No one expected what happened last season for Duke football. They had just come off of their first bowl game since 1994, and It was possible that they would make consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history, which they did. But no one would have guessed that the Blue Devils would make an appearance in the ACC title game, and be competitive for about a quarter and a half. While Duke lost that game, and the Chick Fil A Bowl to Texas A&M, it was one of the best seasons in the programs history.
Eight starters return from an offense that averaged 32.8 points per game last season, but they did lose offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who went to Florida to become the offensive coordinator there. David Cutcliffe promoted fromer Duke player and wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery to the same position. Quarterback Anthony Boone completed 64% of his passes, averaging 7.0 yards per attempt. Boone threw for 2260 yards, with 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Seven of Boone's 13 interceptions occurred in consecutive games, which oddly enough, Duke won. Boone likely will have more of an opportunity to play full games now that Brandon Connette is no longer in the program.
What really propelled Duke last season was the rushing attack. The Blue Devils averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season, one of its best rushing outputs ever. Two of the four running backs the Blue Devils used last season are back, led by Josh Snead. The senior averaged over six yards per carry, but only carried the ball more than 10 times in four games. There were four games where Snead averaged 2.4 yards per carry or less, so he was either a feast for famine guy, but mostly he was a feast guy. Backing him up will be junior Shaquille Powell, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season.
Of course, Duke has had a history of producing excellent wide receivers that fit their scheme perfectly. Jamison Crowder has been another in that line of receivers. Crowder caught 108 passes last season for 1360 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Crowder caught 10 or more passes in a game four times last season, and had his best game in the last game, the bowl game loss to Texas A&M, where Crowder caught 12 passes for 163 yards and one touchdown in that game. Aside from Crowder, Max McCaffrey and Issac Blakeney will catch passes as well. Both McCaffrey and Blakeney both caught four touchdown passes for the Blue Devils last season. At tight end, Braxton Deaver has become an underrated player in the ACC. He was among the leaders in the ACC in receptions by tight ends last season with 46, and yards with 600. Both were second on the team to Crowder.
Three starters return on the offensive line this season. This was an offensive line that only allowed the quarterback to get sacked 17 times in 472 pass attempts, or one every 27.7 attempts. The line also helped running backs have success not seen by recent Duke running backs. Led by first team All-ACC guard Laken Tomlinson, the line should be good again this year.
If you want to look at one spot where Duke improved immensely in 2013, it was on defense. The Blue Devils allowed 10 fewer points per game and 50 yards fewer per game. They only return one starter on the defensive line in senior Jamal Bruce, but the line still does have some experience back. Despite that, I don't think the defensive line will be as good this year, mostly because Kenny Anunike graduated.
The linebackers are going to be the strong point of the Duke defense this year. Leading tackler David Helton returns, coming off of a 133 tackle season, which led the ACC, along with Kelby Brown, who had 114 tackles and 10 tackles for loss. Keep in mind that Duke runs a 4-2-5 defense, so they only use the two linebackers normally, but they are both good. The depth behind them is still pretty solid too.
Despite some losses in the secondary, the secondary should still be a productive unit this year. Breon Borders came out of nowhere to be tied for the team lead in interceptions with four, tying fellow secondary member Jeremy Cash, who also finished second on the team with 121 tackles. DeVon Edwards was another freshman who stepped up, picking off three passes, with two being returned for touchdowns. Amazingly, they were on consecutive snaps, which helped blow open the NC State game last season. With another year of experience from guys like Border and Edwards, I think the secondary will be even better this year.
One area I would say needs some improvement in 2014 is the kicking game. Ross Martin was 13-19 on field goals, and was 3-7 from beyond 40 yards. Will Monday had a good season punting, averaging 42.7 yards per punt, and had a net of 37.8. Expect DeVon Edwards to continue returning kicks again this year, since he did so well with it last year. Edwards averaged 30 yards per kick return, and took two back for touchdowns.
There's a very good chance Duke rolls through the nonconference portion undefeated. Elon, Troy, Kansas, and Tulane should not put up a lot of resistance. The Blue Devils open conference play at Miami, then get a bye week before facing Georgia Tech on the road, which will be to Duke's advantage, because that extra week to prepare for Georgia Tech always helps the opposing team. Where Duke can make its biggest mark is the final three games, where they get Virginia Tech, North Carolina on a Thursday night, and Wake Forest, all at home to close the season.
What can the Blue Devils do for an encore this year after such a successful season in 2013? There might actually be some expectations this year. There is a lot to like about this Blue Devils squad this year. The offense should continue to rack up yards, and the defense will continue to improve again this year. I think the schedule really works in their favor, especially, as mentioned above, at the end of the season. They aren't the most talented team in the Coastal division, but they very well could end up in the ACC title game again this year. I think Duke could win eight or nine games this year.