Back to the opposing team previews for next season. We took a first look at Duke last Friday. Here’s Part II.
To the questions …
AB: David Cutcliffe has a history of mentoring top-notch college quarterbacks (Heath Shuler and Peyton and Eli Manning to name a few). What is he capable of doing with senior Sean Renfree, who has been pretty good the last two years?
SW: “On the surface, everything sets up for Renfree having a big year. He has a sure-handed receiver back in Conner Vernon and an improving offensive line in front of him. Plus he’s started for two years, throwing for 6,022 yards. But Renfree hasn’t developed as well as many (including me) thought he would. He often appears tentative in the pocket, as if he’s over-thinking the play. Last March in Duke’s spring game, he threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. Cutcliffe is adamant that Renfree is his starter. But he also plans to use more athletic options in sophomores Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette, just as he’s done the last two years. At the same time, with Cutcliffe’s ability to tutor quarterbacks, there’s always the chance that things will come together and Renfree will have a monster year. It’s just hard to be confident in that prediction.”
AB: How legit it wide receiver Conner Vernon, who could break Peter Warrick’s ACC receiving yards mark this year? And does Duke have any other decent offensive weapons other than him at running back, receiver or tight end?
SW: “Vernon is a terrific route runner and is a serious threat despite not having break-away speed. He’s thrived in Duke’s short passing game, where he’s adept on slant routes. Plus he’s not afraid to go over the middle and make the tough catch. Duke has young and unproven talent surrounding Vernon, which likely means he’ll face a lot of double-teams. Wide receivers Blair Holliday and Jamison Crowder have better athleticism than Vernon. If they prove reliable, Duke will be hard to stop. In the backfield, Duke has five running backs that will vie for carries, including highly touted freshmen Shaq Powell and Jela Duncan. Sophomore tight end Braxton Deaver also has a big upside. But all those young guys have to prove they are worthy of attention to help Vernon.”
AB: Safety Matt Daniels was one of few guys who stood out on the Blue Devils’ defense last year. How does Duke go about replacing a guy who had 126 tackles, almost 40 more than anyone else on the team?
SW: “This is a really tough task for Cutcliffe and his staff. Daniels’ talent and leadership made him a big figure on Duke’s team last year. In his absence, Duke will have two seniors and a junior as starters at the three safety positions in its 4-2-5 alignment. None has Daniels’ talent, though. To help with depth, the coaches moved Brandon Braxton from wide receiver to safety. His dad, David, played linebacker in the NFL. So he figures to take well to defense. He won’t replace Daniels but he has the potential to make plays and demand more playing time.”
AB: Duke finished close to last last year in pretty much every defensive statistical category in the ACC. Is there hope that there will be improvement this year? Will entering Year 2 of Jim Knowles’ 4-2-5 defensive scheme make a difference?
SW: “Because of my answer to the previous question, its unlikely Duke will be much better on defense. That said, the problems lie up front, not in the secondary where Daniels played. The Blue Devils have been chronically poor at pressuring the quarterback and forcing turnovers. Improved recruiting up front has added players who will start this year in sophomores Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo, Jamal Bruce and Justin Foxx. They all played some last season and gained valuable experience.
“At linebacker, Duke will miss Kelby Brown, who proved to be a fine playmaker the last two seasons. He’s recovering from his second ACL tear. It happened in February so his availability for this season looks doubtful. Sophomore David Helton showed promise as a freshman, so he’ll be asked to do more this season. Again, a young group with lots of question marks.”
AB: We’ve seen strong academic schools — places like Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Wake Forest — enjoying moderate success in football recently. Yet Duke hasn’t made a bowl game since 1994. Is there any hope that Cutcliffe can get the Blue Devils over that hump and to a relevant place in the football landscape or is he just the latest in a long line of coaches to find out the reality that Duke isn’t a school that will be competitive in the sport?
SW: “Because of his background, Cutcliffe brought immediate credibility to the program and won nine games over his first two seasons. But that momentum waned over the last two seasons as Duke had consecutive 3-9 records while going 2-14 in ACC play. Duke’s administration has invested significant resources into football with a new training center, full-length practice field and an indoor facility with a full-length practice field being built since Cutcliffe arrived. There are plans in the works to expand/improve Wallace Wade Stadium.
“Still, the program remains mostly irrelevant as it struggles to consistently draw 25,000 people for home games. Duke’s schedule, with games against Stanford, Virginia Tech, Miami, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Florida State, doesn’t offer chances for six wins and a bowl game. The fan base would respond if that happened. But it doesn’t appear likely this year.”
Thanks to Steve for helping me out. While Duke has been a thorn in Virginia Tech’s side a couple of times the last few years (14-10 last year and 14-3 in 2008), this doesn’t quite seem like a team that should give the Hokies too much trouble, especially not in Blacksburg.
Daniels was the one standout player on that defense. You could argue that Brown was the other. The first has graduated. The second is injured and out for the year. On a defense lacking any star power, those are big blows. Renfree and Vernon should put up decent numbers again, but the offense is extremely one-dimensional. That will catch up to you eventually.
Duke is in a better situation that it was five years ago, but it’s still Duke. As Steve mentioned, it’ll always face an uphill climb. I’d expect Virginia Tech to have an easy time in this one.
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- North Carolina — Team overview | Ask a beat writer
- Duke — Team overview