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2015 Fierce 40 Previews: #38 Duke

by DJ Boyer on Jul. 8, 2015

This article originally appeared on RotoBaller, our new partner

2014 Recap:

Last season was another big year for the Blue Devils, as they were in the thick of the ACC title race once again. The Blue Devils have made three straight bowl games, something that hasn’t happened since…well…ever. Getting there is one thing, and winning a bowl game is another. Duke has lost their last five trips to postseason bowl games with their last victory coming in the 1961 Cotton Bowl when they defeated Arkansas 7-6.

Coaching:

It took David Cutliffe a few seasons but he has righted the ship at Duke, and it has largely been done with recruiting classes that rank far below his ACC counterparts. Cutliffe has a reputation for being a quarterbacks coach and has been responsible for coaching both of the Mannings while in the college ranks (quarterbacks coach with Peyton at Tennessee and a head coach for Eli at Ole Miss). Scottie Montgomery is back for his third season as the offensive coordinator after spending three seasons in the NFL serving with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Duke has enjoyed three seasons in a row where the offense has racked up 5,000 yards, a first in the history of the program. Jim Knowles is responsible for his seventh consecutive year overseeing the defense and has been with Cutliffe since he was a coach at Ole Miss.

 

Offense Analysis

Quarterbacks/Running Backs:

Anthony Boone has moved on after being a three year starter for Duke. The man taking over will be Thomas Sirk who was on the field in a number of short yardage situations a season ago. Sirk gained 238 yards on only 47 carries, and at 6’4″ 220 pounds he has the size that a player like Boone (5’11”) lacked. Sirk only had to throw 14 passes a season ago but was tremendously efficient going 10-14 for 67 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.

While replacing the quarterback is never an easy task it’s the Duke running game that should see most of the action in 2015. Shaquille Powell had over 600 yards last season but is poised to challenge for a 1,000 yard season. With Powell the important question is big play ability, as his longest carry last season was for only 17 yards. Shaun Wilson is the big play back, as his 2014 output was only 20 yards short of Powell, but he did it on 46 less carries. Both running backs had 18 receptions out of the backfield and are capable receivers. The real secret for Duke was protecting the football. In the four games Duke lost last season they committed 14 turnovers. In the nine game Duke won they committed exactly one turnover…big, big difference.

Best Draft Prospect: N/A.

 

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:

It’s one thing to miss your starting quarterback, but top target and three time All-ACC receiver/return man Jameson Crowder has also moved on. While Duke says goodbye to one target they say hello to another in the form of tight end, Braxton Deavers. Deavers is by far the best and most polished receiving threat on the Duke squad, although he failed to register a catch a season ago since. He will be returning after an ACL tear ended his season before it began. Since the injury occurred so early Deavers has had ample time for rehabilitation and is showing no ill effects of the injury thus far. Max McCaffrey and his 37 catches from a season ago is the top returning receiver from last season. Junior Johnell Barnes and freshman Chris Taylor will be the other starters in the Blue Devils three-receiver attack. Barnes looks to be the most steady receiver in the group, while the speed flashed by the 6’1″ Taylor has the coaching staff excited. Duke does not use a true tight end in most of their sets, so Deavers will be split out as a receiver most of the time while lining up as a true tight end in many short yardage and goal line packages.

Best Draft Prospect: Braxton Deavers TE 4th Round 2016.

 

Offensive Line:

Duke has strong players to replace all over the field after Boone (quarterback) and Crowder (wide receiver) left, but the Blue Devils are also tasked with replacing first round pick Laken Tomlinson. Tomlinson was the first guard off the board in this past draft as a late round pick in the opening round going to the Detroit Lions. Left tackle Takoby Cofield was a three-year starter that will also need to be replaced after being lost to graduation. The other three starters along the line from last season are all back with junior right tackle Casey Blaser. Blaser is the top returning lineman in terms of snaps played last season and will anchor a line that allowed the fewest tackles for a loss in the country. Center Matt Skura looks like a solid late round or unrestricted free agent option for the 2016 class. Lucas Patrick is also back and will move from the right guard spot over to the left side. The line looks capable, but with a couple of key pieces needing replaced this area is a bit of a question mark. While overall performance is a bit of a mystery, team depth is not, as Duke has done a wonderful job recruiting along the line for the last five seasons.

Best Draft Prospect: Casey Blaser OT 6th Round 2017.

 

Defense Analysis

Defensive Line:

Duke best embodies the “bend but don’t break” philosophy on defense, as the Blue Devils ranked 33rd in pass defense and a poor 92nd against the run. Despite these numbers the Blue Devils were a very respectable 24th in scoring defense giving up less than 22 PPG. The real secret to the Duke defense is in the back seven, as Duke floats between using three linebackers and four defensive backs, or imploring the 4-2-5 by adding the fifth defensive back. Duke registered 29 sacks last year which isn’t a great number, and nobody along the defensive line surpassed 4.5 sacks on the season. Jeremy Cash, the All-American safety you will read about a little later actually led the team with 5.5 sacks total, which is something that needs to change for this season. The projected starting defensive ends (Kyler Brown and Britton Grier) combined for 30 tackles and just one sack a season ago. The most productive player along the line looks to be defensive tackle Carlos Wray who is the lone returning starter along the line. Wray doesn’t look to be more than a free agent who could be in camp with an NFL team. In fact, the best prospect along the line from an NFL standpoint may be just starting this season in freshman defensive end Marquies Price. Price might see more time as a pass rushing linebacker, and if he is as good as advertised the Blue Devils may have a pass-rushing specialist they can use in spot duty for this season.

Best Draft Prospect: N/A.

 

Linebackers:

The linebacking core gets a shot in the arm, as Kelby Brown, like Braxton Deavers, will be returning from an ACL tear. Brown registered 114 tackles in 2013, so Duke will hope the knee injury (his second) will not rob him of some athleticism. Dwayne Norman will be the other starting linebacker. In most sets Duke will only use a pair of linebackers. Duke will use Price and Kyler Brown as players who will line up as linebackers from time to time. The real job for the linebackers here is to just bridge the gap to what looks to be the best overall secondary within the ACC.

Best Draft Prospect: Kelby Brown LB 6th Round 2016.

 

Secondary:

Jeremy Cash has a chance to be the first true strong safety off the draft board for 2016, and as talented as this group is, Cash is the only starter that is a senior as the other four starters are all juniors. When you add up all the stats from the five starters from last season you get 423 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss with 10 sacks, seven interceptions, 38 passes defended, a pair of blocked kicks as well as a pair of touchdowns. I’m not sure you will find collective statistics from another secondary group that match up with what Duke accomplished during 2014 anywhere in the nation. Duke is good against the pass, but all of the players who are returning starters tackle like linebackers. DeVon Edwards is an undersized free safety who can line up virtually anywhere, while Cash can come to the line of scrimmage in run blitzes or just being turned loose on the quarterback. It will be important for Duke to be tough in the middle of the defense, as teams will obviously try to avoid the passing attack as much as possible when facing the Blue Devils.

Best Draft Prospect: Jeremy Cash S 2nd Round 2016.

 

Special Teams

I just spent a lot of time gushing about the secondary, and I could do the same with special teams play as Duke is talented enough to possibly steal a game or two due to their high level of play in this area on the football field. Ross Martin shows the perfect balance of short distance accuracy and leg strength, as he has connected on four career field goals from beyond 50 yards. Punter Will Monday is also a senior, and he has started since he was a freshman. Monday is one of the best directional punters in the country. DeVon Edwards averaged over 25 yards per return last season and did bring one back to the house. Jameson Crowder was the primary punt return man, and he scored a pair of touchdowns in the return game a season ago. The job for punt returner is still up in the air.

Best Draft Prospect: Ross Martin K UFA 2016.

 

2015 Schedule

The first two road games for Duke are against Tulane and Army, and in between those games Duke will be at home for four games in a row. Getting off to a fast start in the ACC looks like a distinct possibility. Duke will also get a break from the scheduling department, as perhaps the top three teams in the ACC (Florida State, Clemson and Louisville) are not on the schedule this season.

 

Draft Prospects & Outlook

Jeremy Cash is the gem here, and he could sneak into the 1st round as Laken Tomlinson did a season ago. If Cash sneaks into the first round it would be the first time in Duke history that a football player would be selected in the first round in successive seasons. The other starters in the secondary should get a boost from the attention that Cash will receive, and we will see if any of his teammates try to declare for the draft a season early.

DJ Boyer

 

See this article athttp://www.rotoballer.com/fierce-40-college-football-2015-rankings-duke-38/267015