The punting job, however, is not as cut-and-dried. Junior Alex Feinberg and freshman Kevin Jones have been locked in a preseason battle to with the starting nod. Jones possesses the stronger leg, but Feinberg has shown to be more accurate and can generate more consistent hang time. Right now, Feinberg seems to have the lead in this battle, but the final decision will probably not be made until right before the Richmond game. Long-snapper Casey Hales returns for his third season, and provides Duke with reliability crucial to special teams execution on field goals and punts.
The kickoff coverage unit could be one of the best around this fall. Hopefully the "sky-kick" strategy is a thing of the past and Duke will let the coverage team cover. Ayanga Okpokowuruk and Ryan Radloff both are big fast guys that will be the wedge-busters. Reserve linebacker Zach Smith is a standout coverage man. The punt coverage team will need to replace gunner CJ Woodard, but the rest of the unit remains intact. Duke has been a good to excellent punt coverage team the past two seasons. With Sprague gone, it is incumbent upon his replacement to get hang-tine on punts to allow the coverage team to get downfield.
The kickoff return unit has been a positive for Duke over the past several seasons. In each of the last two years, Duke has returned at least one kickoff for a touchdown. The leading candidates to serve in the kick return role are two of the fastest players in the ACC, Jabari Marshall and Ronnie Drummer. Leon Wright and Clifford Harris will also see time in this role. The punt return team has not been as successful. Chris Davis handled the chores adequately last season, averaging 7.6 yards per return. This year, expect Leon Wright to take Davis's place. Wright has a more natural return ability and speed than Davis. WR Rafael Chestnut should also split time here as well.
The Good News:
Duke has a chance to score a touchdown on every kick return with the game-breaking speed of Drummer and Marshall. Wright has been a big-play machine in practice and should give Duke a much more threatening presence on punt return. Expect the kick coverage to be markedly improved with a pair of large-bodied wedge busters and better athletes across the board. Surgan's leg gives Duke a long-range scoring threat that will help the Devils get all the points they can on the board.
The Bad News:
Despite Surgan's leg strength, he has been prone to hooking the ball at times. This is a concern on kickoffs as well. Neither Feinberg nor Jones has really stepped up and taken the starting punting job. Neither has been horrible, but right now it looks like Duke will be hard-pressed to replace the consistency of Sprague.
Is this group Not Ready, Can Compete, ACC-ready, or Good as any team?
Coverage and return teams, ACC-ready. Kickers, can compete.
Most important player: After a good but not stellar freshman campaign, kicker Joe Surgan must become a reliable option for Duke. With the predicted struggles of the offense looming, having a reliable kicking option to get points on the board is of the utmost importance. Surgan's leg strength is not in questions, and if he can improve his reliability, Duke could have one of the better kickers in the conference.
Time to shine: After spending last season away from the University, Alex Feinberg has returned to the team and is now in line to handle the punting duties for the 2006 Blue Devils. A highly regarded kicker coming out of high school, he has not been able to duplicate his prep success at the college level. Instead, he is now #1 on the punter depth chart and has big shoes to fill from the graduated Chris Sprague. So far this fall, he has shown good placement as well as more than adequate height on his kicks. During the last few seasons, the Duke punt team has seen plenty of action. Given the struggles expected from the offense, the Devils will probably be facing more of the same in 2006. Having a reliable punting option will give the coaching staff one less problem to worry about.
Look out ACC: The skill level of the Duke special teams, especially the ability of the return men is as high as in recent memory. Ronnie Drummer is already a proven commodity returning kicks. Now when teams kick away from Drummer, they will have to contend with a player just as fast or even faster in Jabari Marshall. Duke has lacked a game-breaking punt returner for some time now, but the emergence of Leon Wright and Rafael Chestnut gives Duke the ability to change field position or even score with this unit.