When November 1st came at the end of the 2009 season, Duke stood at 5-3 and right in the middle of the ACC Coastal division race. However, Coach David Cutcliffe’s November losing streak was extended four more games as he fell to 0-9 at Duke in the eleventh month.
Duke is also losing games by 15.7 points per game during their November slide.
So, in order for Duke to finally get that bowl bid they’ve been hunting, for now the sixteenth straight season, they’ve got to win in November. To do that, you need depth.
The first two years of Cutcliffe’s time at Duke have been spent stockpiling the talent, redshirting it and conditioning it. Now entering his third season, Cutcliffe has a roster with mostly his recruits to go along with some veterans in key roles. He has sufficiently added enough depth to contend well into November.
Duke returns nine starters on offense but will have to replace the all time career passing leader in school history, Thad Lewis. Lewis was a terrific passer whose skills took several steps forward when Cutcliffe, renowned as a quarterback guru, came in for his junior year. However, Lewis did not possess the natural talents that incumbent starter Sean Renfree does.
Renfree came off the bench to lead Duke past Army last season, causing a brief QB controversy. However, a few weeks later, Renfree would tear his ACL against Georgia Tech setting his progression back several months.
Renfree, a redshirt sophomore, is a mobile signal caller that has good zip on the ball but is better known for his accuracy.
Fortunately, he is helped by a veteran offensive line that returns 55 of a possible 60 starts from last season. Bryan Morgan, center, anchors the line along with Kyle Hill, left tackle, and Brian Moore, right guard. In previous years, the offensive line has been somewhat suspect and caused Thad Lewis to scramble and force throws he might otherwise have delivered into a teammate’s hands.
Most of those hands return. Requan Boyette, last years starting RB, is gone and, although, he was a fan favorite, he was not the most effective runner. He is replaced by last season’s leading rushers, Jay Hollingsworth, a junior bowling ball, and Desmond Scott, a sophomore scat back from Durham. Scott will be the likely starter and get most of his carries in wide open packages that give him more room to run. Hollingsworth will be seen more on 3rd down plays and short yardage situations. The combo could prove to Duke’s version of Smash & Dash, however, they have a lot of work to do. Duke ranked 120 out of 120 in the FBS in rushing. Dead last.
The receiving corp also returns in tact for the most part, Johnny Williams, last years #4 receiver has been converted to corner. Austin Kelly, Connor Vernon and Donovan Varner, the best trio of receivers in the ACC last season, all return and will make the transition for Renfree much smoother. Varner, a 5’9″ junior slot receiver, was recently named 1st Team All ACC this preseason.
The Blue Devils also return big targets Brett Huffman and Brandon King, both seniors, at tight end as well as Danny Parker. These three accounted for over 360 yards receiving and 6 touchdowns.
However, as great as the Duke passing game was last year (9th in the FBS), expect the Blue Devils to focus more on the running game and utilizing the tight ends more.
Defensively, Duke is looking at one word: chaos. After defensive linemen John Drew and Brandon Putnam were involved in an on campus gun incident last fall and their subsequent dismissal from the team, Coach Marion Hobby finds his defense in chaos. The six returning starters will help but the starters lost were crucial lynchpins.
This year, Duke will be switching defensive schemes to put more speed on the field. Expect to see more 3-4 and even a little 3-3-5 blitz packages to maximize their strengths.
Redshirt seniors, Patrick Egboh and Wesley Oglesby hold down the defensive end positions and will play the bulk of the snaps, however, watch out for redshirt freshmen Justin Foxx and Sydney Sarmiento as well as converted tight end Kenny Anunike.
Charlie Hatcher returns at nose guard and will play almost all of the snaps at NG due to little experience behind him.
Replacing Vince Oghobaase and Ayanga Okpokowuruk will not be easy as the two were two of the better defensive linemen to come through the program in years. Duke is hoping the new schemes will help cover these losses.
With the new four linebacker scheme, Duke is replacing Vincent Rey with as much speed and tackling as they can put on the field.
Damian Thornton packs the middle again but he’s joined by first year starter Kevin Rojas, a redshirt frosh who has really excelled in workouts and spring practice. If Rojas is not in, look for Eriks Reks or Austin Gamble, an accomplished All ACC discuss hurler, to fill in.
On the outside, Abraham Kromah and Adam Banks are the likely starters but look out for redshirt freshman August Campbell. Campbell is a physical specimen that has only played organized football for a few years. He’s an athletic freak that hits like a wreaking ball. Kromah provides some experience but the youth at the linebacker spots might be more talented than the upperclassmen.
In years past, the Duke defensive backfield had been small and poor in coverage. This years squad is fast and attacks the ball. Former receiver Johnny Williams converts to corner. Returning starters Chris Rwabukamba, Lee Butler and Matt Daniels command a talented group with many young guns pushing for playing time. Watch out for Walt Canty, Anthony Young-Wiseman and Ross Cockrell to play vital roles as Duke hopes to lock down the passing lanes.
It’s safe to say that this year’s Duke Blue Devil football team is the fastest in years, sporting lots of speed at every position. David Cutcliffe said he wanted to build the fastest team in the ACC and he’s getting close. Now, we need to see if he can get these players to run to a few November wins.
Freshmen To Watch
Josh Snead – RB – I love this kid because A) he grew up in my hometown and B) he’s a speed demon. Snead scored 27 touchdowns on the ground last year and returned 3 kicks for scores. He’s a playmaker, simple as that.
Cooper Helfet – TE – A big JUCO recruit that stands 6’4″ 235 but has hands and wheels to make him a viable redzone target.
Brandon Connette – QB – Connette was terrific in spring practice after enrolling early and will be the #2 on the depth chart. If Renfree goes down, Connette has shown the skills to run the offense, we’ll see if he has the poise.