With the graduation of three-time All-ACC CB John Talley along with Deonto McCormick, Duke will be lining up two fresh faces in the 2007 defensive backfield. All indications point to sophomore Leon Wright nabbing one of the slots. After a year of understudy, Wright will be expected to step in and at least partially fill the game-changing void left by Talley. Wright possesses great hands and good change of direction ability. What is not known, however is his ability to cover larger receivers. At 5'9" and 170 pounds, he will be at a size disadvantage to just about every receiver he faces. Still, if he is able to stay with them in coverage, it will be a big step in the right direction compared to previous years.
The other corner back spot is one of the biggest question personnel marks of the 2007 season. Junior Glenn Williams has played both corner and safety in his first two Duke season. He will probably open spring drills as the starter. The dark-horse candidate in the race is freshman gray shirt Matt Pridemore. Despite his inexperience, Pridemore is an elite level athlete with a tremendous vertical leap and explosive quickness. He enrolled at Duke in January and will receive the benefit of spring practice to get his feet wet at the college level.
Will the offense change significantly under new OC Peter Vaas?
Vaas spent last season as position coach for Heisman trophy candidate Brady Quinn. He brings a lengthy and successful resume to Duke, but has never been an offensive coordinator. With former OC Bill O'Brien moving on to the pro level last month, Vaas will encounter loads of trouble should he scrap the O'Brien offense and start from scratch. Expect Vaas to use the core of the 2006 Duke offense as a base and tailor it to his liking. With the experience of working under Charlie Weis, Vaas has a wealth of knowledge under his belt and should be able to inject more variety into an offense that was quite dysfunctional for most of 2006.
Are there any position changes to report?
It would not be a typical off-season around Durham if there were not a few position changes to report. As previously mentioned, expect Glenn Williams to move from safety back to corner to compete for the starting job opposite Leon Wright. The most interesting change will occur with one of Duke's best athletes. After seeing time under center and at wide receiver, junior Marcus Jones will switch sides of the ball this spring and try his hand at outside linebacker. With Duke's great WR depth coupled with the lack of personnel at LB this spring, Jones should receive plenty of quality reps. He should inject the position with speed and coverage ability that was lacking in 2006. Keep an eye out this spring as there is bound to be a few more surprises that have not seen the light of day yet.
Which new faces will make an impact?
Since the 2007 recruiting class will not report until the fall, we will focus on the players that red-shirted in 2006. The biggest impact will be felt on the offensive line. Ted Roof has been quoted as saying "This (2006) line class is the best class I've ever been associated with." Last season, Duke resisted the temptation to play the young linemen before they were ready. Only Jarrod Holt saw game action, and by the end of the season, he had locked down a starting assignment. This fall, the rest of the group will have a chance to show their mettle against some of the country's best defensive linemen. Mammoth Mitch Lederman (6'8", 320) will push for playing time at guard as will the athletic Rob Drum (6'6", 290). Marcus Lind (6'3" 280) will back up senior Matt Rumsey at center, while Jeff Cowart (6'5", 290) will get some looks at tackle. Wide receiver is another position where Duke will get a size upgrade. Redshirts Sheldon Bell (6'5", 205) and Jeremy Ringfield (6'6", 200) are imposing targets with soft hands that should further improve the already strong wide receive corps.
What is Duke's biggest position of strength?
On the surface, it appears that the wide receivers are the strongest unit on the team. Senior Jomar Wright and Junior Eron Riley are a nice blend of possession receiver and deep threat. Both players finished in the ACC's top 10 in receiving yards, which is quite an accomplishment for the conference's worst offensive team. Slot receiver Raphael Chestnut provides Duke with a reliable underneath receiver. Add Bell and Ringfield to the mix, Duke should be stocked on the outside for a few years to come.
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line should be the biggest strength for the Blue Devils. The anchor of the line is sophomore Vince Oghobaase. If he develops more play-to-play consistency in his second season, he will be one of the ACC's best. Despite the losses of multi-year starters Eli Nichols and Casey Camero to graduation, the Devils have talented replacements waiting in the wings. Junior Clifford Respress is the odds on favorite to start along side Oghobaase. One player to watch here is redshirt freshman Pontus Bondesson. At nearly 300 pounds with incredible brute strength, he should be physically ready to take on the strong BCS level offensive linemen seen on must fall Saturdays. The end positions will see plenty of competition for playing time as well. The projected starters are senior Patrick Bailey on the weak side and sophomore Ayanga Okpokowuruk on the strong side. If depth problems at linebacker force Bailey to that position, sophomore Ryan Radloff is more than capable of handling the starting duties. Okpokowuruk will have to fend off a challenge from sophomore Norm Gee to secure his starting spot. Redshirts Wes Oglesby and Patrick Egboh should also figure into the mix.
What are Duke's biggest weaknesses?
A team that won no games a season before is obviously going to have some weaknesses. Duke finished in the conference cellar in offense, and the largest culprit of the struggles was the offensive line. Despite gradual improvement over the course of last season, the Devils still struggled to provide consistent pass protection and also failed to provide a push in short yardage situations. The entire depth chart will return in '07; however that does not mean the same guys will be playing. A few of the talented red-shirt freshmen will seek to displace a few of the more seasoned upperclassmen. Right now, the only surefire starters on the line are G/T Cam Goldberg and C Matt Rumsey. RT Fred Roland probably has a spot locked up, but could be pushed by Mitch Lederman or Jarrod Holt. A mix of veteran and newcomers will battle for the remaining spot.
On the defensive side of the ball, the back seven will be under close scrutiny. At linebacker, Duke will have to replace five from the 2006 depth chart including starters Codey Lowe and Jeramy Edwards. Despite this daunting task, there is reason for hope here. Former QB/WR Marcus Jones will try out at WLB. While a little bit on the light side, Jones's athleticism should allow him to overcome his lack of bulk. LB/DE Patrick Bailey will work out at both positions during the off season, but it will be no surprise to see him lining up as the starting SLB come September. The starting WLB position for this spring will probably belong to junior Charles Robinson, but if Jones can make a smooth transition he could factor into the mix. The MLB is set with junior Mike Tauiliili firmly entrenched as the starter and sophomore Vince Rey as his backup. One wild card in this equation is Paul Thornton. He was a highly regarded prospect out of Texas a few years back, but an Achilles' injury has sidelined him for two seasons. He will surely have rust to work out, but he came to Duke with a reputation as a play-making linebacker. If he lives up to that reputation, he could allow Duke to move Bailey back to rush end.
What will the staff do to rectify the year-long special teams' debacle of 2006?
The first two steps in this process have already happened. First, Duke signed Punter Nick Maggio to compete with redshirt Kevin Jones for the punting chores. Duke was dead last in the ACC in gross and net punting. Getting an ACC caliber leg in the lineup will solve many problems. Second, Roof added special teams coach Danny Pearman to the staff to work with the inconsistent coverage units. This spring, Roof has stated he will bring in a kicking specialist to work with PK Joe Surgan on his mechanics and mindset. Surgan has a powerful leg and the natural talent to become a solid kicker. What he is lacking, however, is confidence in his abilities. Hopefully, these moves will allow Duke to get more production out of the kicking game.
Who are the leaders on each side of the ball?
Offensively, you want your QB to step up and control the action. The attitude, however, comes from FB Tielor Robinson. Despite transferring in after two seasons at Army, Robinson has proven himself to be an accountable football player on the field that brings toughness and grit to the offense. On defense, the vocal leader is MLB Mike Tauiliili and the most talented player is Vince Oghobaase. The true leaders of the defense and the key to its 2007 performance, however, are FS Chris Davis and DE.LB Pat Bailey. Both players will be seniors this fall and have a chance to be true impact players. Davis needs to be the stabilizing influence for the defensive backfield that will have much inexperience at corner. Bailey can provide Duke with a true pass rushing presence, a quality Duke has lacked for a few seasons now. If both players lead by example with good on-field player, Duke will be a much better defensive football team this fall.
What position battles are expected to be the most heated?
As stated before, both offensive guard positions are up in the air. If the staff decides that Jarrod Holt is their left tackle for the next three seasons, Goldberg will start at guard. The other spot will be a free-for-all between seniors Zach Maurides and Garrett Mason, Junior Rob Schirrman, and freshman Lederman and Rob Drum. The good news for Duke is that the talent level and overall numbers of lineman have improved significantly with the addition of the young guys. Fierce competition should significantly improve play up front.
At corner back, Leon Wright will almost assuredly be one starter. The other starter spot is up for grabs however. Matt Pridemore and Glenn Williams seems to be the two most think will compete for the job. Duke will get some help from the incoming recruiting class this fall, but for now, Williams and Pridemore are the best options.
Will Duke win a game in 2007?
Although there is no factual basis for saying so, expect Duke to start trending upward this fall. Despite having their 4th offensive coordinator in 4 seasons, the Devils have personnel continuity on that side of the ball. The entire depth chart at every offensive position returns this fall, not to mention the addition of talented redshirt offensive lineman. The biggest addition, however, will be the return of Sophomore QB Zach Asack. While his suspension runs until the end of this school year, he will surely be on campus the day his suspension ends, eager to officially rejoin his teammates for the 2007 season. This will give Duke the luxury of having two starting QB with at least 8 starts under their belts. Thad Lewis is firmly entrenched as the starter for the time being, but if he endures a sophomore slump the Devils now have a second option to turn to. With stability at QB along with good skill players and an improved line, expect Duke to put up better offensive numbers this fall.
Defensively, the outlook is not so rosy. Duke lost 3-time All-ACC CB John Talley along with experienced DT Eli Nichols and 4 other senior starters. Needless to say, Duke has some holes to fill on that side of the ball. The good news, however, is that Duke has recruited very well along the defensive front and that work should start paying off in 07. The Devils have a bevy of large, strong, athletic linemen which should minimize the impact of graduation loss. More concerning, however, is the back seven. If Duke cannot find corner back that can cover or linebackers that can pursue and tackle, they will be hard pressed to stop opponents from ringing up point at a fast clip. A switch from a 3-4 style defense back to the Ted Roof signature 4-3 should better utilize the available personnel. Still, Duke must find play makers in the back seven if they are to get on the winning track.
The schedule is quite daunting. Duke will once again play a rough ACC slate which includes Virginia Tech, Miami, and Florida State among others. The non-conference schedule does not provide much relief as bowl teams Navy and Notre Dame await Duke. Despite the tough schedule, they need to concentrate on things they can control, like execution of their own game plan. If the Devils had executed better in 2006, we would probably be discussing a team looking to improve on a 3-4 win season rather than how they can break a 20 game losing streak. So the question still remains, will Duke win a game this season? The easy answer would be no. In typical Duke fashion they will not live p to even the lowest of expectations. I, however, think Duke will finally start the long climb out of the abyss of the past 10 years. They will win a game this season. As a matter of fact they win several. Despite the schedule, 3-4 wins will be the result of the 2007 season.