It's time to preview everyone's favorite Duke squad. You know, the one that everyone but Georgia Tech got jumped by last season? That's right, we (indirectly) were the ACC Coastal Champions last year. No amount of free clothing can take that away.
Duke's 2013 football campaign was by far one of the most successful in school history for the Blue Devils. The team won a school record ten games on their way to their first ever ACC Coastal crown (the first ever claimed by a team besides Georgia Tech or VPI) and did it all in dramatic fashion-- after beginning the year 2-2, the Devils finished off the regular season on an eight game winning streak which included big wins over Virginia Tech, Miami, and arch-rival North Carolina. Despite their shaky start, the Devils would become a team to be reckoned with in both the ACC and their postseason appearances. They hung with the National Champion Seminoles better any team had to that point, shutting them out in the first quarter (which no one had done previously) and not losing control until deep into the third quarter. Duke also handed in a near-upset against Johnny Manziel's Texas A&M Aggies in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, having built up a 38-17 halftime lead before blowing it late in the fourth quarter.
The 2013 season perfectly illustrated the culture that coach David Cutcliffe has fought to institute at Duke, a school which for all of time has been overshadowed by its overachieving basketball program-- one of toughness, balance, and a dedication to playing a fundamentally sound form of football. Nothing highlights this culture and what it has done for Duke's football program more than Cutcliffe's success as head coach over the past two seasons. He carries with him a 16-11 mark (9-7 ACC) with two bowl appearances in that span, including an appearance at the Belk Bowl-- Duke's first postseason appearance in eighteen years. If you turned your nose up at that record, be sure to remember that Cutcliffe is coaching at a school with more rigorous entry requirements and curriculum than even Georgia Tech, and that Duke has had no success whatsoever in decades-- their last bowl win came in 1961 in the Cotton Bowl over the Southwest Conference's Arkansas Razorbacks.
Despite playing before the smallest crowd in the ACC year in and year out, the Devils will look to continue their winning ways of late in 2014. They'll start the season as a favorite to repeat by many experts, but only time will tell the outcome.
Who's Gone for the Devils?
This season's Duke team is ranked No. 25 in the nation in terms of returning players from last year (according to Phil Steele), and for that reason it is considered to be one of the most dangerous teams in the ACC Coastal. That doesn't mean, however, that the Devils got off the hook in regards to losing players. They too took some major blows due to transfers, graduation, and the NFL Draft on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
Ross Cockrell, CB: Cockrell was one of the anchors of what would prove to be a very stingy Duke secondary last season. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Buffalo Bills, making him the highest drafted Blue Devil since Lennie Friedman was drafted in the second round in 1999. Cockrell, who played corner for the duration of his college career, was by far the most well-balanced player on the defense last season, racking up 46 total tackles (two for a loss, one sack), three interceptions, a team-leading twelve passes deflected, and a forced fumble. He finished his career with a whopping 50 pass deflections, twelve interceptions, and 233 tackles.
Brandon Connette, QB: While Connette was officially a backup quarterback for the Blue Devils in 2013, he is easily going to be the most missed player in 2014. He filled in for starter Anthony Boone for much of the season, accounting for a pair of 300 yard passing games, and came in during key situations even when Boone was healthy in order to pick up tough yardage, usually in goal line situations where his 6-2', 225 frame was invaluable. He threw for 1,212 yards with 13 touchdowns against 6 interceptions and rushed for 337 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013, ten more total touchdowns than Boone accounted for. He transferred to Fresno State this off-season to be closer to his mother, who is fighting cancer.
Juwan Thompson, RB: Thompson finished third on Duke's roster in terms of rushing yards, going for 394 yards and a touchdown while hauling in seven passes for 46 yards in 2013. He was a longtime player for coach Cutcliffe and his veteran presence will be missed in the Duke locker room as much as his offensive production will be.
Kenny Anunike, DE: Anunike finished 2013 fourth in total tackles for the Blue Devils with 67 over the course of the season. He led Duke with 13.5 tackles for a loss and 6.0 sacks last season, both career highs, and also played as a tight end and a defensive lineman in his time in Durham.
Key Returnees and Guys to Watch
Anthony Boone, QB: Boone, the undisputed starter for 2014, will face Tech for the first time in his career this season after missing them last season with a broken collarbone. He completed 206 of 322 pass attempts last season (64%) for 13 touchdowns (13 interceptions). Boone can also get the job done with his legs; he rushed for 214 yards and five touchdowns last season without getting many (if any) goal line carries. Remember that those stats will surely see a jump this season; Boone missed three starts this season with an injury and shared snaps with Connette when he was healthy.
Jamison Crowder, WR: This guy is just plain impressive. As a receiver, he rushed 8 times for 71 yards (8.9ypc) and a touchdown while hauling in 108 (!) passes for 1,360 yards (!!) and 8 touchdowns. (For those keeping score at home, that's 9th nationally in yards and 19th nationally in yards per game.) To put that into perspective, let's look at how it compares to Tech's quarterbacks from 2013. Vad Lee, Justin Thomas, and Tim Byerly combined to complete 92 passes all season, 16 short of the number of passes Duke completed to Crowder alone. Lee threw for 1,561 yards, and Crowder caught for 1,360 yards -- a difference of 201 yards. Those are absolutely crazy numbers for a receiver to put up in college.
David Helton and Kebly Brown, LB: Helton and Brown finished first and third, respectively, on the Duke total tackles list. They combined for 255 tackles, 15 tackles for losses, two sacks, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles in 2013 alone, all very impressive numbers for a linebacker corps which should improve.
Jeremy Cash, S: Cash finished second on the Duke tackles list with 121 total tackles, 9 for a loss, 4 interceptions, and two forced fumbles in 2013. He should help anchor what should be an even better Duke defense this season.
Potential Impact Freshmen:
A note on Duke's upcoming freshman class: It is not the deepest class they have had, and because they are so experienced right now many rising freshman will not play a lot of snaps. They have signed a few impact players, but because many will likely redshirt this season, I'm only speculating on who could be an impact player.
Trevon Lee, WR: Lee is by far the most-touted recruit that Duke signed in 2013. He is a three-star wideout from Florida, and at 5'11", 167, he will probably find himself as more of a slot receiver than anything else during his career. If he is starting, however, the Tech secondary will need to be ready for a one-two-punch of him and Crowder; a performance like they put up last year won't cut it.
Alonzo Saxton, CB: Saxton is one of the rising freshmen who may be competing for snaps this season. He is three-star corner our of Columbus, Ohio with good measurables but some below average speed for a defensive back. He ran a 4.85 in the forty, so he might have a little trouble keeping up with some of the ACC's wide receivers-- I'd tab him as a safety if you asked me.
Zach Harmon, OL: Harmon is a three-star offensive lineman out Toledo, Ohio who has the potential to help an already experienced and accomplished Duke offensive line improve even more. He is listed at 6'4", 265, and had offers from Michigan St., Indiana, and Purdue among others. His appears to have good footwork and mobility but can also stand his own against stronger pass rushers, a good combination for an offense as balanced as Duke's.
Joseph Ajeigbe, RB: Ajeigbe is expected to start the season as the third running back on the depth chart behind Josh Snead and Shaq Powell, but he should still get his fair share of touches because of Cutcliffe's preference to use a running back by committee approach, not unlike that of Paul Johnson.
*All stats, measurements, and ratings came from Rivals.
Major Differences from 2013:
While the Blue Devils are experiencing minimal turnover as far as players, their coaching staff did get a moderate makeover after offensive coordinator Kurt Roper was hired to hold the same position at Florida. Former wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery will take over the Duke offense which has been successfully running a quick paced spread offense for a few years now.
One of the major changes in Duke's scheming will come in goal line situations. Because the aforementioned Brandon Connette is no longer with the team, Cutcliffe and Montgomery will need to find a new method of punching it into the end zone; Boone is certainly not a pushover at 6'0", 230, but he doesn't have quite as much physicality or durability as Connette did.
The obvious change will be the absence of Brandon Connette, who started against Tech in last season's match-up. He threw for 122 yards and rushed for 15 more (on 10 carries) against the Jackets in Durham.
Strengths and Weaknesses:
One of the biggest strengths that Duke has this season is a rare commodity in the ACC: an experienced, veteran quarterback. The importance of a quarterback who knows what he's doing cannot be overstated, and coupled with a veteran offense with compliments like Crowder and a solid stable of running backs, the offense as a whole looks like a sure thing in 2014. The offensive line should also be one of the nation's best; it retained plenty of talent from last season's group that only allowed 17 sacks all season, including Laken Tomlinson, Matt Skura, and Takoby Cofield.
The biggest question mark on Duke's upcoming team is the defensive line. With longtime starters Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx both moving on, the Devils will have to look to some unproven talent to step up. Again, there is plenty of talent to go around on Duke's DL, but it just isn't proven yet; I don't anticipate any struggles from that squad this year. If only Tech's worry list could be this skinny...
Duke at a Glance:
When I see Duke, I see a team with a lot of similarities to Georgia Tech. Coach Cutcliffe, like CPJ, has to fight the constant uphill battle of recruiting at a school with high academic standards. Both CPJ and Cutcliffe are adept at finding "diamonds in the rough" in the sense of looking for underrated talent and getting to it quickly, before the rest of the world even knows it's there. Not to mention that both coaches' tendencies to use a running back by committee approach and two quarterbacks are quite similar. Heck, both schools are even basketball powerhouses. No? I'll just keep dreaming then..
Overall, the Blue Devils should be in line to have yet another successful season in 2014. Will they finish with 10 wins or even more? I'd say it's easily possible. They have a soft out of conference schedule with Elon (whose wrath we faced last season), Tulane, Troy, and Kansas, so couple that with their ACC Atlantic opponents for this season in Syracuse and Wake Forest and you have a recipe for at least six easy wins and a third straight bowl appearance. If everything goes as expected for the Devils, they could see their best season in school history, and if nothing goes as expected then they are still looking at a successful season. I'll give them a best case scenario of 12 wins and a worst case scenario of 7 wins.
Thanks a lot to DukeReport.com 's Jim Oliver (@jimoliverDR) and Brian Evans for some great info on Duke's recruiting; finding good recruiting news about the football team at a basketball school got pretty challenging.
What do you expect out of Dukes season? Will it be another major success or a historic flop?
Phew, all that football talk made me want... football. Is it August yet? No? I guess I'll just retreat into hibernation until the NBA Draft then...