After relative health during 2003, the Devils have been saddled with key injuries and bad fortune along the defensive line for the past two years. First, there was the tragic death of defensive end Micah Harris in June 2004. Then, the season started and Duke lost four more defensive linemen over the first few games, including 2003 second-team all-ACC DE Phil Alexander. Things got so bad Duke was forced to move a couple backup offensive linemen over to give the few healthy players a little respite. The team did not fare much better on the injury front in 2005. Touted freshmen Vince Oghobaase and Ayanga Okpokowuruk won spots on the two-deep chart, but missed the season because of knee and leg injuries respectively. Two or three others played through injuries that limited their effectiveness. In 2006, a relatively healthy defensive line would go a long way to reversing the fortunes of the Duke defense.
One starting quarterback:
For the better part of a decade, Duke has been searching for a rock-solid performer at quarterback. Signal-callers like David Green, Spencer Romine, D Bryant, and more recently Mike Schnieder, have shown flashes of greatness. None of them, however, gave Duke the consistency week-in and week-out needed to compete in the ACC. This spring, three players will vie for the starting role under center. Zack Asack, who ended the 2005 season as the starter, will enter 2006 atop the depth chart. He will, however, be pushed by two other challengers. Rising sophomore Marcus Jones brings great athleticism and dual-threat ability to the table. Redshirt freshman Gene Delle Donne is the best pure passer of the trio, and is a decent athlete in his own right. At the end of spring practice, TDD wishes that there be one clear-cut starting quarterback that the offense can be built around for the 2006 season.
One go-to wide receiver:
If Duke can find a starting quarterback this spring, he will need a go-to wide receiver to emerge. The Devils have not had an all-ACC caliber wide receiver since Scottie Montgomery in 1999. Part of that could be a function of Duke's anemic offense in that time span. Still, until recently, there has been a go-to wide receiver that can be counted on to get open and make the tough catch. Guys like Clarkston Hines, Corey Thomas, and Montgomery made plays when not expected. There are a few candidates on the roster, the most likely being Eron Riley, but one must step forward and be "the man".
(Plus) Five turnover differential:
The Devils were very generous in 2005, giving the football away much more than they received from their opponents. Overall, Duke was an ACC-worse -8 in turnover margin. There is a strong correlation between turnover margin and overall record. Rarely does a team with a negative differential in this category have a solid season. With Duke's narrow margin for error, they do not have the ability to overcome turnovers like some of the elite teams such as Miami, FSU and Virginia Tech. If Duke is to have success in 2006, they must take care of the ball. Conversely, they also most force their opponents into making mistakes. With the influx of talent along the defensive line, as well as the return of athletic cornerback Jabari Marshall, the Devils have a chance to make things happen on defense.
Twenty points per game:
Averaging 20 points per game for an entire season does not sound like a challenging feat, does it? Unfortunately, the Devils have failed to reach that mark even once in the last SIX seasons. During that time, Duke has usually been at or near the bottom of the heap in total offense nationally. In years 1999-2004, Duke would control the clock with the running game and move the ball effectively between the 20's. However, the Devils would often fail to seal the deal in the red-zone. 2005 provided an interesting twist to that rhythm of futility. Duke was 8th in the conference in red-zone offense, scoring just under 80% of the time. The biggest change was in the frequency of touchdowns in the red-zone. Duke was tops in the conference, scoring touchdowns on 67% of their trips inside the 20. For reference, NC State, Wake Forest, UNC, Maryland, and Boston College scored TDs in the red-zone 50% of the time or less. Of course, the largest indictment of Duke's offensive ineptitude is that they only had 24 trips into the red-zone all season. The next lowest figure was UNC at 31 trips. For Duke to breach that 20 point-per-game for the first time this century, they must get into scoring position more often and make the most of their opportunities.
Three All-ACC players:
This could be a lot to ask from a team that produced only one all-ACC candidate in 2005, cornerback John Talley. Still, the Devils need a few players to take that next step and become true forces in the conference. There are several obvious candidates, such as DE Eli Nichols, RB Justin Boyle, and MLB Mike Brown that could potentially make that leap. Even better would be for one or more of those players from the current roster who are on the cusp of breaking through. Guys like FS Chris Davis, OLB Patrick Bailey, C Matt Rumsey, and DT Casey Camero have a chance to take that step up prove that they are quality ACC players that merit some recognition.