David Cutcliffe heads into his fifth season as Duke’s football coach with perhaps his best team yet.
As David Cutcliffe heads into his fifth season at the helm of the Duke Football program there is equally an increased amount expectations but questions still remain.
The Blue Devils have been a program mired in mediocrity or worse for the better part of half a century and have the second longest bowl drought in the FBS heading into this season.
Duke is a better program than it has been in quite some time but it is by no means a complete product ready to stand against the juggernauts of college football as it does in basketball– it may never be.
But the focus of any Duke fan should be to look at the present and focus on the future, which under Cutcliffe is much brighter.
The 2012 team is geared for perhaps the most successful season in 18 years. They bring back a host of veterans and are mixing in a new batch of skilled youngsters who look ready to contribute sooner than later.
Still there are obstacles facing this years team and those could stand in the way of a good by Duke standards season and a good by anyone’s standards type year.
In this prospectus on the 2012 season I will look at the team strengths, weakneses, challenges as well as the key players. I will wrap up this look at the Blue Devils with a prediction on how the team will fare this season and answer the question: Will Duke go bowling?
Team Strength- Experience
This team has a lot of strengths but the one that stands out is the experience they have. The Blue Devils return a very experienced offensive line that has some depth and importantly has skill.
The offensive line unit had a chance to grow together during an off season trip to Ethiopia. The group returns freshman All-American Laken Tomlinson, Rimington Trophy watchlist member, Brian Moore, veteran leader Dave Harding, and rising star Takoby Cofield and veteran Perry Simmons.
The hope is that veteran/experienced group can pave the way for the Duke offense that is lead by another one of the Blue Devil’s strengths; quarterback Sean Renfree.
In his third year as the starting quarterback, Renfree will be expected to lead the Duke offense. He has experience wide receiver Conner Vernon at his disposal and a hopeful cast of running backs that are primed to give the Duke offense some punch.
Defensively the Blue Devils are hoping then defensive end tandem of Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo and Kenny Anunike can pick up where they started last year and lead a banged up defensive line.
Again, like the offense, it is the experience that the defense is hoping will be its driving force. Along with Anunike and Dewalt-Ondijo, the secondary features veterans in Ross Cockrell, Lee Butler and Walt Canty who will be asked to lead a unit that is both inexperienced and banged up as well.
Experience has proven to be the difference in a good team and a bad team and fortunately for Duke they have that experience, but will it pay dividends?
Team Weakness- Injuries
The Blue Devils have been incredibly unfortunate this off season when it comes to injuries. It seems to be a reoccurring theme in David Cutcliffe’s tenure, but the injury bug has bitten again and in a major way.
Duke has lost five projected starters to injuries and the season hasn’t even begun. This has thinned out the depth chart, especially on defense with Kelby Brown- linebacker, Jordon Byas-safety and Jamal Bruce-nose guard, all being hurt.
On offense Duke lost projected starter Braxton Deaver-tightend, and Blair Holliday-receiver, which has thinned out those positions as well and inspired the staff to move Desmond Scott from running back to receiver.
The Blue Devils have more talent and depth like no time since Cutcliffe took over as coach, but the injuries are going to put the young talent to the test and force a lot of guys that might not otherwise play, to see game action.
Duke can’t afford this injury trend to continue as the year goes on and anymore substantial injuries to key players could jeopardize the entire season.
The most important question is whether or not Duke can stay healthy throughout the year? As I’ve mentioned this is a team already struck with the injury bug. If Duke can’t stay healthy it could end up being a rough season.
Can the Blue Devils defense slow down opposing offense and stay off the field? The Duke defensive unit has at times been bend but don’t break early in games only to fatigue down the stretch when the offense can’t get things going.
In conjunction with the defense can the offense move the ball score points and keep the defense rested throughout the game? That could depend on if the running game can take pressure off quarterback Sean Renfree.
The Blue Devils haven’t had much of a running game but if they can find a way to move the ball on the ground and use up clock that can only help a defensive unit that has been decimated with injuries stay off the field and consequently healthier.
Does Sean Renfree have someone other than Conner Vernon to throw to? Without Blair Holliday-injury, and Donovan Varner-graduation, Duke is counting on sophomore Jaimson Crowder to step up at receiver.
The tightend position is also up for grabs so can one of those guys step up? Without Braxton Deaver, Duke is counting on Issac Blakeney, and David Reeves to step up. They could get some help from backup quarterback Bandon Connette and freshman Erich Schneider.
Edit- Iassc Blakeney will be playing wide receiver behind Desmond Scott. David Reeves is expected to start at tightend per David Cutcliffe.
Can Duke survive one of the most difficult schedule in recent memory? While Duke’s non conference schedule isn’t all that daunting in terms of name recognition they do play two teams Florida International and Stanford that were bowl teams last year.
But beyond the non conference schedule, Duke’s conference schedule is no picnic. The Blue Devils face the meat of the ACC with Florida State, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Clemson all on the schedule.
If Duke is to get to .500 or better on the season they have to find a way to beat at least one of these teams while winning the games they should or at least have a reasonable shot at winning.
Players to Count On
Sean Renfree- Quarterback-Senior quarterback expected to lead the offense.
Conner Vernon- Wide Receiver-Senior receiver is expected to be Renfree’s go to target.
Juwan Thompson-Running back- Starting back who should carry the load in the backfield
Josh Snead- Running back- Snead returns from a injury redshirt seasona and his speed is expected to help him be a big-time play maker on offense
Brandon Connette-Quarterback/Tightend/Runningback/Receiver- What isn’t Connette expected to do. His versatility should make him an oft used weapon
Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo/ Kenny Anunike- The bookend defensive ends should provide the pressure on the end that the Duke defense will absolutely need.
Ross Cockrell- Corner- Duke’s top player in the secondary is the Blue Devil’s lock down cover guy with good size and the guy expected to cover the opponents best receiver.
Lee Butler- Corner- Another talented, experienced guy that will be co
unted on to sure up the secondary. Butler also has the ability to make a mark in the return game.
Jaimson Crowder- receiver/return specialist- Crowder’s athleticism and play making ability make him a key for Duke’s offense and return game. He can make plays and end up being a major weapon every time he touches the ball.
The Offensive Line- All of the line as mentioned above, is experienced and skilled. This unit should be able to protect Renfree and open up holes for the running backs.
Players to Watch
Shaquille Powell/Jela Duncan-Running backs- The dynamic freshmen duo has been a plesant surprise during training camp and both are expected to get carries and make an impact.
Brandon Braxton- Safety- The receiver turned safety hasn’t played in the secondary since high school. How he adjusts could play a big factor in how well the Blue Devils defense goes with the injuries they’ve had in the secondary.
Ross Martin/Will Monday- kicker/punter- The tandem of Monday and Martin are expected to help the Duke special teams be, well, special this season. Martin has been especially good in camp and the staff and fans alike are hoping he will quickly help everyone forget about how bad the kicking game was last season.
Erich Schneider- Tightend- The freshman tightend has impressed during training camp and could find himself in the mix for playing time.
Max McCaffrey/ Anthony Nash -Wide Receiver- McCaffrey and Nash, are both true freshman but have been impressing in camp. McCaffrey perhaps more than Nash could end up moving up the depth chart given the Blue Devil’s depth issues at receiver.
Duke has a lot of pluses heading into this season. They have talent and experience and they are hungry. But they also are beat up and facing a daunting schedule.
The Blue Devils have a reasonable shot of going 3-1 in non conference games if they can find a way to beat a tough Florida International team in the season opener. After heading to Stanford in a game that probably a bit too much for the Blue Devils, they return home for two final non conference games against North Carolina Central and Memphis, both very winnable.
Beyond that they have to find a way to win three more conference games which means beating Wake Forest for a change and possibly North Carolina along with at least one more team.
Overall if Duke can stay healthy I think they have a legitimate shot at reaching the six win or better mark but history and the fact they are already beat up may be against them.
I think the Blue Devils finish 5-7, short of bowl eligibility, but show a marked improvement over the last two seasons and show that the program is turning the corner.
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