Team Preview: Duke Blue Devils

Liz Condo-US PRESSWIRE

This is the 11th part of a 12 part series that will preview every team that Wake Forest faces on its schedule this year. Intra-state rival Duke travels to Winston-Salem to face Wake on November 16th. This will be the eighth and final game of the conference season for the Demon Deacons as well as the home finale at BB&T Field.

The 2012 version of the Duke Blue Devils became the first installment of the team to beat Wake Forest in football since the 1999 team did it. Over this 12 year span there were some remarkably close games which Wake certainly should have lost, but managed to pull out, and last season's matchup was another close one in which Duke was finally able to break the long losing streak. Duke would go on to a bowl last season and finish up the year with a 6-7 record, but they really were not any better (and were actually worse) than the previous four seasons. The major difference for the 2012 team was the easy schedule they played, enabling the team to reach the coveted six win mark. With two games which were almost impossible to lose (NCCU and Memphis - both of which return to the Blue Devils schedule this year) and an easy first half of the schedule in the ACC (with games against Wake, UVA, and UNC), Duke did what needed to be done to reach a bowl.

The Devils, led by sixth year head coach David Cutliffe, will try to replicate last season's success but will have to do so without quarterback captain Sean Renfree and solid receivers Connor Vernon and Desmond Scott. On the bright side, Duke does have a relatively experienced quarterback in Anthony Boone who is set to take over the starting position as well as big target Jamison Crowder who caught 76 passes last season for 8 touchdowns.

Perhaps the biggest problem Duke will face in 2013 is the performance of its defense as a whole. The defense returns a lot of starters and guys who got a lot of playing time last year, but the team was so bad the question must be asked does this experience even matter? The defense ranked in the bottom three in the conference in every major statistical defensive category and was worse than 100th in scoring defense, rushing defense, passing defense, and total defense. Defensive coordinators Jim Collins and Jim Knowles will attempt to right the ship this year on the defensive front and all signs seem to indicate the team will be sticking with a 4-2-5 which they have run over the past couple of years.

Duke's goal for 2013 will be the same as it is every year: try to reach six wins and sneak into a bowl.

Offense

With the loss of three year starter Sean Renfree at quarterback to graduation, Duke is forced to select another man to run the offense. Junior Anthony Boone is likely the guy for the job and Boone had a pretty solid spring while trying to secure the starting position. Another guy who the offense will almost certainly see at quarterback at times is Brandon Connette who subbed in for Renfree at times last year to run a more option-based wildcat offense. Boone will look to be more mobile that Renfree was and might be able to fill the dual role of passer/runner that Cutcliffe is looking for out of his playcaller.

Boone will have assistance in the backfield from a guy many might recognize around these parts, Jela Duncan. Duncan, a sophomore running back, selected Duke over Wake on National Signing Day a couple of years ago and the Deacs got to see first hand how strong a runner Duncan could be in his freshman year. Duncan finished the year with 553 yards and four touchdowns and will be expected to see the bulk of the carries alongside junior Josh Snead. Boone's main target at receiver will likely be Jamison Crowder who saw a lot of action last year, but also look for guys like Max McCaffrey, Isaac Blakeney, and Anthony Nash to get some looks out of the spread offense. This offense has made quick guys with good hands into household names in the ACC and there is no reason to believe that one of these other receivers can't be the next Connor Vernon.

The brightest spot of Duke's offense is the return of four starters on the offensive line, as well as senior center John Coleman who has nine career starts himself. The offensive line as a whole returns a whopping 113 starts as a unit and will be looking to create holes for Duncan and time for Boone to throw. There is hope in Durham that with the experienced offensive line, perhaps the loss of Renfree and Vernon can be mitigated slightly and the offense can finish in the top half of the ACC just like the squad did last year.

Defense

The weakest part of the 2012 team certainly looks to be the weakest part of the team again this season: the defense. The defensive line, to put it most succinctly, sucked last year. They were unable to get into the backfield without additional blitz pressure, they weren't able to challenge the quarterback and force a quick throw, and they were completely unable to stop the run. The defensive line returns basically everybody from last year, but as mentioned earlier if everyone coming back is bad does it really matter how many people have experience? The line returns 13 players who made at least a tackle last season and will be expected to get a lot of pressure into the backfield to help out a relatively inexperienced secondary. Defensive ends Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx will look to wreak a little more havoc on opposing offenses and shore up a rushing defense which allowed 201.5 yards per game last year, 10th in the ACC.

The return of linebacker Kelby Brown should be a big boost to the corps and provide additional help to the front four. Brown was a freshman All-American in 2010 but back-to-back ACL injuries sidelined Brown the previous couple of seasons If Brown is healthy, he will be one of the better playmakers on the roster. Next to Brown at linebacker, sophomore Kyler Brown and junior David Helton will both get a lot of snaps. These two guys combined for over 70 tackles last season, but each only recorded 1.5 tackles for loss, a stat which surely must improve if the rush defense is going to get better.

The secondary looks to be the youngest and most vulnerable part of the Duke defense, but sophomore transfer Jeremy Cash from Ohio State may vastly improve the sector and is slated to start at safety. Senior cornerback Ross Cockrell was the only dependable member of the corps last year and led the team in tackles (71) and interceptions (5) as well as successfully defending 17 passes. The secondary is pretty thin as far as experienced starters as the backup to each of the four starters is expected to be a freshman. On the bright side perhaps Duke can find a future star when these young faces are forced to step up and make plays once the season gets rolling. Look for cornerback Evrett Edwards out of Woodbridge, Virginia to be the first guy off the bench and even starting in some nickel and dime formations.

The defense really cannot get too much worse than it was in 2012, but there's not any reason to believe that it will improve either. This defense should get torched by a lot of teams and Wake Forest needs to capitalize on this weakness.

Special Teams

Duke returns two sophomores to start at kicker and punter. Kicker Ross Martin is expected to retain the position after going 20-23 on field goals his freshman year, and Will Monday will feature as punter after averaging 44.6 yards per game and being named first team All-ACC. Duke probably has the best kicking corps in the conference. Jamison Crowder will likely be called upon to return punts this season with the departure of Lee Butler and the kick return spot appears to be up for grabs but senior Juwan Thompson has some experience there and will probably be one of the guys out there in the opener against NCCU.

Conclusion

Duke went 2-1 in one-possession games last year and snuck into a bowl game based on an easy schedule and some good bounces. The team deserves credit for both beating UNC and making a bowl game, but statistically this team was the worst of Cutcliffe's tenure. For Duke to return to a bowl this year they must win games early, like they did last year, and win all the toss-up games on their schedule. Quite frankly I don't see this happening and believe that Duke will finish around 4-8. Duke will need to win almost every OOC game (NCCU, Memphis, Troy, and Navy) which is probably doable, as well as beat two or three of Wake, Pitt, and Syracuse to get back to a bowl game. This is unlikely.

To attack this Duke team Wake needs to run the ball early and often and get the ball into Camp's hands off the line to force Duke's defense to make plays. I think this one will be high scoring and I think Wake wins by a couple of touchdowns to make up for last season's home loss. Wake should be a better team than Duke and needs to win this one at home to ensure a bowl berth.

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