Last year was a pretty big deal: Duke's first bowl appearance since 1995. Their upset win over UNC sealed the deal - and then came the tailspin as the Devils lost their last five games. But the season was historic in other ways too; Conner Vernon rewrote the receiving categories in the ACC record book, setting new marks for career receptions and yards. Duke now has to try and duplicate that success without a large portion of the heralded skill-position players that got them there.
It's not just Vernon who departs; Duke also must find their way with a new quarterback and without their very productive third receiver, Desmond Scott, as well. The former position should be in good hands. UVA fans will remember Anthony Boone as the guy who rudely torched our defense in Sean Renfree's absence last year. While Boone wasn't quite as productive in other games that he's played, he's got some experience and should be ready for the big time.
Jamison Crowder is the lone returning starter among the receivers, but Issac Blakeney did catch 32 passes last year and has enough experience of his own. Crowder had exactly as many yards and touchdowns as Vernon last year (1,074 and 8, respectively) and on fewer catches. He'll bring explosiveness to the position, and the Duke coaches really liked what they saw out of Max McCaffrey in the spring. As for tight end, Braxton Deaver will give it another shot after missing 2012 with a knee injury; Deaver brings some big-play ability to the TE position and should be another quality weapon for the Devils.
Juwan Thompson is listed at the top of the depth chart at running back, though that may be a nod to his status as a senior as he was third in carries last season. Thompson is solid, but Jela Duncan is better, coming off of a good freshman season in which he led the Blue Devils in all rushing categories and averaged over five yards a carry. There was a fairly even three-way split in carries last season between Duncan, Thompson, and Josh Snead, and all are good backs if not home-run hitters, so the rotation should continue.
Duke should also have a pretty good offensive line; the five starters will have the most combined starts under their belt of any ACC O-line unit, and LG Dave Harding and RT Perry Simmons (both now fifth-year seniors) were honorable mentions in all-ACC voting last season. Center Matt Skura is the only new addition to a line that has developed a tremendous amount of continuity and performed extremely well last year in both pass protection and run blocking.
It's usually tough to see year-to-year improvement in an offense that loses its quarterback, center, and two of its top three receivers. I don't actually expect a big step forward here, but Boone is a good replacement, there's all that O-line continuity, and Duke's offense should continue to operate in the top half of the league.
I'm really not enamored, on the other hand, of what Duke brings to the table on defense. It's easily one of the league's weaker defenses, if not the overall worst. Duke was the only ACC team to allow over 5 yards a carry against the rush and was also last in pass defense with 8.9 yards allowed per pass. The next worst defense allowed 7.8 yards per pass attempt; that's a difference of 1.1 yards, and another difference of 1.1 yards moves you up to 4th in the league. So "not enamored" is rather an understatement.
Complicating matters is the mostly new secondary that Duke must deal with this year. It's never a good sign when your top four tacklers are all defensive backs, and worse yet when the top two graduate. Ross Cockrell actually is one of the league's top cornerbacks, picking off five passes last year and breaking up 13 more. Returning safety Dwayne Norman plays the "bandit" position, making him a sort of linebacker equivalent in Duke's 4-2-5 defense, and he's solid but not a major playmaker. The rest of Duke's secondary is terribly inexperienced. Garett Patterson is a fifth-year senior, but I'm always wary (at best) of fifth-year seniors just now being given a starting job, and Patterson was strictly a special teamer until 2012. Just about everyone else on the depth chart in the backfield is a freshman or sophomore. The Blue Devils will see the debut of Ohio State transfer, Jeremy Cash, who should help at the strike safety position, which Duke uses essentially as a 3rd linebacker.
Up front, Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx are decent pass rushers, with 5 and 4.5 sacks in 2012, respectively. Neither is remarkably adept against the run, however, and three-tech tackle Sydney Sarmiento has never shown the disruptiveness you'd ideally like from that position. Penciled in at nose guard, Jamal Bruce saw his role increase during 2012 after returning midseason from a foot injury; what he brings remains to be seen as he only managed six tackles in the seven games he played in. At linebacker, Kelby Brown returns to a starting role after missing all of 2012, with C.J. France penciled in as his counterpart. Neither are dynamic players. There's decent playable depth at linebacker, as backups Kyler Brown and Dan Helton each had 50+ tackles in 2012, but nobody on that unit strikes fear into anyone.
There are some pretty good players on this defense - I'd single out Anunike and especially Cockrell - but they're on an island for the most part. Cockrell especially, being the one really good player in a large and inexperienced secondary. If teams passed for 8.9 yards per attempt on Cockrell and another experienced CB (Lee Butler), as well as the talented and now departed Walt Canty at safety, what might they accomplish this season? The answer might be scary for Duke fans.
Will Monday is the conference's best punter, hands down. Last year he averaged 44.6 yards on his punts and had 20 of over 50 yards. Ross Martin is a solid kicker who was 20-of-23 on FGs last year. Both accomplished these stats as freshmen. Duke's kick-return game, however, does not look like much, with nobody coming back who could muster more than 16 or so yards per KR.
Duke could go 4-0 in their OOC schedule; it's their only real hope at going to a bowl game, because otherwise I don't see three ACC wins on their schedule again.
As bad as it was last year, Duke's defense is poised to take a step back this year, with that really ugly-looking secondary and few playmakers anywhere. The offense is at worst presentable and is certainly better-looking than more than a few ACC teams, with some explosive capabilities in the passing game and a very tough-looking O-line, but they're going to have to win some shootouts.
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