Position Preview: Quarterbacks

The 2007 Positional Preview series kicks off with what many expect to be one of the strongest groups on the roster - the quarterback position. Sophomore starter Thaddeus Lewis will lead Duke into the season with capable back-up Zack Asack vying for snaps.

At this time last season, the Duke coaching staff was in a panic about the quarterbacking situation. 2005 starter Zack Asack had just been placed on academic suspended for the upcoming season, while rising 5th year seniors Mike Schneider and Curt Dukes received their degrees and had elected not to return in 2006. To top it all off, freshman Gene Delle Donne had transferred to Middle Tennessee State. This left head coach Ted Roof with few options.

Option number one was sophomore Marcus Jones, who had lined up a few times under center but was primarily a wide receiver. Option two was true freshman Thaddeus Lewis, fresh from the high school ranks. Option number three was… well there was really no option three. Clifford Harris was supposedly the third option, but he was basically a single-wing tailback when he was receiving snaps. The staff anointed Jones as the number one guy heading into the fall; however it was readily apparent to practice observers that Lewis was a far superior long-term QB prospect.

After both QBs struggled in an embarrassing season-opening loss to 1-AA Richmond, Ted Roof made a very gutsy decision; he was going to elevate Lewis to the starting role and leave him there to take his lumps. Lewis responded to his first college start by leading the Devils to within an eyelash of upsetting eventual ACC champion Wake Forest. He struggled with consistency and injuries in subsequent contests against big-time competition like Alabama, Miami, Virginia Tech and Florida State. Still, Lewis was able to right the ship late in the season. In the final two contests, his stat line reads as follows: 39 completions out of 67 attempts (58%) for 522 yards and 6 touchdowns. The strength of his season ending performances cemented his hold on the starting job heading into the 2007 season.

With Lewis firmly entrenched as the starter, the question then shifts to the backups. The Devils were graced with very good news after the spring semester of this year, as Zack Asack returned to school following his suspension. Unlike last season when Duke had no proven quarterbacks on the roster, the coaching staff now has two ACC-tested QBs at their disposal. While the pecking order is set heading into preseason practice, expect Asack to put his nose to the grindstone in practice and remind the coaches why he started nine games during the 2005 season. The Blue Devil offense should be in good hand should Lewis go out with injury.

What will Duke do should Lewis and Asack get hurt? True freshman Mike Capetto, a Michigan product, will serve as the 3rd stringer. Capetto has a very good arm and comes with a reputation for throwing accuracy. If Ted Roof has his way, the only snaps Capetto will take this season will be on the practice field. He will almost assuredly dress for every game, but it will take injuries to both Lewis and Asack for Capetto to step on the field this fall. Should Duke need an emergency QB for a few plays, 2006 3rd stringer Cliff Harris will fill in.

Position Strengths:

1. Moxie - Despite Duke being 0-12 in 2006, Lewis showed the ability to put his team in position to win football games by staging late-game comebacks. Against Wake Forest, the Deacons took a late 1-point lead and Duke was required to run a 2-minute drill to get in field goal position for a chance to win. Lewis responded flawlessly and set the Devils up with a 27-yard FG try for the win. Down four late in the game against Miami, Lewis drove the offense down the field and gave Duke a chance to win the game from the 6-yard line on the last play. Not many quarterbacks have the nerve required to excel in these situations. Lewis is one that can.

2. Proven Backup – With Asack back on the roster, Duke has a proven backup that can throw the football at the ACC-level. Asack can also present different challenges for defensive coordinator should offensive coordinator Peter Vaas want to mix up the offense. Asack was a sprint champion in high school and can outrun most front seven defenders

3. Ability – Lewis threw for the most yards by a true freshman in ACC history, and the fourth most among any freshman. He did struggle at times with accuracy and judgement; however one thing was quite evident when watching him play: When Lewis had time to throw the football, he found open receivers and delivered the ball with accuracy. He has the arm strength to make any throw in the passing game. Last year's struggles taught him how to deal with adversity and he will be a MUCH better QB in 2007 because of it.

Position Question Marks:

1. Shallow Depth – Duke basically has two quarterbacks for the 2007 season. For many teams, two is usually enough manpower for the position. Duke, on the other hand, gave up 43 sacks last season. That number was far and away the worst in the conference. That forced the third quarterback in a two player depth chart to have to play significant minutes in 2006. While the Devils do have an actual third QB on the roster this fall in Mike Capetto, Roof would prefer not to allow the Michigan product to burn his redshirt.

2. Decision Making – Lewis's fine rookie campaign was diminished somewhat by his low touchdown to interception ratio (11/16). Some of the turnover can be credited to great plays by the defense. Others, however, were desperation heaves that he would have been better off eating for sacks or throw-aways. Also a bit troublesome was his pedestrian 53% completion percentage. If Duke is to score enough points to win league games this year, both numbers must improve. Asack also has question marks here as well. During his 2005 starting stretch, he only completed 50% of his passes. Granted, both players were true freshmen when they compiled these numbers. A 60% completion percentage and a touchdown to interception ratio of greater than 1 should be attainable goals for the 2006 campaign.

3. Changes – Making the transition from high school to college is tough enough by itself. Playing football in the ACC as a true freshman is even tougher. Starting at quarterback in the ACC as a true freshman is a nearly impossible chore. Now Lewis (and Asack) must face another transition in the form of a new position coach and a new offense. Last year's QB coach Bill O'Brien now works at the NFL level. Ted Roof went out and hired Peter Vaas as a replacement. Vaas spent last season tutoring All-American and 1st round NFL draft pick Brady Quinn. Ted Roof has insinuated that the offense will probably not change much, but there will undoubtedly be some adjustment period to the new coaching style, tempo, and play-calling. This change might end up being a big positive; however, the net result will not be known until September 1st against UConn.

Bottom Line:

This is the best quarterbacking situation Duke has been in since 1994 which happens to be the last time Duke had a winning record. That season, a junior named Spence Fischer led the Devils an 8-4 record and their last bowl game. What most people do not remember about that team was the fact that Duke had a very competent backup in Joe Pickens. After his days at Duke, Pickens was invited to an NFL training camp despite not having started a game in college.

Fast forward to 2007, and Duke has two talented players to run the offense. Some teams are scrambling to find one QB they like and yet 0-12 Duke has two. Thad Lewis has all-ACC potential and Asack has shown he can be a productive passer at the collegiate level. All in all, this should be considered a position of strength for Duke. Peter Vaas has indicated that Duke is going to throw the ball much more this fall than in 2006. Because of this, expect Lewis to throw for over 2500 yards and double his TD total from a season ago. The volume of passes thrown will likely precipitate a sizeable interception total. Regardless, a few interceptions are a fair price to pay for what is expected to be an effective passing game that will assuredly put plenty of points on the board for Duke in 2007.

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