From Old Virginia continues its ACC previews with Duke Football.
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9/1: Florida International
9/8: @ Stanford
9/15: NC Central
9/29: @ Wake Forest
10/13: @ Virginia Tech
10/20: North Carolina
10/27: @ Florida State
11/17: @ Georgia Tech
Skip: Boston College, Maryland, NC State
QB: Sean Renfree (5Sr.)
RB: Desmond Scott (Sr.)
WR: Conner Vernon (Sr.)
WR: Jamison Crowder (So.)
WR: Nick Hill (rFr.)
TE: Braxton Deaver (rSo.)
LT: Takoby Cofield (rSo.)
LG: Dave Harding (rJr.)
C: Brian Moore (5Sr.)
RG: Laken Tomlinson (rSo.)
RT: Perry Simmons (rJr.)
DE: Justin Foxx (rJr.)
DT: Jamal Bruce (rSo.)
DT: Sydney Sarmiento (rJr.)
DE: Kenny Anunike (5Sr.)
MLB: Kyler Brown (rFr.)
WLB: Kelby Brown (Jr.)
CB: Lee Butler (5Sr.)
CB: Ross Cockrell (rJr.)
S: Brandon Braxton (Jr.)
S: Jordon Byas (5Sr.)
S: Walt Canty (Sr.)
K: Will Monday (rFr.)
P: Will Monday (rFr.)
Coach: David Cutcliffe (5th year)
(Italics indicate new starter.)
Media prediction: 6th, Coastal Division
2011 1st team: S Matt Daniels
2011 2nd team: WR Conner Vernon, P Alex King
2011 HM: TE Cooper Helfet
2012 preseason: WR Conner Vernon
(Italics indicate departed player.)
There's no doubt that David Cutcliffe has improved Duke's program. Ted Roof was head coach for four years and won exactly that many games. Cutcliffe won four in his first season and came one win shy of quadrupling Roof's four-year total. But the Dookies have been sliding slowly backwards with two three-win seasons in a row. It's tough to gauge expectations at a place like Duke, where "we almost achieved bowl eligibility" is synonymous with your best season in over 15 years, but if ever there were such a thing as high expectations at Duke, they might come while Duke has its best senior quarterback in ages.
That would be Sean Renfree, a guy who just might see the NFL come calling after this season. Renfree has "prototypical size," and Duke leans hard on his arm to move the offense. Without relying on the deep ball (he averaged fewer yards per attempt than Mike Rocco did) Renfree is a master at hitting his targets, and last year, his receivers did a good job getting open for him. Renfree's QB rating gets dragged down by his low TD total (it's Duke, after all, and they also like to mix things up in the red zone with running quarterbacks) and low YPA, but he's clearly in the upper echelon of ACC quarterbacks.
Renfree's #1 target is Conner Vernon; barring injury, Vernon is expected to - no joke - set new ACC records for both receptions and yardage. He needs only 35 catches to do it, and is 800-some yards shy of Peter Warrick's record set at Florida State. Vernon had 70 catches and 900+ yards last year, so he shouldn't have much trouble getting there. (And I'm rooting for him to do it; anything to wipe the ridiculously undeserving Warrick from the record books.) Possibly aiding (and possibly hindering) Vernon in his quest is that most of the other receiving targets from last year have moved on. Donovan Varner and Cooper Helfet have graduated, and Brandon Braxton switched to the secondary. That leaves Jamison Crowder and his 14 catches in 2011 as the most experienced receiver left on the roster. Crowder is probably good enough to complement Vernon and keep defenses at least a little bit honest, but there's no doubt that the depth at receiver for Duke is much less than it was last year.
The running game still isn't what it needs to be. The top pairing of Desmond Scott and Juwan Thompson was marginally more productive than what Duke had in 2010 (mostly Scott and running QB Brandon Connette) but the yardage was still weak; Duke barely scraped together 1,000 yards as a team and Scott and Thompson once again piled up most of their yards against lousy teams and were stopped cold by good ones. Though Scott and Thompson are again listed as the starters, don't be surprised at all to see some true freshmen jump into the game and usurp some carries; two four-star recruits, Shaquille Powell and Jela Duncan, signed with Duke this February, and at least one of them, if not both, is likely to start moving up the depth chart.
At least the offensive line is improving. Once one of the most eye-avertingly bad units of any kind in the whole league, there's now some consistency and, hell, maybe even some talent. The right side is especially experience; right tackle Perry Simmons has started every game of his career since being tossed into the lineup as a redshirt freshman in 2010. His neighbor, right guard Laken Tomlinson, did the same, except one year later. Tomlinson was a freshman all-American last year and started all 12 games as well. Center Brian Moore missed most of last year, but is still a member of the Rimington watch list, and left guard Dave Harding has a lot of versatility to his game, with starts at all three interior positions. Duke's line isn't likely to win a lot of accolades this year, but even so, they could be - this is very weird to say - pretty good.
(As a bit of further enlightenment, I dug through the archives and this is what I had to say about Duke's line at this time two years ago: "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." Maybe that's coming to pass.)
Anyway, Duke's offense has been relatively good under Cutcliffe, and that probably won't change this year. There's a senior quarterback, a solid O-line, a star receiver, and some reinforcements coming at running back, and that should more than offset the lack of depth at receiver. The Blue Devil offense won't dazzle like, say, Clemson's, but it's no pushover.
All you need to know about Duke's defense in 2011 is that three of the top four tacklers were defensive backs. Duke employs a 4-2-5 in which one of the safeties sort of acts as the strong-side linebacker, but still.
The secondary will again be the strength of the defense, by far. They'll feel the effects of losing Matt Daniels, though. Walt Canty will step up to take his place after being the team's second-leading tackler, but Duke had to shore up the safety unit by moving Brandon Braxton from receiver. Jordon Byas will be the third starter; Byas is a fifth-year senior who's earned spot starting duty the past three years, culminating with five starts in the last half the season in 2011. He's not the most productive player, but he's a steady presence. The cornerbacks are the better half of the secondary, though; Ross Cockrell and Lee Butler should finally give Duke a solid pair of covermen. Butler is a converted safety and both have plenty of experience.
At linebacker, Kelby Brown was the one non-DB in the tackling top four last year, and he led the team in TFL as well with seven. He should be at least solid, and a familiar face (to Brown) will line up next to him this year, as redshirt freshman Kyler Brown has supplanted the relatively productive Austin Gamble as the starter in the middle. Familiar, because yes, a pair of white guys with the same last name and first initial are in fact brothers. How very Duke. Of the newcomers to the defense, Kyler Brown has the highest expectations on his shoulders.
Part of the reason for the lousiness of the defense last year was DE Kenny Anunike's early injury. Without Anunike, there was essentially no pass rush; despite playing only four games in 2011, Anunike was the team's sack leader with four. On the other side, Justin Foxx has shown some flashes, but played through an injury last year that hampered his production. There could be a decent uptick in production from the DEs this year, if healthy. At tackle, though, Duke has often employed turnstiles. Sydney Sarmiento hasn't been good at the three-tech, and nose tackle Jamal Bruce played 177 snaps in a backup role last year and only recorded five tackles.
So despite marginal improvements, Duke appears to have a long way to go. There could be a decent pass rush this year, but run-stopping will remain an issue as long as there's a squishy-soft interior line. Duke has a tough time forcing turnovers as well, averaging less than one a game last year, and only picking off six passes. It's time for Cockrell's and Butler's experience to bring some interceptions to the table, and the front six need to stop leaving so many tackles for the secondary. This team will only go so far as the defense will take it, and though it appears to be in somewhat better shape than it did entering 2011, that's not saying much.
Redshirt freshman Will Monday is in line to take care of both the kicking and the punting, although he'll be pushed at placekicker by incoming scholarship freshman Ross Martin.
Duke has a tough schedule this year, although when you're Duke and looking upwards at the whole conference, most schedules look tough. But they don't get Boston College this year, whom they upset in Chestnut Hill last season, and they miss out on Maryland as well. They're gluttons for punishment, too, with a trip to Stanford on the docket. However, the rest of the nonconference schedule is highly beatable, and Duke should emerge from that portion of it with three wins. It'll be a major challenge, though, finding three more in the ACC schedule. (Duke is also a good candidate for the new - and stupid - longshot eligibility that lets a 5-7 team play in a bowl if they have a top-five APR score, but even that will be tough to attain.)