2006 Preview: Receivers & Tight Ends

Duke will welcome back its best two big-play receiving threats in junior Jomar Wright and sophomore Eron Riley. Wright was off to a good start in the 2005 campaign when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Navy game.

At that point, he was the teams leading receiver, averaging almost 20 yards per catch with a touchdown. He should once again be ready for full contact when preseason practice starts.

Toward the end of last season, Duke was able to establish a true big-play presence at WR with the play of Eron Riley. Despite only catching 11 passes on the season, he averaged 22.5 yards per reception and scored twice. He displayed great timing and used his large frame to out-muscle defensive backs for jump balls, while also showing deceptive speed after the catch. With Wright and Riley, Duke has a chance to make a play every time the ball is thrown their way.

The race for the backup receiver slots is completely up for grabs. Deon Adams, the leading candidate for 3rd receiver, was dismissed from the team after spring practice. Except for a rare cameo at wideout, multi-talented Marcus Jones will be a full-time QB this fall. This leaves the backup receiver jobs open for audition. Right now, sophomore Raphael Chestnut appears to be the front-runner. He's not as physically imposing as Riley or Wright, but he is probably the quickest receiver on the roster.

Sophomores Marvin Marcelin , Kris Stubbs, and Ryan Wood will also compete for the other backup receiver slots. There is also big help coming in the freshman class. Both incoming freshmen Jeremy Ringfield and Sheldon Bell are physically imposing targets, each measuring at least 6'4". One or both could step up and provide some depth and possibly a goal line option. Bell has the more college-ready body, but Ringfield is the more polished receiver at this point.

The X-factor is converted CB Jabari Marshall. While he has yet to suit up for Duke because of a redshirt season and academic suspension, his speed and athletic ability give Duke a true home run threat.

The Devils will also need to replace lots of production at the tight end position. Departed seniors Andy Roland and Ben Patrick accounted for 43 receptions and over 400 yards off offense. Returning junior Nick Stefanow will be counted on to step in and fill the void. He saw extensive action last season on special teams and played in the goal-line package. His role in the normal offense should be increased dramatically. Redshirt freshman Norm Gee has displayed sure hands in practice and provides good size and strength for the position.

Duke signed three tight ends in the 2006 recruiting class and at least one of them will play this fall. Florida product John Lubischer is a big, strong player that could help in short yardage situations. William Ball is a smaller, H-Back type player that is a very likely redshirt candidate. Ohio native Brett Huffman is a combination of size (240 lbs) and speed (4.6, 40) that can be an effective blocking and receiving threat. He is the most likely of the freshmen to see game action.

The Good News:
Duke has some legitimate threats on the outside. The starting duo of Riley and Wright has averaged almost 20 yards a reception during their careers. After years of running shorter guys to catch, the Devils will have large targets to hit in 2006. All of the receivers in the rotation will be at least 6'1", and Riley provides Duke with a jump ball threat at 6'4". The improved athleticism outside should allow for more big plays by the wide receivers. That spreads the field out to give the running game more room to operate.

The Bad News:
Duke lost the top 3 receivers from the 2005 squad, including two very experienced tight ends. Despite the promise of Riley and Wright on the outside, they have only combined for only 37 total career receptions. Next on the experience list is Marcus Jones, and barring a major turn of events, he will not line up at receiver this fall. There will be route mistakes and blown assignments in this group attributable to lack of playing time. The tight ends will have to block like veterans to help out the more inexperienced offensive line. There is plenty of potential at all of the receiver positions. Unfortunately for Duke, potential is one of the most dangerous things in football. That means they have not performed consistently on the college level, save possibly Jomar Wright.

What will happen:
The starting duo of Riley and Wright will catch at least 60 combined balls. The other receivers, however, will suffer some growing pains here with dropped passes and incorrect routes. This will be somewhat offset, however, by flashes of stellar play. Jabari Marshall and Raphael Chestnut will provide some top-line speed to compliment Wright and Riley's size. At tight end, Stefanow will prove to be an adequate replacement for departed senior Andy Roland. Norm Gee will provide a few receptions and a blocking presence to help the offensive line. The wildcard at TE is Brett Huffman. He has the speed, hands and physical nature to be a very good college tight end immediately. If he can grasp the complexities of the college game quickly, he will be a mainstay in the lineup.

Is this group Not Ready, Can Compete, ACC-ready, Good as any team?
Can compete.

Preseason Superlatives:
Most important player: The 2005 Duke passing game was slowly starting to show signs of life after a disastrous start. The Jomar Wright suffered his season-ending injury, and the passing game was back to square one. Wright had shown a knack for being the go-to receiver on 3rd down, and without that option available, the Duke offense was sunk. With Wright back in the lineup, the Devils will have that option back and the offense should run more smoothly as a result.

Biggest surprise: After seeing limited action during his freshman campaign, Raphael Chestnut appears poised to grab hold of the 3rd receiver role. He is not the biggest player around, but he has the quickness and hands to make an impact at the ACC-level.

Ready to break out: Eron Riley burst onto the ACC scene late last year with several clutch catches at crucial times. At 6'3" 200 lbs, Riley has the size to overpower ACC cornerbacks and his ability to time his leaps for high throws gives him an advantage over almost everyone who guards him. Combine his size with good speed and glue-like hands, Riley appears poised to make a huge step forward in 2006.

Time to step up: Junior TE Nick Stefanow has been an understudy to some pretty good players for the past 3 seasons. Now, he is atop the depth chart and must help fill the void left by those before him. As the only non-freshman on the depth chart, Stefanow needs to be the leader of the group both in the locker room and on the field. A good performance here will give the offense some much needed upperclassman leadership.

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