The 2014 installment of the Duke-Georgia Tech series was a major reality check for the Jackets. Coming off a big prime-time win against Miami, the Jackets were humbled at home in a game that featured a lightning delay and a plethora of frustrating, controversial calls. To add to the intrigue, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe made disparaging comments about Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech leading up to kickoff. Johnson rarely forgets slights like this one, and certainly has this game circled on his calendar. It will be an intriguing rematch, with Johnson vying for revenge.
QB Anthony Boone
Duke will be undergoing a quarterback transition this offseason, as two-year starter Anthony Boone gives way to junior Thomas Sirk. To fully measure Boone’s impact on the Duke's offense, one has to look back to 2013, when he was named the starting quarterback. Boone’s predecessor, Sean Renfree, was a quintessential pocket passing quarterback who was originally committed to Georgia Tech, but flipped to Duke when Paul Johnson was named Head Coach. With Renfree under center, Duke ran a fairly traditional offense. When Boone, a dual threat, became the starter, David Cutcliffe had to retool the entire scheme. Elements of the read option were added to the offense in order to better utilize Boone’s running ability. The offense that was created for Boone is likely here to stay, as Sirk is also a good runner in his own right.
OG Laken Tomlinson
Laken Tomlinson was easily Duke’s biggest loss from the 2014 team. The 28th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft was a force on the inside for the Blue Devils and was one of the major reasons why they racked up 242 rushing yards against the Tech defense last year. The loss of Tomlinson is similar to Tech’s own loss of Shaq Mason. Both teams return most of their starters on the OL but lose an All-ACC caliber talent. Both will be nearly impossible to fully replace, and it will be interesting to see which team can most effectively compensate.
WR Jamison Crowder
One of the most electric players in the ACC, Crowder was essential to the Blue Devils' offense. He could blow the top off a defense, which helped Duke's run game tremendously. In addition, he could be dangerous in the open field, allowing Duke to expand their screen game. Despite his contribution's to Duke's success last year, Crowder was largely quiet against Georgia Tech. After a few drops in the first quarter, Duke committed to the run game and rarely passed afterward. However, that doesn't mean he didn't have an impact on the game. The Georgia Tech secondary played softer coverages in this game to compensate for Crowder's speed, allowing Duke's run game to roll right over the Tech defense. Not having Crowder in the game will help the Jackets be more stout against the run and play tighter coverage this year.
Even though he has moved on to the NFL, Crowder is an important player for Duke’s program going forward. As the first Duke WR drafted under Cutcliffe, he will allow his coach to counter negative recruiting from coaches who make uneducated comments like:
"If I’m a receiver, why? You’re not seeing what you’re going to see in pro ball, if you think you’re a pro-type of player."
Good for him.
RB Josh Snead
Tech fans will remember how Snead rushed for 102 yards in last year's game while averaging 7.3 yards per carry. The game was by far Snead’s best of the season, as he was forced to split carries is most of Duke’s other contests. Even with Snead gone, Georgia Tech’s run defense will have to perform better this year if they hope to defend the ACC Coastal crown. Duke has a stacked RB corps, so they should be able to replace Snead fairly easily and will test the newly improved Tech Defensive Line early in the season.
LB Kelby Brown
Duke LB Kelby Brown suffered a career-ending 4th ACL tear this offseason, just after receiving medical clearance to play a sixth season. While Brown didn't play in 2014 during his recovery from his 3rd ACL tear, he will be a huge loss for Duke. Despite his injuries, Brown started 29 games and accounted for over 100 tackles during his 2013 campaign. That year, the extremely talented Brown was an All-ACC selection, and Duke will sorely miss his abilities against the Jackets' rushing attack.
RB Shaq Powell
Snead may have done most of the damage to the Jackets in 2014, but it was Powell who was Duke's leading rusher on the season. Despite his rushing totals, Powell's only game over 100 rushing yards was in the Sun Bowl, which was a testament to how Duke spread the ball around last year. Powell will likely get the most carries again, but expect another ball-distributing offense in 2015. That means the Jackets will be facing fresh legs throughout the game, and will need to be up for a significant challenge all 4 quarters in order to hang on to any lead the offense can give them.
S Devon Edwards
Devon Edwards returns to the field for the Blue Devils’ defense this fall and may be one of their most important contributors on that side of the ball. What makes him impressive is his nearly perfect tackling technique, which is on display in the vine below. Edwards cleanly engages Justin Thomas, brings him, down, and ensures that the tackle is finished cleanly even after the play.
Absolute perfection. As far as NFL comparisons go, I think Edwards’ skill set compares favorably to that of Vontaze Burfict, and analysis of which can be seen here, and this should help him in the draft.
It is also important credit coaching here. David Cutcliffe has bravely stood up to dirty, dangerous techniques like cut blocking while constantly striving to make sure his players are coached in proper, safe technique.
QB Thomas Sirk
This is somewhat cheating, as Sirk was Duke's primary goal-line QB in 2014, amassing a team leading 8 Rushing TDs. However, Sirk will be new to the starting role and will need to prove that he can be effective between the 20s. Don't expect the offense to change much for Sirk, as he is a Dual Threat QB in the same way that Boone was. He is, however, much more of a load to bring down than Boone, so the Jackets will need to be more physical in order to stop him. Sirk's passing is largely an unkown, as he only had 14 attempts in 2014. He completed 10 of those attempts, but many were for short yardage in the red zone. Tech will be Sirk's first big test, so his true abilities as a passer may be a mystery up until kickoff. His running abilities are unquestioned, however, so the Jackets will need to stop that phase of his game first and force him to pass.
LB Ben Humphreys
Humphreys is Duke's highest-rated recruit in the 2015 class. A consensus 4 star LB who hails from California, Humphreys may be needed early to boost Duke's defense with the loss of Kelby Brown. Humphreys' tape really shows how dangerous a player he can be. As an outside LB, he is an extremely quick and effective pass rusher who lives in the backfield on run plays. Far from a one-trick pony, Humphreys also displayed the ability to drop back into coverage in the flat and recognize screens as the develop. On offense, he played outside at WR, which gives more credence to his athletic ability. The Jackets may have to deal with Humpheys this year, and if they do, they'll need to find ways to effectively cut him off from the play despite his tremendous speed and quickness. Otherwise it could be another long day for the offense this year.
Previewing the Game
It's no secret that Paul Johnson doesn't like David Cutcliffe, and given that our esteemed colleagues at Shakin the Southland say he's the ACC coach they'd most like to fight, I'm not sure anyone does outside of Durham, NC. That said I expect the Jackets to take this one handily. It's been a long time since Tech fans have been granted a classic Paul Johnson revenge beatdown, and it's about time we got one. Just ask that 2011 Kansas team what those are like, they're loads of fun.
In all seriousness, I believe losing Crowder, Boone, and Tomlinson will prove to be too much for that offense, and they'll take a step back this year. With Tech's defensive improvements this year, I don't expect Duke to have too many opportunities to score. The other side of the ball will be more of a challenge, as Duke retains much of their defense from a year ago. However, Justin Thomas vastly improved his mastery of the offense over the course of last season, and I expect him to have a much better performance this time around.
The big danger here lies in a possible hangover from the Notre Dame game the previous week. That said, I don't think Coach Johnson is the only guy on the team who has this game circled on his calendar. If the sting of the loss a year ago and Cutcliffe's disparaging comments don't motivate this team, I don't know what will.
Georgia Tech 49, Duke 24