Duke will also be breaking in an important new coach. Bill O'Brien will be making his college debut as offensive coordinator for the Devils. He has a daunting task in front of him, as the offense has been the running joke of the ACC since 1998. The Devils have not averaged 20 points per game in the last 6 seasons, and it is O'Brien's job to break that streak of futility. Since this is the seasons' first game, both teams will be filled with adrenaline and excitement. Here's how the teams match up.
When Duke has the ball:
Under O'Brien, the Devils will be working with their 3rd offensive coordinator in 3 years. That said the results cannot be much worse than last year, when Duke finished next to last in Division 1 football in points scored. There is talent and experience to work with however. Quarterback Mike Schneider returns for his 3rd season under center. Last season, he actually had respectable numbers despite the overall putrid offensive output. He finished 6th in the ACC in passing efficiency and threw more touchdowns that interceptions. Still he must improve on his 133.5 yards per game average and limit bad decisions in the red-zone. He has one of the best arms in the conference, if not the country, and has the skills to emerge as one of the ACC's premier signal callers.
Aside from Schneider, Duke returns just about every other skill position player from 2004. Wideouts Ronnie Elliot and Jomar Wright will man the outside. The backups include junior Deon Adams, and promising true Freshman Eron Riley. Senior Cedric Dargan is injury-free and ready to make a run at 1000 yards. He has plenty of help carrying the load, with the sophomore "thunder and lightning" tandem of Justin Boyle and Ronnie Drummer. Both players could easily start, should something happen to Dargan.
Duke is also blessed with one of the nation's best set of tight ends in Ben Patrick and Andy Roland. At 270 pounds, Patrick combines good speed and hands for form a nightmare for opposing defenses. Roland is a great inline blocker and a reliable downfield receiver. After two seasons at linebacker, 260-pound bruiser Malcolm Ruff has moved to fullback. Having played running back as a freshman, he was able to quickly relearn blitz recognition and pickup, and is a devastating lead blocker.
The one position on offense that merits concern is offensive line. With a season-ending preseason injury to starting guard Bob Benion, the depth is more questionable then ever. The starting unit should be decent, however, with guards Jim Moravchik and Tyler Krieg having over 10 starts a piece under their belts. Center Matt Rumsey saw significant game action last year as a backup, and now takes over the starting role this season. The Tackle situation is a bit more questionable. Redshirt Junior Lav Bauta moved from guard in the spring to win a starting spot on the left side. Converted defensive tackle Demetrius Warrick moved over from the other side of the ball in the spring and will start on the right side. Bauta and Warrick are both at new positions in 2005; however, they both have significant game experience at other position, which will shorten their learning curve. Both have the requisite strength and agility to play tackle. It is not a question of experience.
On the other side of the ball, ECU will seek to improve their wretched performance of 2004. The Pirates fielded one of the worst defenses in Division 1 last season, giving up a shade under 40 points per game. They were bad against the run and the pass, allowing 220+ yards per game in both areas. There is hope for the Pirates, however, as the talent cupboard is not bare. The back 7 for the Pirates is shaping up to be respectable. The leader of the defense is junior MLB Chris Moore, one of the best linebackers in Conference-USA. He led the team last season with 89 tackles, including an eye-popping 13 unassisted in the season finale against Memphis. Not to be outdone, senior Richard Koonce also adds experience and ability to the unit, moving from end to linebacker during the offseason.
The Pirates are blessed with two good strong safeties in Zach Baker and Pierre Parker. Parker has started to emerge as a playmaker this preseason, recording several interceptions in intra squad scrimmages. Senior CB Demetrius Hodges is the top cover guy. The defense was weakened recently, however, as projected starting free safety Jamar Flournoy was suspended indefinitely by Holtz. His status for this weekend's contest is still up in the air. He was the 3rd leading tackler for ECU in 2004 while playing outside linebacker.
While there seems to be a few players in the back 7, the defensive line is another story. The Pirates were routinely dominated up front, giving up over 220 yards per game rushing and generating only 15 sacks on the season. They have some guys that look to bolster this year's unit, such as highly regarded newcomers like Marcus Hands and Brandon Setzer. Still, the group as a whole must significantly improve their level of play. Otherwise, it will be another long season for the Pirate defense.
When ECU has the ball:
The Pirates got a shot in the arm late this offseason, when 2004 starting QB James Pinkney was declared academically eligible for the fall. He brings experience and good ability to the position. He threw for slightly less than 200 yards per game and totals 18 touchdowns through the air. While not a great running threat, Pinkney can move when needed. One thing he needs to do, however, is cut down on the15 interceptions he threw last year. Talented JUCO transfer Aundrae Allison along with Bobby Good give Pinkney a couple of targets to throw to. Sophomore running back Chris Johnson is primed for a really good season in OC Steve Shankweiler's new offense, with big Jemarcus Veal paving the way. The offensive line returns 3 starters, including junior offensive tackle Eric Graham. The experience up front should help the offense perform a bit better than last season, where they averaged only 21 points per game against very mediocre defenses. There is depth at wide receiver, but very little elsewhere.
Unfortunately for ECU, they will be facing a Duke defense which might be the best unit they've fielded in over a decade. The Devils strength will start up front with the return of 2003 2nd team all-ACC player Phillip Alexander. His 2004 season lasted 5 quarters before he was sidelined with a broken leg. Now back to 100% and 25 pounds heavier, he should be a difficult matchup for even the best offensive linemen. Redshirt junior Eli Nichols was pressed into action last year, after the untimely death of Micah Harris. He responded with a solid campaign, recorded 3 sacks, 47 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. As the strongest member of the Blue Devil team, look for him to have a much greater impact in 2005. Senior Justin Kitchen started 9 games last season, and provides Duke with a very experienced option in reserve. Also competing for playing time are blue chip freshman Ayanga Okpokowuruk and sophomore Chris Moore. At the tackle spot, the starters do not have great bulk, but both Casey Camero (280 lbs) and Brian Sallee (290 lbs) are really good athletes that should give Duke a pass rushing presence from the inside. Camero played most of last season with a shoulder injury, but is completely healed form offseason surgery and is ready to take a great step forward in his 3rd season as a starter. Sallee is Duke's fist JUCO transfer since the 70s, and lasted all of one quarter last year before being cut down with a knee injury. He is also fully recovered and looking to make up for last year's lost season. The Devils are a bit thin after the starters however. The top reserve will be true freshman Clifford Respress. Eli Nichols can also slide down from his end position for spot duty.
At linebacker, Duke will have an interesting mix of experience and youthful talent. The elder statement is 5th year senior OLB Brendan Dewan. ECU fans might remember him from the 2002 contest. In his first game as a collegian, he returned a second-half interception for a TD, which proved to be the deciding points in Duke first win in 2 _ years. He will be joined by junior Codey Lowe, a key reserve from last season who now takes over the starting role from departed senior Guiseppe Aguano. The other linebacker spot will be manned by sophomore Patrick Bailey. Bailey was thrust into action last year as an extremely undersized defensive end due to all of the DL injuries of a season ago. Now a year older, 20 pounds heavier and significantly stronger, Bailey has been switched to linebacker. Expect good play from this position for the next three years. Duke has two reserve linebackers who have started games in the past. Junior Alex Williams stared a few contests a year ago. He is undersized, but is fundamentally sound and has good pursuit skills. Senior Deandre White has been Dewan's backup for the past 3 seasons, and provides Duke with a great coverage backer on passing downs.
The Devils have a few true playmakers in the secondary, led by all-ACC cornerback candidate John Talley. In 2004, Talley led the conference in passes defended and return two of his team-high four interceptions for touchdowns. He will be counted on to cover the opponent's best receiver. On the other side, junior Deonto McCormick looks to continue his solid play from the latter stages of 2004. Because of injuries, he was forced to switch from wide receiver to corner in mid-season. He responded by providing a key interception in Duke's upset of Clemson. As solid as the Devils are a corner, they might be even better at safety. Senior Brian Greene has 30 career starts under his belt. Having played corner his first two years at Duke, he provides the defense with a good two-way safety, solid in run support and in coverage. The other safety spot will be manned by electric sophomore Chris Davis. After establishing himself as a great return man last season, he is looking to do the same this season in his first as a starting safety. He will almost assuredly be a great one for the Devils. Backup C.J. Woodard is a ferocious hitter and provides Duke with a reliable option off the bench.
The Pirates are blessed with one of the country's better punters in Ryan Dougherty. He averaged 41.8 yards per punt in 2004, and placed 18 of his kicks inside the opponent's 20 yard line. ECU will rely on JUCO transfer Robert Lee to handle the kicking chores. The Pirates also have a very good return game with the dynamic Travis Williams returning punts and Chris Johnson returning kicks. Williams was one of the nation's best punt returners in 2004 averaging 17.7 yards per return. The Pirate coverage teams did not enjoy as much success, however, allowing over 11 yards per punt return and 24 yards per kick return.
Duke has some question marks on special teams that need to be answered on September 3rd. The Devils will replace 4-year punter Trey McDonald with JUCO transfer Chris Sprague. Sprague has punted well in the preseason, but needs to duplicate his practice field success to game situations. At kicker, Duke beat out Auburn and Florida for highly-regarded Floridian Joe Surgan. Surgan has a dynamite leg, but must adjust to kicking off the ground. He will definitely help in the kickoff game, where he recorded touchbacks on 90% of his kicks in high school, many of which were booted out of the back of the end zone.
If the kicks are returned, however, Duke will be in good hands. The Devils led the nation in kick coverage last season, allowing a paltry 15.2 yards per return. The punt coverage was almost as good, with Duke allowing only 3.3 yards per return. Half of the Duke return game is in good hands. Chris Davis was a freshman all-American for his work on kickoff returns. He was 3rd in the ACC and 12th nationally, averaging 25.8 yards per return. Davis will probably also get the first crack at returning punts, which Duke was woeful at in 2004.
ECU will be looking to make a good first impression under their new head coach, Skip Holtz. There seems to be a renewed sense of optimism around the program. The players and fans should be rocking and ready to go come 1 PM on the 3rd. On the other sideline, Head Coach Ted Roof appears to have Duke on the right track off the field. The Devils enjoyed their best recruiting season in a long time, and the young players have infused the program with an air of confidence that has lacked in previous seasons. ECU has something to look forward to in the near future, but Roof will have the Devils ready to take it to the Pirates. The home crowd might be a factor, but it's going to take some time to re-energize the demoralized Pirate fan base.
When East Carolina announced the hire of Skip Holtz as new head coach, many of the faithful probably looked at the 2005 schedule and figured his tenure could start off the proper way, with a win in his first game. Unfortunately for the Pirates, a lot has changed in Durham since the teams last locked horns in 2002. The Devils are not the pushovers of yesteryear, and will be a formidable initial challenge for Holtz and his staff. On the other hand, the Duke faithful look at this game as one they HAVE to win. On paper, ECU is the second-worse opponent Duke will face this year. For the Devils to take the next step and start moving into the middle of the ACC pack, they need to win games like this.
Both teams will try and establish the run. Duke will have some success on the ground, ECU will have very little. Still, the game will be decided by which teams can get pressure on the QB and force turnovers. While the Duke offensive line has questions marks, the same can be said for the ECU defensive front. Also, the Duke defensive line will prove to be a difficult challenge for the Pirate offense. The Duke defense was 3rd in the ACC in interceptions in 2004, and will record a few more on Saturday. Despite the relatively bad defenses of both squads in 2004, this will be a low-scoring game. Neither offense has the firepower to dominate the other defense. Duke, however, will have too much on defense for ECU to get any sort of offensive rhythm. They will force a few turnovers and Duke will capitalize. Expect field goals abound and 2-3 big plays from the Duke offense to be the difference.
Duke – 27
ECU – 17