2003 Season Preview: Special Teams and Coaching

The third part of the preview will focus on the special teams, coaching staff, and the outlook for 2003. First year special teams coach Don Yanowski is looking to improve a phase of the game where Duke was soundly defeated last year. The Devils lost precious field position every game because of their deficiencies on special teams. One could make the argument that the special teams cost the Devils a few wins last year. Since Duke played so many close games, there is merit to this reasoning.

Punt Teams: The punt team was actually the best of the Duke specialty units last year. Junior Trey McDonald made significant progress in 2002. He and the other punters combined to average 37.9 yards per punt. This might not sound impressive, but McDonald did a credible job at getting hang time with his punts. This allowed the coverage team to get downfield to defend against the return. Duke ended up 5th in the ACC, with a net average 32.5 yards per punt. With nearly the entire depth chart and McDonald returning, this could end up being a strength for the Devils. One of the unsung jobs on any football team is the long snapper. They don't get noticed unless the screw up. Duke's senior Long Snapper Seth Carter is one of the ACC's best.

The punt return team was not nearly as successful, averaging a meager 5.8 yards per return, 8th in the ACC. This was only 0.1 yards out of last place and 2.5 yards out of 7th, so they were effectively last. At times, the Devils had horrendous problems fumbling punts, though they only had one turnover in this manner. Last years primary punt returner, Khary Sharpe, did not seem to have a knack for setting up blockers at the beginning of his returns. This is one area where a true freshman could earn playing time, if they can reliably catch the ball and gain positive yards. The silver lining to this cloud, however is that Duke did block two punts, one by Mark Wigal and another by Kenneth Stanford. Look for an emphasis on besting that total in 2003.

Kick Teams: This could have been the most disappointing unit on the Duke team in 2002. The Devils were at or near the bottom in every conceivable statistic concerning the kicking teams. Place Kicker Brent Garber struggled with his accuracy on field goals as he battled through a back injury. This also hurt in kick coverage, as Garber was not able to consistently reach the endzone with his kickoffs, and, many of his kicks were low. This, along with poor coverage, resulted in Duke finishing 8th in the ACC in kick coverage, giving up an average of 24.9 yards per return.

Duke was even worse in returning kicks, averaging a paltry 17.1 yards per return, the lowest average in the conference. When you add all the numbers up, Duke lost 25-30 yards in field position per game. Those sorts of things win and lose close ball games. Look for improvement in this area for 2003, as Chris Douglas will most likely be the primary kick returner. He was hampered by injuries last year, and was used only sparingly in this capacity. If he is 100%, it should help reverse the kick return fortunes of 2002.

Coaching: Returning for his 5th season, head coach Carl Franks will be looking to win an ACC game for the first time in three seasons. Franks served under Steve Spurrier at Florida and has designs for a similar offense as his mentor's "fun ‘n gun" style. Unfortunately for Franks, Duke's current personnel is better suited for a ground based attack. The talent level of the skill players has improved remarkable since he first arrived, but this has not translated into a potent offense as of yet. Franks seems to be a solid recruiter, as evidence by the talent level currently on the team. His game-day coaching and preparedness are, however, in serious question at this time. Good coaches find a way to get their teams to consistently play hard, and avoid coming out flat. Duke played hard at times, but also looked listless and uninspired at others during 2002. Coach Franks has received some slack these past few seasons, because of the dismal recruiting of his predecessor. The slack, however, is gone as now all the recruits in the programs are his. This will be the year he sinks or swims with them.

Defensive Coordinator Ted Roof injected life into the Duke defense, transforming the ACC's all time worst defense into a middle of the pack squad in one season. Duke even led the ACC in rush defense for the first time in recent memory. With 9 starters returning plus virtually every key reserve, the Devil defense should be even better this season. Roof has shuffled players to different positions to get the speed on the football field that Duke has been lacking in previous seasons. The 2003 unit will most likely be the fastest unit Duke had ever fielded. The attacking aggressive schemes will pay even more dividends this season. The one chink in the defensive armor last year was pass coverage. Duke must do a better job of disguising their defenses in order to confuse QBs on their pre-snap reads. This, along with improved secondary play and a more consistent pass rush, will allow Duke to better slow down the high powered passing attacks they will see this season.

2003 Outlook:

Most people agree that to improve the fortunes of Duke football for 2003, three key areas must be addressed.

One, the Devils must get better and more consistent play from the quarterback position. In too many instances, poor decision making cost the Blue Devils points in 2002. Early practice reports are saying that Adam Smith is throwing the ball well; a good sign indeed for the Blue Devil faithful.

Two, the Duke defense must defend the pass better than they did in 2002. This involves specific improvement in the following: more consistency rushing the passer, tighter coverage of the receivers by the defensive backs and/or linebackers, and quicker pursuit of a scrambling QB. If all of these areas improve even slightly, the Duke pass defense should rise out of the cellar in the ACC.

Three, the Duke special teams need to play even with or outplay the opposition. The offense was continually starting drives from their own 20-yard line, because the kickoff return team was unable to give them better field position. In the same light, the kickoff coverage was allowing returns out to the 35 or 40-yard line on a pretty regular basis. A team like Duke, who primarily runs a ball control offense, must have a shorter field to work with. The more plays you have to run to score a TD, the more likely your chances are of being stopped.

Many fans have the expectation of bowl eligibility from the 2003 Blue Devils. That translates into 6 wins at a minimum. This is arguably the most talented team Duke has fielded since the bowl season of 1994. The Devils should have a solid ground game and a stingy run defense. If the Devils can pass the ball more effectively on offense, they should be right around 5-6 wins. If they can add better pass coverage to the mix as well, 6-7 wins are attainable. If they are average or better in all facets of the game including special teams, a repeat of 1994 is not out of the question. The schedule sets up pretty well for the Devils to start out well. After a tough opener against Virginia, Duke will play five out of their next six at home, including three straight winnable games against Western Carolina , Rice, and Northwestern. A 3-1 record heading into the late September tilt against Florida State would definitely be a reasonable goal.

Duke has been an unlucky team the past few years, so they are due some good fortune. Fortune can be defined as "preparedness meets opportunity". With the talent in Durham this year, Duke has the opportunity. The question is ‘Are they prepared? The first four games will give us the answer.

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