ACC Preview: Thomas Sirk’s comeback key to Duke’s season

Without question, David Cutcliffe has been the architect of the most successful era in Duke history. He has led the Blue Devils to an unprecedented four straight bowl games and his 48 victories in eight years are 38 more than the team had in the eight seasons before his arrival, combined.

But the road to a fifth straight postseason appearance is littered with questions and a gauntlet of a schedule.

The good news for Duke is Sirk has been taking part in drills at camp — albeit on a limited basis — in his comeback from a ruptured left Achilles tendon. He’s also been down this road before, missing the entire 2013 season while recovering from the same injury to his right tendon. It hasn’t been announced if the redshirt senior will be available for the season opener, but how effective Sirk can be is a massive point of interest for the Blue Devils as he threw for 2,625 yards and 16 touchdowns and was the team’s leading rusher with 803 yards and eight mores scores in ’15. Backup Parker Boehme — a redshirt junior — has experience with 13 games and 190 snaps under his belt and can be a viable option, as his throwing for 248 yards vs. Pitt last season showed. But he doesn’t bring the same dynamic ability that Sirk does with his legs, and behind an offensive line with the second-fewest career starts in the Coastal Division, it’s an added dimension this team needs.

ACC TEAM BREAKDOWNS

There was some eyebrow raising when the Duke saftey-turned-cornerback/return man received a vote for ACC Preseason Player of the Year, but this senior is crucial, both for the Blue Devils’ hopes of improving its pass defense and having an explosive game-changer to lean on. The nation’s active leader in kickoff returns for TDs (six), third in kickoff return average (28.04) and sixth in returns (72), he’s also fifth in total tackles with 298, a figure that leads the ACC. Duke struggled to slow down opposing passing games, ranking 87th (240.9 ypg), and in four straight losses to Miami, North Carolina, Pitt and Virginia, gave up 337 a game. Moving Edwards to corner and the return of Bryon Fields — who missed all of ’15 with a torn ACL — could make this group that much better, but Edwards and his five career interceptions is the key to its improvement.

That aforementioned slide last year could have prevented Duke from making another bowl game, but luckily a 6-1 start helped provide a cushion. The final month of the regular season is daunting once again as the Blue Devils face four teams that went to bowls in Virginia Tech, No. 20 North Carolina, Pitt and Miami. Add in an a Atlantic Division dark horse in No. 23 Louisville and a road trip to Georgia Tech — which is poised to bounce back from a 3-9 campaign — and it’s key that Duke gets off to a strong start. Doing that is easier said than done considering the first four weeks include road games vs. Northwestern — 12 starters back from a 10-win season — and No. 9 Notre Dame. With this schedule, 2016 figures to be one of the bigger tests if Duke is to make another bowl under Cutcliffe.

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His book, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ is out now, and ‘The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners’ will be released Nov. 1, 2016.