Sunday, August 7, 2011

season preview: Duke

Duke Blue Devils


9/3: Richmond
9/10: Stanford
9/17: @ Boston College
9/24: Tulane
10/1: @ Florida International
10/8: BYE
10/15: Florida State
10/22: Wake Forest
10/29: Virginia Tech
11/5: @ Miami
11/12: @ Virginia
11/19: Georgia Tech
11/26: @ North Carolina

Skip: Clemson, Maryland, NC State

Projected starters:

QB: Sean Renfree (rJr.)
RB: Desmond Scott (Jr.)
WR: Conner Vernon (Jr.)
WR: Donovan Varner (Sr.)
WR: Brandon Braxton (So.)
TE: Cooper Helfet (Sr.)
LT: Kyle Hill (5Sr.)
LG: Dave Harding (rSo.)
C: Brian Moore (rJr.)
RG: John Coleman (rSo.)
RT: Perry Simmons (rSo.)

DE: Kenny Anunike (rJr.)NT: Charlie Hatcher (5Sr.)
DT: Sydney Sarmiento (rSo.)
DE: Justin Foxx (rSo.)
MLB: Kelby Brown (So.)
WLB: Austin Gamble (Jr.)
CB: Ross Cockrell (rSo.)
CB: Johnny Williams (Sr.)
S: Lee Butler (Sr.)
S: Matt Daniels (Sr.)
S: Walt Canty (Jr.)

K: Will Snyderwine (5Sr.)
P: Alex King (Sr.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: David Cutcliffe (4th season)

Media prediction: 6th, Coastal Division


2010 1st team: none
2010 2nd team: WR Conner Vernon, K Will Snyderwine
2010 HM: TE Cooper Helfet, LB Abraham Kromah
2011 preseason: WR Conner Vernon, K Will Snyderwine

(Italics indicate departed player.)

I could almost just copy and paste last year's Duke preview here.  "Offense is good but defense sucks" was the theme, and nothing's changed.  Actually, if anything, the offense has probably improved even further, but who knows about that defense?


In fact, let's try the copy-and-paste thing.  Here are a few phrases from last year's Duke preview:

- "[Sean] Renfree has the potential to make Duke fans forget about Thad Lewis"

Yup.  Renfree, as long as he continues to cut down on the interceptions, really is about that good.  And....

- "One of the conference's most - if not the most - impressive returning receiver corps is available..."

Still is, especially with the combination of Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner.  These two combined for 113 catches, with Vernon falling just shy of 1,000 yards.  Combined with tight end Cooper Helfet, who was fourth on the team in receiving despite being listed as the starter in just one game, Renfree's receiving corps is dangerous.  And Renfree himself was alluded to by Duke's ESPN preview as possibly the best quarterback in the conference, which doesn't compute until you remember that most of the touted names (Danny O'Brien, Logan Thomas, Tajh Boyd, etc.) ain't even juniors yet.  Duke with the conference's best QB?  Hasn't happened since Steve Spurrier prowled the sidelines in Durham.

- "[The] running game looks to be as poor as it was last year"

It improved somewhat in 2010, but it's still quite the liability.  Leading rusher Desmond Scott carried for all of 530 yards, almost 300 of which he racked up against the horrendously porous defenses of Elon, Wake, and UVA.  (Gag.)  Scott is a pass-catching threat, but averaged barely three yards a carry against defenses that didn't suck.  To boost the running game, Duke uses backup quarterback Brandon Connette at times - Connette was actually the leading touchdown scorer last year with eight - but the novelty will wear off and teams will key in if Connette doesn't improve his passing, as he was 10 for 22 with two picks and no touchdowns.

But the passing game is so good that really, all the line has to do is a passable job of keeping Renfree off his butt, which they were able to do last year.  It's mostly the same line as last year, but it's fair to wonder if they've made any strides in run-blocking.  If they have, Duke's offense could be really something to be reckoned with, because most of the key pieces return from a passing offense that was 22nd in the country last year in YPG.


A quick look at Duke's preseason depth chart reveals a coaching staff that continues to experiment in hopes of finding ways to fix a mess.  This year, Duke will start off in a 4-2-5 look in order to try and cover up for the fact that they have no linebackers.  There were two that were worth anything last year, and one was the now-graduated Abraham Kromah.  Kelby Brown returns to patrol the middle after a terrific freshman season (as long his knee is healthy after missing last year's final game against UNC with surgery), but Duke will otherwise pray that Austin Gamble is even halfway decent because the depth chart after those two says "freshman" a lot.

Again, let's go back to last year's preview:

- "Duke only intercepted eight passes last year."

They repeated that lousy performance in 2010.  Ross Cockrell picked off three of them as a redshirt freshman, so there's a bright spot at one cornerback position.  Safety Matt Daniels will likely be the guy called upon the most to fill the linebacker gap; his game is part linebacker anyway, with 93 tackles and a team-high three forced fumbles.  The rest of the safety corps is also very experienced, and (unfortunately for Duke) accustomed to seeing the play come back to them, as Walt Canty and Lee Butler combined for 121 tackles in 2010.  The secondary has potential to make it difficult to pass the ball against Duke, but is probably more likely to rack up their numbers due to a lack of support from the front six.

- "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."

Well, 7.5 in 2010, actually.  Still, Hatcher remains a good player and the only known quantity on the defensive line.  The rest of the likely starters are mostly unproven.  Sydney Sarmiento made little impact in his first season as a starter last year, but he too was just a redshirt freshman and probably hasn't shown all he has yet.  The defensive ends are all extremely inexperienced - as with linebacker, the words "redshirt freshman" are all over the depth chart after the starters.  And with Patrick Egboh gone, nobody is left on the roster who had more than a single sack last year.  Who will pressure the quarterback is anyone's guess.


Will Snyderwine is a great kicker with a ton of range; his season long last year was 52 yards, and he was 8-for-10 beyond 40 yards.  Alex King is a decent punter.  The Duke return game isn't terrible, but is unimpressive.


Yup, gonna keep cribbing from last year's preview: "Only as good as the defense, and that's bad."  Also: "Expect some high-scoring games from Duke this season, but more for the opponents than the Blue Devils."  That was ever so true last year, with Duke losing games by scores of 54-48, 62-13, 44-7, and 35-21; their three wins were 41-27, 34-31, and 55-48.  Duke is simply not hard to call.  I think there is slight improvement to be seen in the defense this year, perhaps in large part because of two semi-breakout players (Cockrell and Brown) having a year under their belts.  The offense could be better as well, but the first game of the season will tell all.  If they get past Richmond, there are two, maybe three other games on the schedule which should be wins and a couple more that you don't need to totally stretch your imagination to see them also winning.  Getting all the breaks this year could mean a 6-6 season and a bowl.  But the defense just isn't ready yet and will probably hold them back to another three- or four-win season.  And if they do lose to Richmond, look out for ugliness.


In the world of recruiting, OMG OMG the list of commitments just got so awesome since the last time I updated the recruiting board.  Writing plans for the early week will keep that from being updated again until Wednesday, but suffice it to say, here we are halfway through the recruiting season and the class is almost complete.  We are now at the point where the coaches can be (and really, must be) extra choosy.  If a couple lower-level prospects are allowed to slip through our fingers, it is not the end of the world.

1 comment:

PO13 said...

Really pleased at the solid year of recruiting that London and his staff have put together. He seems to have ended the good year/horrible year recruiting we saw under Al Groh. Hopefully he can entice top prospects to UVA under options other than "early playing time"

Finally, for the love of God, let's hope the 'Hoos can finally beat Duke this year!