PRESEASON DEPTH CHART
Casey Blaser (6-5, 285, R-So.)
Tanner Stone (6-6, 300, R-So.)
Dave Harding (graduation)
Perry Simmons (graduation)
With much of the attention going to the talented skill position players on offense, let’s not forget about the big guys up front that make it all possible. The offensive line unit from last season allowed only 17 sacks in 14 games and finished fifth in the country in tackles for a loss allowed.
Head coach David Cutcliffe wants to run the ball better this year, and that should be possible with an experienced group of blockers. The current Duke line will return three of five starters from last year’s squad, providing some continuity from what was a very productive offense in 2013.
Right guard Laken Tomlinson could be one of the top lineman prospects in the NFL Draft by the end of the season. He possesses pro size and skill. That’s without mentioning he has started 39 straight games coming into this season and the leadership he has provided on and off the field.
Left tackle Takoby Cofield and center Matt Skura join Tomlinson as the returning players on the line. Starting quarterback Anthony Boone will be happy to have both of these players in front of him, with Cofield covering the blind side and Skura having developed a strong relationship with Boone after starting all 14 games at center last year.
The key on the line will be replacing former starters Dave Harding and Perry Simmons, two players who provided great stability in their careers. Casey Blaser is slated to take over at right tackle while Lucas Patrick is first on the depth chart at left guard. Keep in mind Patrick did start at tackle in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Texas A&M in place of an injured Simmons, proving he should be able to perform well as a full-time starter.
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN IN 2014
Given that Blaser and Patrick will still be the starters for the opener, those two will have to become comfortable and mesh with the returning lineman. Success up front will depend as much on individual matchups as cohesiveness as a unit.
There is some depth on the line, but at center, it will be key for Skura to stay healthy. Redshirt freshman Austin Davis is next on the depth chart at the position with no playing experience, and you can’t replace the connection Boone and Skura have from a season of working together.
Speaking of health, the line must protect Boone. He missed time last season with a broken collarbone, but the Blue Devils do not have the benefit of a known commodity backing Boone up this time around.
It is clear Cutcliffe has placed an emphasis on the rushing game. Duke averaged 4.6 yards per carry as a team, fifth in the ACC last year. In order for the offense to get the most out of its carries, the line needs to open up holes to let the speedy running backs get down field.
One final area that needs to remain consistent is special teams protection. Duke did not allow a blocked kick or punt in 2013, and although it may seem like something small, one block on special teams can change the entire game.