The kickoff for the college football season is less than three weeks away and several publications have begun ramping up their preseason coverage. The experts at CollegeFootballNews have offered their contributions by making some bold predictions both on the team an individual levels.
As with any prediction or preview surrounding the ACC the primary focus is on Florida State, which returns most of last year’s national championship roster. Duke got an unfriendly and up close and personal look at the Seminoles during the ACC Championship game in a blow out defeat. Luckily for Coach Cutcliffe and company, a rematch will only come if the team can repeat last year’s magic and make it back to the conference title game. CFN doesn’t predict such a repeat, but it’s not outside the realm of possibilities either:
“The Coastal Division is as wide open as ever. Virginia aside, everyone has a legitimate shot finishing in first, a level of parity that was typified by Duke’s appearance in last year’s ACC Championship Game. The Blue Devils are no fluke, and are capable of returning to Charlotte again this December. Challenging them will be Miami, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Pitt, in no particular order.”
So why, then, are the Blue Devils picked to finish seventh in the Coastal Division? It appears as though CFN believes the wholesale changes across the board will cause a bit of instability in Durham for a team that may or may not be prepared to handle it.
While the Blue Devils as whole haven’t been given much preseason love by CFN, there are some individual accolades that were handed out. For starters, they are big fans of Coach Cutcliffe, ranking the reigning ACC and National Coach of the Year as the fourth best in the league following last season and the job he’s done since taking over.
“Brick-by-brick, he’s changed every facet of the culture, from the team’s offseason preparation and caliber of recruits to its execution on Saturdays. And the results went into hyperdrive with last year’s 10 wins and ACC Championship Game appearance. Cutcliffe’s 2014 challenge is to keep Duke on the rails, sans his best assistant, former offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. Untested first-time coordinator Scottie Montgomery takes over an attack that’s fueled the program’s recent success. Assistant John Latina warrants special recognition for his work with a vastly underrated Devil O-line.”
From a unit ranking, the Blue Devils’ offense is thought to be well ahead of the defense by CFN. It starts with the offensive line - a group that is ranked fourth in the entire ACC.
“A vastly underrated component of the Blue Devils’ recent success has been the blocking of a line that has allowed less than 20 sacks for three straight years. Three starters are back from the 2013 edition, with mauling pro-caliber OG Laken Tomlinson serving as the leading man for one final season. Duke hopes to seamlessly splice LG Lucas Patrick and RT Tanner Stone into the lineup now that Dave Harding and Perry Simmons, respectively, have graduated. Under David Cutcliffe, the Devils have gotten bigger and better conditioned at the line of scrimmage.”
That line will protect Anthony Boone, who checks in as the conference’s third best signal caller per the preseason rankings. For the first time in quite a while, the starting job is Boone’s, and he’ll likely be operating exclusively more than he has in the past with the departure of Brandon Connette to Fresno State.
“Boone hopes to build on his first season as the starter, in which he had bouts of greatness … and inconsistency. If Duke sees more of the strong-armed passer who shredded the Texas A&M defense in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, it’s going to be a prolific year for the entire offense.”
While Boone gets high marks, CFN is skeptical of a ground attack that lost Jela Duncan for the season, leaving the running back stabler ranked just ninth in the league heading into the season. But it’s not just Duncan the team will miss.
“Duke must replace three of last year’s top five rushers. Jela Duncan was suspended for the year, Juwan Thompson graduated and situational QB Brandon Connette transferred to Fresno State. Tasked with picking up the slack will be Josh Snead and Shaquille Powell, who combined for 995 yards and four scores last year.”
If Boone isn’t sure who will take the ball on handoffs, he will certainly have consistency when it comes to who will be catching passes. At least as the first option. Jamison Crowder is considered one of the best players in the ACC by CFN, and the rest of his supporting cast ranks sixth best in the league according to CFN.
“The Blue Devils have a go-to wide receiver, Jamison Crowder, and tight end, Brandon Deaver. Now, they’ve got to develop their depth and options in the passing game. Crowder doesn’t look the part, but he’s one of the best receivers in the country, a polished and cat-quick playmaker. And Deaver was more than just a Plan B for the quarterbacks, finishing second in catches, yards and touchdowns. What Duke needs this season is for one of last year’s reserves, Max McCaffrey, Issac Blakeney or Johnell Barnes, to make it hurt when defenses swarm Crowder.”
In summation, Duke’s offensive line is ranked fourth, the QB position third, the receivers are ranked sixth, and the running backs are ninth. It’s an average unit ranking of 5.4, which would be good enough to get to a fairly highly rated bowl game. However, the Blue Devil defense will need to quickly improve to help carry the team according to CFN.
With the Blue Devils employing a 4-2-5 scheme, the secondary must be stout. That seems to be the case this year, and CFN recognizes the talent, but also cites some inexperience concerns in ranking Duke’s defensive backs as the seventh best unit in the ACC.
“They possess some really good tools as they begin the quest to improve in pass defense. Duke housed two First Team All-ACC defensive backs in 2013, yet was No. 11 in the league in pass efficiency D. One of those standouts, S Jeremy Cash is back, but the other, CB Ross Cockrell, will be difficult to replace. The program is excited by the future of this position, because it used so many rookies a season ago. Playmaking corners Breon Borders and Devon Edwards, in particular, are now a year older and ready to defend the pass with a higher degree of consistency.”
Prior his injury this week, All-Conference performer Kelby Brown had the Duke linebackers ranked fifth in the league. Of course, Brown is now out of the season with another torn ACL, but CFN believes Duke is in a position to at least offer alternatives here.
“The Blue Devils didn’t lose any of their backups from last season, boasting six returning letter-winners for a school that only requires two starters in coordinator Jim Knowles’ 4-2-5 alignment.”
While the second two units of the defense are respectable in their rankings, the real trouble for the Blue Devils, according to CFN, begins up front. The defensive line is ranked just 11th in the league, and there are a ton of questions and concerns that must be answered.
“Opposing teams are going to have success running right at the Blue Devils this season. Not only did Duke have problems at the point of attack in 2013, but three productive D-line starters must now be replaced. Senior Jamal Bruce is the lone holdover at nose tackle. Those fighting to join him in the lineup will be senior ends Dezmond Johnson, Jonathan Jones and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, and sophomore DT A.J. Wolf. Johnson, in particular, has a ceiling that the staff hopes he can finally begin to reach in 2014.”
Prior to Brown’s injury, Duke’s defense checked in with the linebackers ranked fifth, the secondary at seventh, and the line at 11th. It resulted in a unit ranking of 7.7. However, Duke will most likely drop when the rankings are updated with the linebackers ending up around ninth or 10th.
The third unit on the roster, special teams, is also the highest rated of any position rankings. Duke ranks as the second best special teams unit in the conference per CFN thanks to a very strong kicking game - though one that needs to return to the form of two years ago.
“Sometimes, it’s the little things that transform a close loss into a gut-check win. Special teams often helped provide the difference for the Blue Devils last season. Duke arguably boasts the most complete unit in the ACC. Back for another season are PK Ross Martin, P Will Monday and PR Jamison Crowder, each of whom earned some level of All-ACC recognition. Plus, DeVon Edwards returned a pair of kickoffs back for touchdowns, en route to being named Freshman All-American as a return specialist. Martin was just 9-of-15 on field goals of 30 yards or more, which ought to improve in 2014.”
- CFN notes in more than one place that the loss of Connette will pose a big problem for Duke offense which was able to utilize the departed’s running ability in the red-zone in a very effective manner. Adding in the loss of Duncan means Duke will most likely have to change their approach to the red-zone in 2014.
- Jamison Crowder is ranked as the third best “Big Time Player” in the conference by CFN.
- Crowder, Tomlinson, Brown (pre-injury), and Jeremy Cash were rated as preseason First Team All-ACC performers. (Link). Crowder is ranked seventh in the conference, Brown 21st, and Cash 11th.
- DeVon Edwards earns second team preseason honors along with David Helton and Will Monday.