SIRK’S RECOVERY AND RUST
When Thomas Sirk went down in February with what would turn out to be a ruptured left Achilles tendon, the idea that the then fourth year junior had played his final game in Durham didn’t seem all that far fetched. And, if that was the case, it was a nice thing to have ended Duke’s bowl drought in his final game.
However, leading into camp the Blue Devils are excited to welcome a full cleared Sirk back to the practice field. But what does full cleared really mean? On Monday it seemed to mean that SIrk will compete in all active QB drills, but his workload would be heavily monitored according to head coach David Cutcliffe who likened his quarterback’s situation to a pitch count.
“There’s a little bit of mystery,” said CUtcliffe in regard to Sirk’s recovery and type of injury.
There’s a full month of practices before Duke opens against NC Central in a game where the Blue Devils will be favored by a lot. During that time the Blue Devils will continue to monitor Sirk’s progress and evaluate his progression on a daily and weekly basis.
The big question is how Sirk recovers and how much rust he has to shake off heading into, ultimately, the second game of the season.
On the off chance Sirk isn’t ready to go, Duke will look to backup Parker Boheme, a fourth year player in the program who started against Pittsburgh last season and passed for more than 250 yards in a blow out loss. Boehme will likely get some more use this season as he auditions for the role he played all spring — Duke’s QB1.
The junior will likely be pushed by redshirt freshman Daniel Jones who has drawn strong reviews throughout his time in Durham.
SPECIALISTS WITHOUT EXPERIENCE
When you’re in tight games, being able to control the game in terms of not leaving points on the board and establishing field position are two critical points of emphasis. And so it is no surprise that a big question heading into the season is how Duke transitions from one of the top specialist duos in the country.
Gone are kicker Ross Martin and punter Will Monday - both of whom were crucial cogs in sending the Blue Devils to four straight bowl games. While the former Blue Devils are working for roster spots with the Jets and Steelers, their replacements are preparing for their first college games.
True freshman A.J. Reed will take over as the kicker while redshirt freshman Austin Parker will step in as the punter. Both have huge shoes to fill and with Duke’s much improved strength of schedule, there’s not much room for a learning curve.
FINDING A PASS RUSH
Special teams isn’t the only point of concern for Duke. Throughout the 2015 season the Blue Devils seemed to struggle to generate anything close to a pass rush. That meant the defensive backs were often put on islands as opposing quarterbacks had enough time to survey the field without being harassed.
Fast forward a year and Cutcliffe’s team has, according to the coach, made “visual progress” in getting bigger, faster, and stronger. The Duke coach termed his team’s off-season work as “the year of the beast”.
Keep an eye on the interior of the defensive line where third year tackles Edgar Cerenord and Quaven Ferguson are players to watch behind starters Mike Ramsay and A.J. Wolf. Ferguson tweaked his knee last month and required minor surgery, and is being eased back into practice.
Meanwhile the Blue Devils will also look to get more on the edge from second year players Marquies Price and Trevon McSwain. Another player on the radar as a potential difference maker is Danny Doyle who was first mentioned by Ben Humphreys in Spring Practice before famously earning a scholarship in May.
WHICH KIDS WILL PLAY?
He’s on record as saying he’d love to redshirt every freshman who comes into the program, but head coach David Cutcliffe is also willing to play those players who arrive in Durham ready to play immediately.
Finding your way onto the field as a true freshman usually comes down to a mixture of talent and opportunity. Some freshmen are further along and more ready to play from day one, but there has to be a need on the depth chart as well.
Duke rarely, if ever, misses a chance to redshirt offensive linemen so that means high major recruits such as Julian Santos, Liam Smith, and Robert Kraeling are likely not factoring in this season.
At tight end Duke has both a lot of upperclassman talent and a big time freshman coming in. So while Mark Birmingham could easily be ready to play from day one, it’s likely he’ll grab a shirt this year as Daniel Helm and Erich Schneider occupy the top two depth chart spots.
One freshman who is almost a lock to break through is wide receiver Scott Bracey. The 6-foot-2, 200 pound freshman was one of the top recruits in the country and will fill an immediate need at receiver with his rare combination of speed and athleticism. If Duke is looking to take some more shots down the field, Bracey is a great place to start.
Similarly, Duke may very well find a place in the stable for freshman running back Brittain Brown who comes into camp at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds. It’s not out of the question to see Brown challenging as the second power back on the roster behind Jela Duncan while Shaun Wilson remains on the outside as the speed guy.
January enrollee Mark Gilbert was ranked as the top cornerback in North Carolina in the class of 2016 by Scout.com and the true freshman could challenge to break into the two-deep at cornerback. Similarly, safety Dylan Singleton was one of the top 200 players in the country regardless of position and while he may not start early on, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the younger Singleton break into the rotation.
Freshman kicker AJ Reed is also expected to be the top kicker on the roster.