ACC Countdown: No. 3 Duke

Wide receiver Jamison Crowder highlights an impressive group of returning players for the reigning Coastal Division champs. 

Duke shocked the ACC universe last year by taking the Coastal Division crown. Even though it’s been written off as a fluke by some, the Blue Devils, who return much of their roster from last season, are eager to prove that it isn’t.

David Cutcliffe enters Year 7 of his tenure at Duke with his program-building plan already having paid off in a big way. But how will the Blue Devils handle success this year?

Duke’s starting quarterback Anthony Boone returns for his senior year, as does All-ACC wideout Jamison Crowder, one of the best players in the ACC. Junior possession receiver Max McCaffrey could take a big step forward as well; the coaches are very high on him. Duke’s leading rusher Josh Snead will be a senior this year, and junior Shaquille Powell (one of Duke’s rare four-star recruits on the roster) returns as well. And so the offense looks to be in good shape, particularly with that offensive line. With All-ACC senior right guard Laken Tomlinson returning along with excellent senior left tackle Takoby Cofield and junior center Matt Skura, the skill-position players should have the benefit of great blocking.

Defensively, Duke returned all of its linebackers and lost just one real starter in the secondary. But the problem is that Duke lost All-ACC linebacker Kelby Brown to a torn ACL last week, and he was Duke’s best playmaker in the front seven. Still, the linebackers remaining have some experience, including the ACC’s leading tackler a year ago (David Helton) who slides into Brown’s spot at middle linebacker.

In the secondary, plenty of talented pieces return, led by Duke’s best defensive playmaker (junior safety Jeremy Cash). A lot of young defensive backs got experience last year, and Duke has plenty of options at both safety and corner in the sophomore class.

Duke lost a bit more from its rushing attack than it would seem.

Fourth-leading rusher Juwan Thompson graduated. Jela Duncan was declared academically ineligible for this season, and he was Duke’s second-leading rusher. Snead and Powell — along with redshirt freshman Joseph Ajeigbe — should be able to carry the load, but quarterback Brandon Connette transferred to be closer to his ailing mother in California, and his rushing ability (team-high 14 rushing touchdowns, 369 yards) will be sorely missed. It remains to be seen whether one of the younger quarterbacks will get the kind of offensive package of play calls that Connette had a year ago.

Tight end Braxton Deaver was Duke’s second-leading receiver entering this season, but he tore his ACL in training camp. The Duke coaching staff certainly hopes tight end/receiver hybrid Isaac Blakeney, a senior, can step up his production a bit this year to make up for Deaver’s absence. Junior David Reeves, though, will likely start at Deaver’s spot. He had three catches for 38 yards in four games last year, though, and it will again have to be a team effort to replace Deaver.

Defense is where Duke lost the most, particularly on the line. Both starting defensive ends (Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx) graduated, and with that, Duke loses 19 tackles for loss and 10 sacks (no one else on the line had more than four tackles for loss). It will be up to senior ends Dez Johnson, Jordan De-Walt Ondijo and Jamal Wallace to take a step forward this season. And returning tackles Carlos Wray and Jamal Bruce need to step up their production, too.

Without Brown, senior C.J. France will likely start alongside Helton at linebacker. In the secondary, replacing All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell will be the biggest issue. He was the leader on and off the field, but considering all the work he was able to do with the freshmen DBs a year ago, he likely left that group in good shape. There are some talented sophomores at both safety and corner, and as long as that group doesn’t regress, Duke’s secondary will be pretty good.

Boone is a relatively established fixture at quarterback for the Blue Devils, but even he has plenty to prove. Connette is a big loss for Duke, though. Connette’s presence as a change-of-pace quarterback allowed Duke to survive Boone’s broken collarbone a year ago as the backup slid right in relatively seamlessly. His goal-line packages helped Duke finish drives efficiently.

As good as Boone can be at times — his Chick-Fil-A Bowl game performance against Texas A&M says hello — he can be almost as bad at others, like against N.C. State’s below-average defense last year. Connette’s presence was a security blanket for Duke’s offense, in a sense, and it took some pressure off of Boone, even if he didn’t see it that way. Now, it’s gone.

Cutcliffe is known for playing multiple quarterbacks in a season to get them game reps in case his starter goes down, or even for the benefit of the next season or the season after that. He’s always looking forward. But right now, Duke has just one quarterback that has seen game action on its opening-day roster.

Sophomore Thomas Sirk could be a candidate to take on a Connette-like role — he’s a dual-threat guy and probably a better passer than Connette. Redshirt freshman Parker Boehme could see some reps as well, but Sirk will likely be the guy.

Boone has to be steadier, and has to stay healthy. He can’t be running the ball the way Connette did last year, or he’ll get hurt in a hurry. Between Sirk and Boehme, they have to be ready to get in games and play well — particularly Sirk if he can emerge as a runner. One of them will have to become at least a reliable backup, if not a change-of-pace quarterback, because it’s so key to what Duke does.

Measuring against Duke’s history, a third straight bowl appearance would be a success. But this program has grown so much under Cutcliffe that such a measure has become patronizing at best and insulting at worst. That’s especially true considering the reigning Coastal champs return much of the core that led them to the title last year. 

So for Duke, a successful season means being in contention for the Coastal crown until the very end. As Cutcliffe likes to say, playing meaningful football in November is what people remember. Duke certainly did that last year, and the Blue Devils need to keep doing that for the program to keep taking steps forward.

There’s not a sure loss on this schedule for Duke. But beyond two ACC games (Virginia and Wake Forest), there aren’t guaranteed league wins, either. Duke will have to work for everything it gets, but it’s all right there for the Blue Devils.

In theory, Duke’s first major test — a game at Miami on Sept. 27 — should be here instead of the Yellow Jackets. But Georgia Tech has been Duke’s nemesis in the Coastal, the only team in the Division left that Duke has not beaten in the Cutcliffe era (with the exception of Pitt, which joined last year). Georgia Tech has given plenty of teams trouble with its option-based wishbone attack, and Duke is no exception.

The Blue Devils started out 2013 with a 2-2 record and lost its first two ACC games at home, to Georgia Tech and then Pitt, the former of which was a 38-14 beating by the Yellow Jackets. It didn’t seem like a crazy result at the time, but then Georgia Tech showed itself to be disappointingly mediocre. Duke bounced back just fine, but it took winning its final eight regular-season games to earn the Coastal crown.

Duke could be 4-1 or even 5-0 headed into this year’s Georgia Tech game. Georgia Tech in Atlanta is a tough task, but if Duke is going to repeat as Coastal champs, it will put itself in prime position to do just that with a win.

Duke should get through its non-ACC schedule — Elon, at Troy, Kansas and Tulane — with ease. That’s four wins.

The ACC schedule breaks well for the Blue Devils in that they don’t get Florida State, Clemson or Louisville as crossover opponents (Syracuse and Wake Forest instead). Duke played quite well on the road last season, but this year’s road tests are Miami, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. None of those are sure losses for Duke by any stretch, but it’s just hard to imagine Duke sweeping all four of those games. Going 2-2 against those four would be just fine, but then Duke would need to win its four home games (Duke was 2-2 in the ACC at home last year) to repeat as Division champs. Virginia and Wake Forest won’t offer much resistance, but Virginia Tech and North Carolina (a Thursday-nighter) will.

There’s no game on this schedule that Duke can’t win. But there are also very few games on it that Duke can’t lose, either — particularly in ACC play.

Without two important leaders on defense, some question marks up front and lacking the wrinkle Connette’s presence provided, there are more questions than answers for me right now about whether or not this Duke team will be able to be as special as last year’s group was. That’s high praise for last year’s group more than a shot at this one. But I, like many others, have been wrong about Duke before. Doubt the Blue Devils and Cutcliffe at your own peril.