Position Preview: Receivers and Tight Ends

Quick, which ACC team had two of the top 10 receivers in the conference in terms of yards-per-game? Of course, considering the source, you will answer Duke. While it is hard to believe, the Devils indeed placed two receivers in the top-10 of the ACC's yards per game list.

That is quite an accomplishment for an offense that only scored 15 points per game and was last in total offense. Heading into the 206 season, the receiving corps was considered a big question mark on an offense that was expected to struggle. While the offense did indeed struggle for most of the season, the receiving corps, especially the wide receivers, stepped forward and proved themselves to be the brightest spot on the entire team.

Heading the group of wideouts is senior Jomar Wright. His 40 catches and long of 54 yards were both season highs for the Devils. His 6'1", 200 pound frame along with his strength makes him a physical mismatch against most cornerbacks he faces. Wright is Duke's current active leader in receptions (61) and receiving yards (1,039). While not the fastest player, his strength allows him to catch balls underneath and break tackles for extra yards. He is especially dangerous as a 3rd down target.

On the other side, junior Eron Riley provides a nice compliment. While Wright takes the underneath and more physical routes, Riley has proven to be a dangerous deep threat during his first two years in Durham. His career yards per reception average (20.7) leads all active ACC receivers. Thought he has good speed, he is not a burner who will blow by coverages and outrun defenders. His forte is his jumping ability and timing to catch the ball at the highest point. With his 6'3" height and 35-inch vertical leap, he can get to the ball higher in the air than most defenders.

When Duke goes to 3 receiver sets, junior Raphael Chestnut gives the Devils yet another reliable pass catching option. He was actually the second-leading receiver on the 2006 squad, catching 39 passes. Chestnut's role is primarily a "move-the-chains" type receiver as he has the best hands of the top-3. He does have enough speed, however, to make a defender pay for cheating up.

The Blue Devil receiving corps does not stop there. The unit will receive a "super-sizing" this fall with 2006 recruits Sheldon Bell (6'4) and Jeremy Ringfield (6'5") in action. Both players spent a year on the sidelines learning the college game and getting adjusted to the increased physicality. With a red-shirt year under their belts, they will be use their height and skills to contribute when needed.

While some players sat out the spring with injury, junior Ryan Wood might have forced his way on to the field with his on-field work. He is not a speedy guy, but has excellent hands and route-running ability. He has received praise from WR coach Scottie Montgomery for his mastery of technique and the "can-do" attitude he brings to the field every day. Regardless of how much time Wood spends out wide, he will see plenty of the field this fall serving as the full-time holder for placekicks.

Incoming freshman Josh Trezvant could also see time as a slot receiver and kick/punt returner. He enters Duke with a reputation of being a dangerous deep threat.

While wide receiver seems to replete with solid depth, less is known about the tight end spot. Fifth year senior Nick Stefanow will be the starter for the second straight season. After the departures of Andy Roland and Ben Patrick after the 2005 season, Stefanow was thrust into the starting role a bit sooner than expected. Because of offensive line problems, he was often required to help out in pass protection. This extra blocking responsibility coupled with a mid-season injury resulted in a very low reception total. When healthy, Stefanow is a good receiver that can win matchups against linebackers in coverage. He is one of the team's strongest players and is a willing blocker; however, his lack of bulk (235 lbs) limits his effectiveness in one-on-one blocking assignments against larger defenders. The good news for Stefanow, however, is that Duke has two larger bodies in the fold to take on that responsibility.

Sophomore FB/TE Brandon King is a very strong, explosive blocker who has much more size that Stefanow. At 260 pounds, he can stand toe to toe with most of the big guys in the trenches.

Redshirt freshman Brett Huffman (255 lbs) is in a similar mold as King. Both players are physical, hard-nosed maulers that should significantly improve Duke's blocking at tight end. However, none of the players list scare opposing defenses with their receiving ability.

Incoming freshman Danny Parker is a bit on the light side at 225 pounds, but is a great athlete and can run faster than most linebackers. Thought the staff has the intention of redshirting as many of the incoming freshmen as they can, Parker's receiving skills from the tight end position may be too valuable to leave on the sidelines.

Positional Strengths:

1. Size on the outside – Duke will line up an imposing group of pass-catchers this fall. The expected top-6 receivers heading into the fall all stand at least 6'1". Half of the group stands at 6'3" or taller. The redshirt freshman duo of Sheldon Bell and Jeremy Ringfield are both at least 6'4". With all of this size, expect lots of high throws and jump balls in the passing game as well as plenty of broken tackles. After years of employing smallish receivers, Duke now has enough true size and abilty to cause match-up problems for opposing defenses.

2. Exoerience – Duke's top three receivers all caught at least 30 passes a season ago. Starting TE NickStefanow is a 5th year senior that started all 12 games last fall. These players are used to the competition level they will be facing and should have the know-how and ability to get open. QB Thad Lewis should have developed a rhythm and rapport with the returning guys, which will almost undoubtedly improve the efficiency of the passing game.

3. Blocking – Size and experience also aid receivers in other areas. These players have a lot of practice reps and know how to block in space. Their size and strength will make a defensive back's job much tougher when trying to support in the running game. Wright is physical mismatch against most of the receivers he faces. Riley, Bell, and Ringfield are also big strong guys that should be difficult to discard once they lock on to their defender. At tight end, Stefanow might lack a little bulk, but he is one of the team's strongest players. Brett Huffman and Brandon King are both pile-driving type blockers that can engage all but the biggest defensive linemen in the running game.

Positional Question Marks:

1. Jets – While all of the receivers are average size or better, none are the "home run" hitting type. Eron Riley is probably considered the best deep threat. He has enough speed to get by defenses, however, will not win that many long foot races with ACC-level cornerbacks. Jomar Wright can be very difficult to bring down, but he does not really scare people deep either. Chestnut is an underneath possession receiver with reliable hands but not top-end speed. Ringfield , Bell, and Wood, are all guys with good hands but will not scare anyone with their speed. Incoming freshman Josh Trezvant might be the blazer Duke needs here, but relying on a true freshman to play big minutes is a risky proposition.

2. Consistency – Granted the Devils had three players with 30+ plus catches. What is not highlighted in that statistic, however, is the number of drops. A perfect example from the 2006 season was the first play from scrimmage against Wake Forest. Duke ran a great play-fake that sucked the safeties up. Thad Lewis delivered a perfect strike to Jomar Wright over the top of the defense. All Wright had to do was catch the ball and he could have walked on his hands into the end-zone. That drop cost the Devils a chance to quickly gain the upper hand in a contest where every point counted (Duke lost by 1). Wright is not the only receiver that dropped a pass like that. Duke needs to capitalize on every opportunity it receives, and

3. TE Depth – While Stefanow is a 5th year senior, there is not a lot of playing experience behhnd him. Even Stefanow was a spot player his first two seasons mostly on special teams, and missed a handful of starts last year due to injury. King played special teams and saw some offensive snaps, but is only a second year player. Huffman and Parker have not played a college snap. The younger players have talent, but do not have game experience to rely on for their success. Stefanow is a solid player, but the Devils will need at least one, if not more, of the younger players to step up and be a solid contributor.

Bottom Line:

The top three wide receivers on the Duke depth chart are solid ACC-caliber players. That seems like a foregone conclusion for most teams, but it has not been the case for Duke in quite some time. Jomar Wright and Eron Riley are a good starting combo, and slot receiver Rafael Chestnut is a dependable 3rd option. Early practice results for Bell and Ringfield are very encouraging, and Ryan Wood showed his stuff this spring. Those six, along with Trezvant, give the Devils good depth on the outside.

Tight end seems to be a bit more worrisome. While Stefanow is an experienced starting option, his backups include a part-time FB (King), a promising red-shirt freshman (Huffman), and a talented true freshman (Parker). Compared to most previous years, Duke is sorely lacking in experience here. Still the one thing that counts more than experience is talent. With Huffman, King and Parker, you have three young, talented football players. As a whole, the receivers should be considered a plus for the football team, and will be a main factor in Duke offensive success in 2007.

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