Know Your Foe: Duke

Not much is known about Arizona State’s Sun Bowl opponent Duke University. What are the Blue Devils' strengths and weaknesses on either side of the ball, and how has this squad truly fared during the regular season? Here to shed light on ASU’s next opponent through Sparky’s Huddle members’ questions, is Publisher John Watson.

Looking at Duke’s 2014 season it seems that played up to the competition in wins such as Georgia Tech, and played down to it in a loss to North Carolina. What do you make of the disparity in those results?

Watson: I’m not sure it was a “playing down” situation when Duke played North Carolina. In the post game locker room some of the veteran players who have been in Durham for several years (and remember when Duke Football was flat out bad) were beside themselves after the game with UNC. Why? Because the team didn’t “play down” as much as they flat out didn’t play at all. The Tar Heels came in that night and were more aggressive, more energetic, and they took it to a Duke team that uncharacteristically couldn’t or wouldn’t answer the bell.

On paper both UNC and Georgia Tech have more talent than Duke - and that’s the case in most of the conference and big time out of conference games the Blue Devils play. When your program has been down for decades it takes time to recruit, cultivate, and develop top shelf talent. Duke is on that path, and while the starters can play with anyone, once you get into the second team there are spots of either inexperience or concern. To be sure there are fewer holes than before, but the Blue Devils are still building for sure.

Which brings me to the real answer to the question…in order for Duke to overcome whatever natural/raw talent disparities, the team simply has to execute at a near flawless level. From penalties to play-calling. They did that against Georgia Tech. But not against North Carolina. It’s a fine line and a very small margin for error, but that’s where and how this team has produced over the last two years.

How do you believe Duke's schedule helped them prepare for ASU's aggressive defensive and offensive schemes? Any teams that Duke has played this year that are similar to ASU's style of play?

Watson: Offensively, Duke has faced a number of teams who bring pressure - though probably not the way ASU will do so on nearly every play. When Duke has been at its best, the Blue Devils have found ways to make teams pay for pinning their ears back and bringing the house with quick release pass plays, timely running, and a veteran offensive line.

Defensively, Duke’s philosophy has been all about bending but not breaking. The Blue Devils will surrender yards up and down the field, but will stiffen up dramatically in the final third of the field. That’s where the defense has been at it’s best and will often either hunt for a turnover or a big play to limit opponents to a field goal instead of a touchdown.

What challenges does Duke present offensively and defensively for their opponents?

Watson: Offensively the Blue Devils have been very good when they are executing and in rhythm. They’ve got a very balanced approach to the game beginning with the ground attack where four running backs have taken turns establishing the tempo this season. Once the ground game is up and running, quarterback Anthony Boone is capable enough to make defenses pay and has a number of playmakers either out of the backfield or at receiver. Most notable among those is Jamison Crowder who may become the ACC’s all-time leading pass catcher with a big game in El Paso.

Defensively, as I mentioned, Duke wants to bend and then look to limit points or find turnovers. The Blue Devils are very opportunistic when their backs are against the wall, and it seems as though a majority of their tackles for loss or turnovers come after surrendering a number of yards or first downs. One of the places Duke really needs to improve in order to take the next step in terms of being able to compete with the top of the ACC and beyond, is generating a pass rush. When the Blue Devils have gotten in trouble this season, it’s been because opposing signal callers have all day in the pocket.

Who are some of the standout players on both sides of the ball that ASU fans should be aware of?

Watson: On offense it’s Crowder. He’s a smaller receiver, but he’s exceedingly quick and finds holes in the defense to make the catch. After the catch he can be electric, and is a threat to extend plays that probably shouldn’t be. Crowder is Duke’s best big play threat, and as noted, he’s nearly the all-time leader in passed caught in conference history.

In the trenches Duke has Laken Tomlinson who was the program’s first big “get” after Cutclffe took over. It may not be sexy to pick a guard as a player to watch, but Tomlinson has become a rock for Duke on the inside of a line that gives up very little to opposing defensive fronts. Tomlinson tied for first in the nation in consecutive starts.

Defensively, Duke relies on Jeremy Cash - a transfer from Ohio State who may be the best football player on the roster. At safety, Cash has been notorious for getting into the backfield and stopping runs, getting sacks, or being a general problem for opposing offenses. A lot of his freedom, however, is determined by how well the rest of the secondary is holding up.

I’d also watch linebacker David Helton and safety Devon Edwards. Helton is the team’s leading tackler and really has a nose reading the play and reacting. He’s been an all-conference performer for several seasons, and has adapted well to the middle linebacker spot after playing on the weak side the last two years. When Duke lost all-conference MLB Kelby Brown to an ACL before the season, the Blue Devils moved Helton over and he’s done very well.

With Edwards, he’s a kid who nobody recruited out of high school, but he’s come in and turned himself into an All-American as a returner and All-Conference as a safety. He’s smallish, but is extremely fast and loves to tackle.

What are some of the weaknesses of Duke’s offense and defense?

Watson: On offense it’s been quarterback Anthony Boone. That’s odd to say about a kid who has become the program’s winningest signal caller in history. However, there have been numerous instances where Boone’s accuracy or reads have been way off. Or, as was the case in the game against Virginia Tech, he simply made poor decisions that cost his team the game in crunch time.

While Boone has cut down his interceptions, he’s had spells of hold onto the ball too long, or missing throws, or - when intercepted - trying to force the issue. When he’s at his best, Anthony Boone is a very good game manager under center. But when he’s asked to go beyond that, he’s capable, but not consistent.

On defense it’s the inability to generate a pass rush. Period. The secondary continues to improve each year, but not matter who your corners are, if you give a decent quarterback too much time, he’ll burn you. The Blue Devils have struggled mightily in this regard.

Duke is obviously known as a basketball powerhouse and only recently have they had some success in football. What is the feeling around the campus and alumni concerning football? Is Duke trying to make football work long term or is it just enjoying this success as long as it lasts?

Watson: Football was bad for forty years or so save the couple of seasons Steve Spurrier was in Durham. During that time the program wasn’t just neglected, it was ignored. When the decision to reinvest in the program was made, Duke went out and found Cutcliffe, who came in and could demand and dictate where money would be spent and where commitments would be made from the administration. Duke is unique because they can’t recruit every top prospect because of academics. Still, Cutcliffe has developed a brand that is unique to his program (and it is his program), and it’s selling well with recruits and the administration.

Accordingly, Duke is renovating the stadium over the next two seasons, and the program has seen numerous improvements over the last five years. It’s probably safe to say that Duke has turned the corner and established a respectable program, and now the emphasis will be on sustaining that level and preparing for the future. In short, every improvement made to the program is done with an eye on the present, and on the future with the idea being that when Cutcliffe does move on, the program will never sink back into the abyss.

How does the fan base view the job David Cutcliffe has done? Any of the coaching rumors swirling around David Cutcliffe causing a distraction for the team?

Watson: I don’t think you’ll find anyone around the program who is worried that Coach Cutliffe is leaving Duke. He’s got the keys to the kingdom and is building a program from the ground up. Additionally, he’s well taken care of as is his roster of assistant coaches from a financial and job security standpoint. At this point in his career, it seems he’s very invested in leaving a legacy at a place that has embraced him as much as he’s embraced it.

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