Duke is not expected to be challenged on Saturday against North Carolina Central. The Vegas lines have the Blue Devils as a more than 30 point favorite just four days away from kick-off. Still, there are a number of questions facing Duke.
The first unknown will be how will fourth year junior Anthony Boone will fare as the full-time starter. Boone certainly showed flashes a season ago in limited appearances, and one full start, but this year he will be expected to carry the offensive load on a week to week basis. So far throughout camp, Boone's leadership style and enthusiasm has drawn positive reviews from his coaches and teammates. But how will he perform when the lights come on?
One benefit Boone will enjoy is a deep and talented stable of running backs, as well as a number of talented new faces at receiver. Throw in a veteran offensive line, and a likely overmatched opponent and you have a recipe for a strong debut.
The Eagles will be replacing eight starters from a unit that surrendered 54 points to Duke a season ago. So who should Duke fans be aware of? Here's a best guess:
Top 5 to watch North Carolina Central Defense
1. LB Tazmon Foster (5-9, 200, Sr.): For years the Blue Devils were able to get high major production out of linebackers who weren't prototypical in terms of size. Players such as Mike Tauiliili and Vinney Rey were considered too short for some programs, but managed to make a living at or near the top of the Duke tackles list each and every season. The same is true of Foster, who transferred into Central late in the 2012 season and then proceeded to average 10 stops per game. In addition, Foster also scored twice via fumble recovery and an interception. In a 3-4 defense, Foster spends most of his time inside, and with his speed and stature, he can dart through holes to meet the ball carrier and/or passer.
2012 v. Duke: DNP.
2. LB Ty Brown (6-5, 225, R-Jr.): Brown also plays on the inside of the 3-4 scheme. A season ago he recorded 51 total tackles which included 8 tackles for loss and 3 sacks. He also broke up three passes, and hurried the quarterback twice. If the Eagles ever use a four man front, Brown could line up at defensive end, and he's shown the ability to drop into the second line of defense and pursue (he recorded 29 solo tackles a season ago). Given the more balanced approach on offense promised by the Duke coaches and players, it's likely Brown will be called upon early and often to assist in stopping a run game featuring a number of talented Duke backs.
2012 v. Duke: 1 tackle and 1 quarterback hurry.
3. S Ryan Smith (6-0, 180, R-So.): Smith is a hard-hitter who finished second on the team in tackles a season ago (65, with 35 solo). The third year player is not only a guy who can hit, he's also developed a knack for defending the passing game. A season ago he broke up five passes, while intercepting another three. Additionally, Smith was able to recover four fumbles. When it comes to Duke, the offense may be more balanced, but the big plays will still be made through the air, and that means the vertical passing game. Players like Max McCaffrey, Anthony Nash, Jamison Crowder, and others will look to beat Central's inexperienced corners off the line, and it'll be up to Smith to provide that second level of coverage. Smith has earned first team, preseason all-conference honors. A season ago he was all over the field against Duke, recording five tackles and breaking up a pair of passes. He'll need to do more of the same against the new-look Blue Devil offense.
2012 v. Duke: 5 tackles (2 solo), and two pass breakups.
4. The entire defensive line: A season ago the Eagles appeared to have a veteran group up front which could pose a challenge. Instead, the Duke offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, never allowing the Eagles to bother Sean Renfree as Duke rolled to an easy victory. Fast forward a season and Duke returns four starters from that offensive line, while the Eagles return no starters, and just one player who played meaningful minutes a year ago. Perhaps change will be a positive for NC Central, and it'll start with NG Aaron Wallace (6-1, 315, R-Sr.). Wallace is a space eating big man who clogs up running lanes, and played well enough as a reserve last season (31 tackles in 10 games) against the run. Joining Wallace will be defensive tackle Tommy Wallace (6-1, 260, R-Sr.), a player who hasn't played for Central in two seasons. The third starting lineman is Felix Small (6-2, 250, Jr.). Small transferred into Central from Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa. where he recorded 21 tackles and 9.5 sacks a season ago.
5. CB Tim Thaniel (6-0, 190, R-Fr.): A late bloomer in the class of 2011, Thaniel actually was briefly recruited by the Blue Devils towards the end of the recruiting cycle. He even got invited down to the game against Wake Forest in late October 2011. Thaniel was a three year high school starter, and was described as excelling in man coverage. However, he declined to attend the various combines and camps that usually separate and sort the various high school talents. Now, after a red-shirt season, Thaniel is projected as one of the two starting cornerbacks for the Eagles. Against Duke he'll draw either Max McCaffrey or Jamison Crowder, and if the scouting reports and recruiting interest are any indication, he could be counted on to provide stiff competition for either player - both of whom are attempting to step up into more prominent roles in the new Duke passing game.
2012 v Duke: DNP