet. Renfree is a pocket passer, and I'd expect him to take plenty of hits this season. Guard Mitchell Lederman will be pushing Brandon Harper very hard for playing time (Lederman actually has more starting experience), but beyond that, Duke's depth consists mostly of redshirt freshmen. That those freshmen may well be more talented than the current group of starters is a good sign for Duke's future, but bodes ill for 2010.


But if the offensive line is shaky, the defensive line is a near-disaster. Duke has been a 4-3 team, but this year that may be in name only. Expect a lot of defensive fronts that look suspiciously like a 3-4; in fact, Duke even lists just three starters up front and four starting linebackers. The linebackers are not supremely gifted but there are plenty of playable ones to go around; the defensive line two-deep is stocked with true freshmen. Adam Banks will see a lot of time as what Duke calls the Devil linebacker - an extra outside linebacker that will allow big Damien Thornton to play with a hand on the ground, much like Cam Johnson or Darryl Blackstock once did as OLBs. Charlie Hatcher is a decent player in the middle of Duke's line, adding 7 TFL's to his stat line in 2009 (not bad at all for a DT) but there's little else in the way of talent in the front seven.

The secondary is not much better. Duke only intercepted eight passes last year. And only one player who had any of them returns: Lee Butler, who picked off NC State's meaningless heave into the end zone in the last 30 seconds of Duke's 3-touchdown blowout. That's it for returning interceptions. Johnny Williams, the one new starter in the defensive backfield, is a converted receiver and will play his first college down on defense this season. Matt Daniels is probably the secondary's best player, but as with Hatcher on the defensive line, he's decent at best and not likely to garner much press for all-conference.


Will Snyderwine didn't go into last season as the starting kicker, but Nick Maggio shanked his two tries against Richmond and the job was Snyderwine's for most of the rest of the year. He brought some badly needed consistency to the job, missing just three FG attempts all year. Snyderwine has distance as well as accuracy, nailing a 49-yarder and a 51-yarder late in the season. Kevin Jones is an okay punter. Kick returns were handled by committee last year, with Desmond Scott being the best of the bunch, and Johnny Williams' move to defense probably won't see him give up his punt-return duties.


Only as good as the defense, and that's bad. Duke graduated some talent from last year's defense and hasn't yet replaced it. There are talented freshmen on the horizon, but unless there are some surprises in store, they're a little while away yet from upgrading the talent level on defense. Right now the players manning the defensive side of the ball range from "decent" (and those players are precious few) to "unplayable and unwatchable." The offense has the talent at the skill positions to make some noise - Renfree has the potential to make Duke fans forget about Thad Lewis, which is really saying something - but they'll only go as far as the line takes them. Expect some high-scoring games from Duke this season, but more for the opponents than the Blue Devils. Duke gets a real break on the schedule by missing out on both Clemson and FSU, but even so don't expect much more than a three- or four-win season out of them.

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