Duke looking for first bowl berth since 1998 in Blue Devils' fifth season under head coach David Cutcliffe.
By: Athlon Sports | 5/14/12, 1:47 PM EDT
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ACC Coastal PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: David Cutcliffe, 15-33 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kurt Roper | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jim Collins, Jim Knowles
As is expected with a David Cutcliffe-coached team, Duke should be just fine at quarterback, where Sean Renfree will enter his third year as a starter and will be backed up by Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette.
The tricky part, though, is how to best take advantage of that talent surplus. In the past Duke has taken Renfree out in the red zone, in favor of more mobile options in Connette or Boone. It’s an approach that’s gotten mixed results, but one the coaching staff has felt the need to use because of the Blue Devils’ continued struggles in the running game. Duke has multiple options at tailback as well, though no one has emerged as a clear go-to guy. Josh Snead certainly has the most big-play ability, but he has had trouble staying healthy.
In the past, poor offensive line play has been an excuse for paltry rushing totals, but this season the Blue Devils should have the most depth and experience among their blockers that they’ve enjoyed in the Cutcliffe era.
When Duke opts to pass, Conner Vernon will again be Renfree’s first option. Look for Jamison Crowder and Blair Holliday, two talented but inexperienced wideouts, to also make an impact. Cutcliffe and his staff are excited about the untapped potential they have at tight end.
Even without All-ACC, do-everything safety Matt Daniels, Duke’s strength should still be its secondary, where cornerback Russ Cockrell and safety Walt Canty are both stalwarts.
But can the front six (Duke plays a 4-2-5) hold up its end of the bargain? Losing top linebacker Kelby Brown to another ACL injury certainly didn’t help, although Brown’s younger brother Kyler showed flashes of potential last season.
For a change, the Blue Devils should have some depth and experience on the defensive line. In the past that unit has given out in fourth quarters because Duke hasn’t had enough able bodies to form a decent rotation. Also the defensive line must do a better job of pressuring the quarterback. To that end, Duke has talked about perhaps moving defensive end Justin Foxx inside on obvious passing downs. The pressure is also on defensive ends Kenny Anunike and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo — who were both banged up this spring — to step up their production.
This unit provided many of Duke’s Maalox moments last season, as one-time All-America kicker Will Snyderwine lost his confidence and his ability to make important field goals. This year the Blue Devils will put a ton of responsibility on the shoulders of redshirt freshman Will Monday, who will handle both the kicking and punting duties. True freshman Ross Martin, one of the top kicking recruits in the Class of 2012, could provide competition in the fall.
Despite its 3–9 record in 2011, Duke was actually very close to earning its first bowl berth since 1994. Time and again, the Blue Devils failed to seize opportunities in close games. A missed chip-shot field goal, a blown coverage, a botched fourth-down conversion … a play here and a play there, and who knows?
“We’re that close,” Cutcliffe said in the spring. “We’ve come to the edge over and over and over again.”
But getting to the edge is one thing. Getting past it — and on to bowl eligibility — is something else entirely. Even though Cutcliffe is an optimist, he knows that the next step for his football program is, in reality, a giant leap.