The addition of athletes in the secondary will be relied on when the Blue Devils are attempting to improve on pass defense that seemed to breed big plays for the opposition as the season continued. And while the Eagles' offense, which must replace virtually all the skill position starters, is unlikely to truly test the Duke defense, Saturday's game will give fans and coaches alike a chance to see how the various rotations and questions are likely to be answered as the scheduled stiffens.
Here are five players who may ask big questions of the Duke defense at various times throughout the game.
Top 5 to watch: North Carolina Central Offense
1. QB Jordan Reid (6-1, 190, R-Sr.): A season ago Reid was thought of as a backup. However, he won his team's support and the starting job after completing 17-of-26 passes for 218 yards against the Blue Devils in week three. Reid was, and is, able to extend plays with his legs, and rushed for Central's second score in the blowout loss. Following the game in Wallace Wade, Reid broke his school's pass completion record by connecting on 62.3 percent of his passes while accumulating 1,594 passing yards and 13 touchdowns. Most importantly, Reid lead his team to a 6-2 record as a starter. Back for a fifth season, Reid will have the benefit of four offensive line starters, but will need to replace nearly two-thirds of his receiving production from a season ago. The Eagles returning receiving group combined to haul in just 56 of of the team's 178 receptions a season ago.
2012 vs. Duke: 17-of-26, 218 yards, and one rushing TD
2. The Offensive Line: The Eagles return four starters along the line including fifth year senior Charles Goodwin. Senior Michael Wells, third year sophomore Zachary Giles, and sophomore Clevonne Davis combined for 38 starts a season ago with Goodwin earning all-conference honors in the MEAC a season ago. With a capable signal caller behind them, the line will need to provide Reid time to find his new receivers. A season ago the line allowed the Blue Devils to hit their quarterback for sacks four times, while generating just 2.5 yards per carry on the ground. Both of those numbers will have to improve against Duke this time around if the Eagles are to pull off the upset. The only unproven asset on the line will be starting right tackle, Decarreus Mason, a redshirt freshman from Florida who fielded interest from several BCS programs including East Carolina, Cincinnati, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi State, and Florida International.
3. RB Andre Clarke (5-10, 235, R-Jr.): Is a powerful north-south runner who will be looking to rebound after losing the latter half of his 2012 season to a knee injury. Clarke was NCCU's leading rusher against Duke last season, averaging 4.2 yards per carry on 14 attempts. He's a powerful presence around the goal line, scoring nine times last season in eight games. Before being lost for the season, Clarke was the MEAC's leading scoring back. Clarke is also a decent blocker in the passing game, but is not considered a threat out of the backfield as a receiver. Controlling the football and maintaining an advantage in time of possession is critical to any upset bid, and Clarke will play a big role in the Eagles' attempt keep the football away from the Duke offense. Clarke will, likely, have to log a high number of carries - something he has yet to do during his career. In eight games a season ago, he logged more than eight attempts just five times.
2012 v. Duke: 14 carries for 64 yards and one touchdown.
4. RB Idreis Augustus (5-8, 190, R-So.): Injuries and Eagle running backs seemed to go hand in hand a year ago. In addition to losing Clarke for the final half of the season, Central lost Augustus for the entirety of the 2012 season after leading the team in rushing the season before…despite playing in just seven games. Augustus was on the sideline for the first five contests, but made his initial mark against South Carolina State by reeling off 42 yards on seven carries (plus a touchdown). He followed that strong debut with 100+ yard performances against Hampton and Delaware State. Augustus is more speed and quickness…maybe the lightning to Clarke's thunder. However, like his more bulky backfield mate, Augustus isn't much of a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield, recording just six catches in seven games.
2012 v. Duke: DNP, Injured.
5. Interim head coach Dwayne Foster: Changing coaches is never easy. But making a coaching change in the middle of preseason training camp because your former coach's legal troubles is worse. Much worse. That's the situation the Eagles are dealing with after Henry Frazier was terminated last week. With Frazier gone, the program must pick up the pieces…the responsibility will fall directly on the shoulders of Foster, who has served as as assistant head coach, recruiting coordinator and offensive line coach at Central. He'll have to get his team ready to play, and help them tune out, or at least deflect the outside influences and distractions surrounding their former head coach. Often times situations such as these can ignite and inspire a team (see Duke after Ted Roof took over for Carl Franks). That's Foster's challenge, and may be the biggest question mark his team faces.