The Blue Devils would appear to have a long way to go after winning only one conference game in a three-win season. But coach David Cutcliffe, who harps on building optimism, senses a significant change in fortunes. "The worm has turned," Cutcliffe said.
Cutcliffe continues to set the bar high even if the Blue Devils would appear to be far from stepping away from the doldrums that are approaching two decades. They have 16 consecutive losing seasons.
But Cutcliffe insists it has taken time to build a foundation and that's an ongoing process.
"We're not looking for morale victories," Cutcliffe said. "We're looking to win the ACC, just so you know."
Cutcliffe was baffled by losses in close games in 2010, something he said can be turned around by paying attention to more details. The Blue Devils lost four games by six points or less last year.
The encouraging spots for the Blue Devils begin with the passing aspects of their offense. They've established a core of receivers for returning starting quarterback Sean Renfree to throw to. Putting together a consistent rushing attack to alleviate pressure from Renfree continues to be something that gains traction only some of the time.
Yet Cutcliffe said the Blue Devils aren't giving up on cultivating a solid rushing attack and he said there are signs that it could be coming together.
As usual, Cutcliffe tends to put a sunny spot on most any topic related to the team and he hopes some of that rubs off in a more successful season.
"We get better every day here," Cutcliffe said. "I see it. We all feel it."
--Former Duke All-American tackle Art Gregory, who helped Duke to three straight conference titles from 1960-62, died at 71. He was inducted into the Duke Hall of Fame in 1989.
--The Blue Devils are growing up on the offensive line. There are seven linemen who coach David Cutcliffe said he's comfortable with along the front. Yet considering that the young defensive line is the biggest question mark on the team, it goes to reason that the Blue Devils might not always receive the stiffest tests along the offensive front.
--K Will Snyderwine built solid credentials during the 2010 season and that puts him at the forefront for some preseason awards lists entering his senior season. He made 21 of 24 field goals and he's 56 of 56 in his career on extra-point kicks. Coach David Cutcliffe pushed him for postseason accolades last year and now Snyderwine is atop many lists of kickers entering the season.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The Blue Devils welcome a non-conference opponent with national championship potential for a home game for the second year in a row. This time, it's Stanford with QB Andrew Luck arriving Sept. 10 and it gives the Blue Devils a chance to make some waves. They have to hope for something better than last year's dud against then-No. 1 Alabama.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: The defense must improve in order for the Blue Devils to make the headway that they've been talking about. The secondary should be a more seasoned group, so that should help. But the defensive front will be so young that rapid development in that area will be essential if the Blue Devils are able to stop opponents with any regularity. The offense is bound to be called upon to carry a bulk of the load again, so that means that QB Sean Renfree will need to maintain his connections with ball catchers such as WR Conner Vernon and WR Donovan Varner.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The Blue Devils have to show significant improvements on the defensive side in order to be competitive on a weekly basis. They'll enter the season scarred by what happened at times last season when opponents sliced up the defense, so establishing some success early in the season will be crucial to building something positive on that side of the ball.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The question mark on our whole team is our young, young defensive linemen." -- coach David Cutcliffe, referring to a group that beyond senior NG Charlie Hatcher has little experience. Even redshirt junior DE Kenny Anunike, a projected starter, has only one career start and missed contract drills in the spring as he came off knee surgery.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
HEAD COACH: David Cutcliffe, fourth year at Duke, 56-53 overall, 12-24 at Duke.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Sean Renfree -- He's the returning quarterback and he spearheads the pass-oriented offense. The Blue Devils haven't had a chance to groom a backup who excels in their preferred style of offense, so Renfree remains the only proven gunslinger in the program. He'll want to improve his ratio of interceptions to touchdowns because he threw 17 picks last year and tossed 14 scoring passes.
BREAKOUT STAR: LB Kelby Brown -- The coaching staff was reluctant to burn a potential redshirt season and used him as a true freshmen in 2010. Then it was hard to take him off the field until he suffered a season-ending knee injury. He's expected to be at full speed for the start of the season and the way his motor runs he can be disruptive in the middle of the defense.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DE Jamal Wallace -- He's a player who tests well in many of the strength and conditioning drills and that could carry over to game action. The redshirt freshman is contending for a starting role and his emergence will be vital to the Blue Devils shoring up some holes along the defensive front. They're counting on young players making an impact in this area and so that should give Wallace a shot.
--WR Donovan Varner is bound to climb on several career school charts during his senior season. He has 1,947 receiving yards to his credit. He's one of six active players nationally with two seasons of 60 or more receptions.
--CB Ross Cockrell received one of those baptism under fire seasons as a first-year player in 2010. Now as a redshirt sophomore, he could be ready to turn the tables on opposing receivers and quarterbacks. That's what the Blue Devils are counting on after allowing him to learn valuable lessons in game situations last year.
--S Issac Blakeney failed to meet academic requirements and was suspended from Duke, leaving a hole in the Blue Devils' depth in the secondary. He didn't play in 2010, but he could have found a role this year. Blakeney could return to school in January, coach David Cutcliffe said.