Scheme: David Cutcliffe is a former QB and this is a QB-friendly offense. Perhaps partially because of a lackluster offensive line, Duke has struggled to run the ball and airs it out for the most part. Cutcliffe would like to strive for a more balanced offense, like he featured at Tennessee, but until Duke gets better along the line, expect them to throw the ball around. Last year, the Blue Devils ranked 22nd in passing offense and 59th in total offense, but just 104th in rushing. A marginal improvement in the run game could do wonders.
Quarterbacks: Cutcliffe has preached competition and nowhere was this more evident during spring ball when Cutcliffe had returning starter Sean Renfree #3 on the depth chart. Renfree (3,131 yards, 61%, 14 TDs, 17 interceptions, 4 rushing TDs) rose to the top of the depth chart as spring ball ended, but Cutcliffe was surely trying to send a message to the entire team that you have to earn your job. If Renfree can cut down on the picks, he has all the tools—size, arm, footwork, and a quick release. The coaching staff expects Renfree to cut down on the turnovers and push for all-conference accolades.
Depth behind Renfree is good with sophomores Brandon Connette and Sean Schroeder. Connette (125 yds, 46%, 2 ints., 321 yds rushing, 8 TDs) started one game and was used extensively as a situational runner last year. While still needing to work on his passing, Connette is a talent who turned down Stanford to learn under Cutcliffe and should continue to add a wrinkle as a physical runner. Schroeder is a southpaw who is a precision passer. He still needs to bulk up a bit and does not have any game experience, but he was pursued by several Pac-10 teams and should only improve under Cutcliffe.
Running Backs: Duke has struggled for years with the ground game and it is hard to say if it is due to the line, a lack of talent at RB, or both. Looking at the RB corps, the Blue Devils have strength in numbers but appear to be average, at best, in talent.
Junior Desmond Scott has led Duke in rushing the past two seasons and appears to be the likely starter in 2011. Scott (530 yds, 4.4 average, 3 TDs, 34 receptions, 266 yds) is versatile and quick, but lacks the size (5-9, 185) to be an every-down back. Sophomore Juwan Thompson carried the ball 25 times last year and had a big spring. He brings good size (5-11, 215) and power to the group. Senior Jay Hollingsworth (175 yds, 3.9 avg, 2 TDs, 5 recs) and junior Patrick Kurunwune are useful in short-yardage situations as well. The back with the highest ceiling is probably sophomore Josh Snead. The same size as Scott, Snead (221 yds, 4.9 avg, 1 TD) has a bit better speed and the ability to make defenders miss than anyone else on the roster. He should push Scott all year for the starting job.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: The passing game should be a strength not only because of the return on Renfree, but also because Duke quietly has one of the better groups of pass catchers in the ACC. The backups are unproven, but Duke has recruited well here and has three players that will garner NFL attention.
The Blue Devils have two solid starting wideouts in senior Donovan Varner and junior Conner Vernon. Varner (60 recs, 736 yds, 12.3 avg, 1 TD) saw his stats slip a bit as a junior, but he still does a lot of damage out of the slot. Varner already has great hands and he has added some muscle to his frame as he plays for NFL scouts. Vernon (73 recs, 973 yds, 13.3 avg, 4 TDs) led the team in all receiving categories and is great at finding holes in the defense. He also tends to be Renfree’s security blanket on third down.
Duke typically lines up in three-wide sets and there is an opening for the third starting job, on the outside. Sophmore Brandon Braxton is the likely winner. Braxton (14 recs, 180 yds, 12.9 avg, 1 TD) started 5 times last year and has the size and long arms to be a star. Competition will come from senior Josh Trezvant (7 recs, 65 yds), a career special-teamer who had his best season last year. Another guy adding depth will be sophomore Tyree Watkins, who returned from a knee injury last year to make 7 receptions.
At tight end, Duke has another potential all-star in senior Cooper Helfet. Helfet (34 recs, 380 yds, 11.2 avg, 2 TDs) was somewhat of an afterthought after transferring in from the JC ranks, but he ended up fourth in receptions and yards. An excellent athlete, Helfet is good at exploiting defenses that give Varner and Vernon too much attention. Depth here is unproven.
Offensive Line: Believe it or not, Duke’s offensive line was better last year than in 2009. It just maybe didn’t appear that way given the fact that Duke averaged 3.4 yards per rush and gave up over 2 sacks per game. In many ways, though, the pass blocking was pretty solid, but run blocking was pretty terrible. Cutcliffe has recruited better than his predecessors at this position and it may take a few young guys to turn this group around.
On paper, it looks like the Blue Devils have some pieces to work with. Senior LT Kyle Hill, who will be a four-year starter, is probably the best of the bunch. Hill isn’t a great pass blocker for a LT, but he has excellent athletic ability and light feet. Cutcliffe thinks that if Hill can continue to refine his technique, he could get a shot at the NFL. Sophomore RT Perry Simmons has a bright future after starting all 12 games last year. While still a bit raw, Simmons has all the tools and talent to end up being great.
The interior positions are the likely causes for concern. In an attempt to alleviate at least one of the concerns, the coaching staff moved junior Brian Moore from G to C. Moore has shown promise and should be a steadying influence. Another potential building block is sophomore LG Dave Harding. A four game starter last year, Harding was a big recruit in 2009 who has shown tenacity and a willingness to work hard on the field and in the weight room. Taking over the RG spot will likely be sophomore John Coleman. Coleman was a reserve last year who saw a bit of action.
Depth is more talented than in years past, but mainly unproven. Senior T Jon Needham is the only backup who has seen playing time. The coaching staff is excited about the potential of redshirt freshmen G Laken Tomlinson and T Takoby Cofield. Both were top recruits and Tomlinson, in particular, could push for a starting job. Tomlinson was being pursued by several Big 10 schools and will push Coleman.
Scheme: With the promotion of Jim Knowles, Duke has had three defensive coordinators in three years. Duke has been the place where defense goes to die. Even Ted Roof, Auburn’s current DC and a former head man at Duke, could not get the Blue Devils to play solid D. Last season, Duke ranked 108th in total defense and pass efficiency defense, 109th in tackles for loss and scoring defense, and 113th in sacks. Basically, Duke couldn’t stop the run or pass and couldn’t get sacks or turnovers. Much like with the offensive line, hope rests upon the fact that Cutcliffe has recruited better than the past regimes. That means relying upon youth, but can it get worse? The Blue Devils are shifting to a 4-2-5 defense to play to their strength at safety while attempting to hide their lack of depth and talent at LB.
Defensive Line: It is probably a battle between this unit and the LB corps for the weakness of the entire team, not just the defense. Duke just lacks talent, size, and depth here and they will likely to continue to struggle against the run and in creating a pass rush.
Much of the hope for improvement hinges on the inside where Duke returns a couple decent players. Senior NG Charlie Hatcher (46 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 1 sack) is one of the few guys on the roster who has legit DT size (6-3, 300) and uses that size to produce. While more steady than spectacular, Hatcher is a try-hard type who will never quit and is tough and quick. At DT, sophomore Sydney Sarmiento returns after starting 11 games as a freshman. Sarmiento (26 tackles, 1 for loss) has decent size (6-4, 285) and really good quickness. He will be challenged by junior Curtis Hazelton (15 tackles), a career backup who has been fairly solid against the run.
Both starters are gone at DE and the coaching staff is hoping someone, anyone will step up to produce a pass rush. Junior Kenny Anunike and sophomore Justin Foxx are the leaders to start as of now. Anunike (23 tackles, 1.5 for loss) looks the part and got 1 start last year, but he has yet to produce many results despite his athleticism. Foxx (22 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 sack) is undersized (6-3, 235) but is a great athlete and the coaches hope he provides the pass rush that has been lacking. Redshirt freshmen Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo and Jamal Wallace are two of a whopping 7 redshirt freshmen linemen who will push for playing time. Dewalt-Ondijo and Wallace were praised throughout spring ball.
Linebackers: Talk about a unit that has been decimated. Two starters, Abraham Kromah and Damian Thornton, who combined for over 150 tackles graduated and Tyree Glover, who started 2 games, was dismissed from the team in April. No wonder for the shift to the 2 LB formation. There are a couple athletic young guys who have promise, but this unit lacks depth and experience.
If he returns 100% from injury, one starting job will be held by sophomore Kelby Brown. A budding star, Brown (63 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks, 4 fumble recoveries) was limited to 9 games, and 7 starts, by an ACL injury that also kept him out of spring ball. If recovered, Brown has the instincts and quickness to excel. The other starter will likely be junior Austin Gamble. When Brown got hurt, Gamble (27 tackles, 1 sack) stepped into the breach and started 3 games. While not an elite talent, Gamble has the best size (6-1, 240) of the group and is the best run-stopper.
The only sure-thing on the bench is sophomore Kevin Rojas. Rojas was a WR in high school and brings speed and athleticism to the position. He was expected to start last year, but injuries limited him to just mop-up duty. The coaches think if he can stay healthy, he’ll be dangerous on blitzes.
Secondary: The Blue Devils actually have some talent and experience back here, but you wouldn’t know it based upon the stats. Thanks largely to a pass rush that mustered 12 sacks for the entire season, Duke ranked 96th in pass defense (241.8 yards per game) and surrendered 25 touchdown passes. The coaches are hoping that the return of an incredible 12 players who earned playing time last year will help decrease those numbers.
With the switch to the 4-2-5, Duke will be starting three safeties and they have 7 players who saw playing time. Two players who seem sure to be starters are seniors Matt Daniels and Lee Butler, both returning starters. Daniels (93 tackles, 6 for loss, 1 int., 7 passes broken up, 3 forced fumbles) is returning for his third year as a starter and is a playmaker on a defense bereft of them. A natural leader with size, speed, and toughness, he’s the star of the group. Butler (58 tackles, 1 int., 8 PBU) is a two-year starter who is much more physical than his size (5-11, 180) would let on.
The third starting spot is a battle between three guys. Junior Walt Canty (63 tackles, 1 for loss, 1 int.) started 6 games last year and is suited to stop the run at 6-1, 215. Junior Jordan Byas (28 tackles, 1.5 for loss) started the first 2 games last year before moving to the bench and also brings a physical presence. The wild card, and who many think will end up winning the job, is sophomore August Campbell. A former LB, Campbell (10 tackles, 2 for loss, 1 sack) started twice last year and showed good agility and athleticism for his size (6-3, 225).
The weakness of the secondary is at cornerback, especially after the graduation of Chris Rwabukamba. While Rwabukamba wasn’t elite, he did usually fare pretty well against the opponent’s #1 receiver. The guy drawing the #1 wideout this year will probably be sophomore Ross Cockrell. Cockrell (60 tackles, 3 ints., 7 PBU) is still raw, but he started all 12 games last year and has great speed. His coverage skills need to improve, but he could be a good one. The battle for the other starting corner spot is largely a toss-up between senior Johnny Williams and sophomore Garrett Patterson. Williams (9 tackles, 4 PBU) is a former WR who saw action in 8 games last year. He has tons of athletic ability, but is still learning the position. Patterson (13 tackles) saw most of his action on special teams. He has probably the best size (6-0, 190) and speed combo of the trio.
Special Teams: For whatever reason, Duke seems to always have good specialists and this year is no different. Seniors Will Snyderwine and Alex King are back to do the kicking and punting, respectively. A former walk-on, as well as soccer and rugby player, Snyderwine has hit on 38 of 44 career field goals, has never missed a PAT, and has a strong leg. King averaged 41.1 yards per punt last year. He could stand to improve his hang time.
The return and coverage units are nothing special. Well, that isn’t totally true. The punt coverage unit is bad. Duke ranked 106th in net punting and allowed an atrocious 14.4 yards per punt return with 1 touchdown.
Schedule: Fresh off a 3-win season, nothing is easy. On the plus side, Duke gets winnable games against Richmond, Tulane, and Wake Forest at home and road trips to FIU and Virginia seem winnable as well. On the downside, the other road games (at BC, UM, UNC) seem to be likely losses so if Duke wants to make a run at bowl eligibility they would likely need to knock off Stanford, FSU, VA Tech, or GA Tech at home.
Overall: Maybe it has been incremental, but David Cutcliffe really has made strides at Duke. Cutcliffe has won just 12 games in 3 years, but consider that the Blue Devils won just 13 games from 1999-2007. Cutcliffe also has made it a point to recruit more size and talent along the offensive and defensive lines in an attempt to shore up Duke’s deficiencies in those areas. Much like Jimbo Fisher at FSU, he is trying to make his team bigger.
While Duke struggled last year, mightily at times on defense, they did take a step forward by hanging tough with Maryland, BC, GA Tech, and UNC and knocking off Navy on the road and Virginia. Still, Duke was awful on defense last year and it seems unlikely that will change given the depth and talent dearth at every position except safety. If the offensive line improves even a little, the offense should continue to hum along and will probably be better than last year’s unit. If the defense was even average, Duke would probably be a bowl team and eke out 6-7 wins. With this defense, however, it looks like a 4-5 win season is probably the best they can do. With all the underclassmen set to play key roles, perhaps 2012 is the year Duke finally goes bowling again.