Monday, August 4, 2014

2014 season preview: Duke Blue Devils


8/30: Elon
9/6: @ Troy
9/13: Kansas
9/20: Tulane
9/27: @ Miami
10/3: BYE
10/11: @ Georgia Tech
10/18: Virginia
10/25: BYE
11/1: @ Pittsburgh
11/8: @ Syracuse
11/15: Virginia Tech
11/20: North Carolina (Thu.)
11/29: Wake Forest

Skip: Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, NC State

2013 results:

NC Central: W, 45-0
Memphis: W, 28-14
Georgia Tech: L, 38-14
Pittsburgh: L, 58-55
Troy: W, 38-31
Navy: W, 35-7
Virginia: W, 35-22
Virginia Tech: W, 13-10
NC State: W, 38-20
Miami: W, 48-30
Wake Forest: W, 28-21
North Carolina: W, 27-25
Florida State: L, 45-7 (ACC Championship)
Texas A&M: L, 52-48 (Peach Bowl)

Record: 10-4 (6-2); 1st, Coastal

Projected starters:

QB: Anthony Boone (5Sr.)
RB: Josh Snead (5Sr.)
WR: Jamison Crowder (Sr.)
WR: Max McCaffrey (Jr.)
WR: Issac Blakeney (5Sr.)
TE: Braxton Deaver (5Sr.)
LT: Takoby Cofield (5Sr.)
LG: Lucas Patrick (rJr.)
C: Matt Skura (rJr.)
RG: Laken Tomlinson (5Sr.)
RT: Casey Blaser (rSo.)

DE: Dezmond Johnson (5Sr.)
DT: Jamal Bruce (5Sr.)
DT: Carlos Wray (Jr.)
DE: Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo (5Sr.)
MLB: Kelby Brown (5Sr.)
WLB: David Helton (Sr.)
CB: Bryon Fields (So.)
CB: Breon Borders (So.)
S: DeVon Edwards (rSo.)
S: Jeremy Cash (rJr.)
S: Deondre Singleton (So.)

K: Ross Martin (Jr.)
P: Will Monday (rJr.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: David Cutcliffe (7th season)

Media prediction: 2nd, Coastal


2013 1st team: WR Jamison Crowder, LB Kelby Brown, CB Ross Cockrell, S Jeremy Cash
2013 2nd team: OG Laken Tomlinson, KR Jamison Crowder, DE Kenny Anunike
2013 3rd team: TE Braxton Deaver, OT Perry Simmons, PR DeVon Edwards, P Will Monday
2013 HM: K Ross Martin
2014 preseason: WR Jamison Crowder, OG Laken Tomlinson, LB Kelby Brown, S Jeremy Cash

(Italics indicate departed player.)

If at every opportunity I get to talk about the supremely brilliant prediction I made about Boston College last year, then I guess I also have to dredge up the final lines from last year's Duke preview: "I don't see three ACC wins on their schedule."  We know how that went.

Then again, Duke's presence in the ACC CG was predicted by precisely zero people on the planet.  David Cutcliffe, fresh off Duke's first bowl trip in ages, skipped quite a few steps in the development of a team and brought them (sort of) to the brink of a real live ACC championship.  OK, they got smoked by the future national champions, but, future national champions and all.  Now there's a feeling of arrival in Durham, and people are giving them a healthy amount of respect: the Blue Devils were second by just a nose in preseason ACC voting.  They're considered as strong a contender as anyone to get back to that title game.

-- Offense

The media will usually give you a boost in their voting if you have a quarterback they know and like, and Anthony Boone fits the bill.  With backup QB Brandon Connette transferring due to family issues, Duke will lean heavily on Boone, as he's now backed up by a whole string of guys who've never played.  Boone didn't quite blow the world away last year, as he mixed in some awful clunkers in his game log, but he's a legitimate dual threat with a solid arm, and, never underestimate the value of a fifth-year senior under center.

The real star of the offense, though, is receiver Jamison Crowder, who can break the ACC records for receptions and yards with a big season this year - though it doesn't have to be as big as last year when he recorded 1,360 yards on 108 catches.  Crowder isn't your typical ace receiver - he stands just 5'9", but he's a ridiculously difficult cover nonetheless.  Duke's next-biggest pass-catching threat is TE Braxton Deaver, who finally came into his own last year after an injury-filled 2012.  Max McCaffrey is a dependable possession guy who plays on the outside opposite Crowder, and an interesting platoon is being set up in the slot, where 6'6" senior Issac Blakeney is being pushed by 5'7" sophomore Ryan Smith.

The running back rotation took a hit last winter when second-leading rusher Jela Duncan was suspended for two semesters, which includes this coming season, for academic reasons.  Duncan split carries at the top of the depth chart with Josh Snead last season, and Snead averaged over six yards a carry, so Duke isn't hurting too badly here.  Though, it's actually junior Shaquille Powell who's listed atop the pre-fall depth chart; Powell did a solid job in Duke's second tier of backs, averaging 5.5 a carry on a little over 60 chances.

The offensive line is once again a strong foundation for this offense.  The unit is led by RG Laken Tomlinson, entering his fourth year as a full-time starter, and LT Takoby Cofield, entering his third.  Tomlinson is a huge, 330-pound mauler and one of the best offensive guards in the country.  At the all-important center position, Matt Skura was given the job out of last summer and held it down all season, giving Duke three returning starters on the line.  Lucas Patrick is expected to take over at left guard after starting the bowl game last year against Texas A&M, leaving just one uncertain spot on the line: right tackle.  Here, the competition, at least initially, will be betweenr redshirt sophomores Casey Blaser and Tanner Stone, who have a combined 17 snaps in their careers - all belonging to Blaser.

Despite that one small hiccup, the Duke line ought to be among the stronger ones in the league, and there's little reason to expect any regression from this offense.  They're able to rotate freely at the tailback position, keeping their legs fresh, and Crowder is one of the league's top weapons.  Combined with Cutcliffe's smarts and occasional mad science on offense, it'll take quite an effort for any defense to stop the Blue Devils this year.

-- Defense

Despite eating some words last year on this subject, I'm still not fully convinced when it comes to Duke's defense.  They certainly have some stars, pre-eminently linebacker Kelby Brown, a tremendous weapon against the run (11 TFLs in 2013) who's also much more than adequate against the pass.  Brown is joined in the linebacking corps by David Helton, who seized a starting position last year from C.J. France and never let it go - Helton was the team's leading tackler with 133.

With France and Deion Williams, both of whom played respectably as reserves, Duke has more depth at linebacker than they did in the past, but still operates mainly out of a 4-2-5 nickel defense.  They started two freshmen at safety last year, DeVon Edwards and Deondre Singleton, and both acquitted themselves very well.  Singleton did so as a true freshman, but it's Edwards who ought to be watched closely, as he not only picked off three passes last year but was also a top-flight kick returner.  The star of the secondary, though, is do-everything safety Jeremy Cash, who had 121 tackes (9.5 for loss) and picked off four passes in 2013.  Finally, at cornerback, Duke will start another pair of sophomores in Bryon Fields and Breon Borders.  Both are moving up from reserve roles last season, but that didn't stop Borders from intercepting four passes; both have enough experience that Duke should be able to rely on them without much worry.

Up front is where Duke has most of their question marks.  Duke graduated a pair of productive defensive ends, and may struggle to replace them.  Listed as starters are Dezmond Johnson and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, a pair of fifth-year seniors and career reserves.  Their backups are Kyler Brown and Jonathan Jones - again, career backups, though injuries forced them both out of a few games last season, during which they should've been taking significant steps forward in their development.  Either could play their way into the starting lineup, but that's partly a function of having relatively unimpressive starters.  In the middle, the news is a little better: Jamal Bruce is a returning full-time starter, and while Carlos Wray technically isn't, he played as much in the rotation as a starter would anyway.  Both were solidly productive last year for defensive tackles, though neither made a major name for themselves either.

Players like Cash, Kelby Brown, Helton, and up-and-comers like Edwards and Borders, should lend a sense of legitimacy to this defense, and the back seven has plenty of quality, even above-average players.  But even with such players - as well as now-departed stars like Ross Cockrell and Kenny Anunike - Duke's defense was deep in the bottom half of the league last year both against the pass and the run.  The back seven should be improved with a ton of returning starters and another year of experience under their belts, but the front four is cause for concern.  Duke will need some surprises up front, I think, in order to maintain the W/L success from last year.

-- Special teams

Duke has some of the best in the league here.  They use Jamison Crowder on punt returns, and he rewarded them last season with a 16-yard average.  DeVon Edwards topped 30 yards on average in kick return duty.  Ross Martin took a bit of a step backwards in the accuracy department last year, but he's still considered a highly dependable kicker, and Will Monday is a strong-legged punter who could have the NFL in his future.

-- Outlook

Can Duke make it back to the championship game?  That's going to be the big question for the year.  The offense is certainly a capable unit, and even brings some flash and star power to the table now, enough to hold their own against most any team in the conference.  The defense, though - well, it'd be hard for me to have a lower outlook on them than I did last year, and I don't still think that lowly of the unit.  But it's also hard to ignore that even in a year where they placed four starters on various all-ACC teams, the bottom line (for which I use yards per play) wasn't all that good.  I think the defense will cause a slight regression to the mean in the win column for Duke.  Do they go bowling?  Sure, easily.  They still have an OOC schedule totally lacking in games of interest, and they play in the wide-open Coastal.  But they won several close ones in the ACC last year and can't be expected to win them all again this year.  The good news is they skip anyone of note in the Atlantic - no FSU, no Clemson, no Louisville - but if they do make a repeat trip to the ACCCG, it'll be thanks to some surprises on defense and, likely enough, a healthy dose of tiebreakers.  Otherwise I think this is more of an eight-win squad when all's said and done - seven if they didn't play a chicken schedule in the OOC.

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