Positional Preview: Special Teams

Of all the struggles of the 2006 Duke Blue Devils, none was more glaring than the performance on special teams. In past seasons, Duke has been at worst mediocre when executing this phase of the game.

Over the last few years, however, Duke has been performing worse and worse. This slide hit rock bottom last season as the special teams occasionally received mock applause from the home fans when successfully executing things that most programs regard as trivial, like extra points. The failure to do even the simplest things correctly directly led to one Duke loss and indirectly to a second. For a team with such a slim margin of error, mistakes on special teams cannot be afforded if victory is to happen.

Most of the struggles started with the season-long slump of place-kicker Joe Surgan. Despite showing consistency and accuracy during practice last season, he was unable to translate those traits to his game-day performance. Surgan has a powerful leg that could make him an effective college kicker. Most of his struggles however were directly tied to both his lack of confidence and inconsistent mechanics. The blocking up front did not do Surgan any favors either. Many teams were able to expose holes in the placekicking blocking schemes, which might have hurried Surgan into badkicks. To his credit, Surgan has not dwelled on his struggles of a season ago. He has been one of Duke's hardest working players this off-season. While many of his teammates headed to the beach for Spring Break, Surgan instead attended a kicking camp to work on his mechanics as well as the mental aspect of kicking. If he struggles again in 2007, it will not be because of a lack of effort in preparation.

With Surgan being the sole scholarship kicker on the roster, there is no question about the number one place-kicking job. The same, however, cannot be said about punting. With last year's starter graduated, the punting chores will either fall to redshirt freshman Kevin Jones or true freshman Nick Maggio. While Jones has a leg up because of the year already spent in the program, he will be pushed by Maggio, an all-state selection from Kansas. One ominous sign to ponder: Jones was unable to win the starting punting job on the 2006 team, which finished last in the ACC in both gross and net punting average. Jones has the inside track as of now, but the coaches will not hesitate to use Maggio should he prove to be the better punter this pre-season.

One shining light in an otherwise dark special teams season was the play of the kick return team. Jabari Marshall was 22nd in the country averaging slightly better than 25 yards per return. In addition, both Ronnie Drummer and Chris Davis have placed in the top-25 nationally in kick return average in their careers. Granted, Duke has received plenty of practice at this phase of the game during the last few seasons. Still, the Devils have a bevy of options when the need arises.

On the other hand, Duke has been miserable in returning punts for several years now. In 2001, former Dukie Ronnie Hamilton was one of the best in the country returning punts. Unfortunately, this was also the last season where the Devils did not finish at the bottom of the ACC in punt return yardage. This year, expect starting cornerback Leon Wright to try his hand at catching punts. Ted Roof has stated on at least two occasions that the staff was going to try several players out back there. Other candidate could include Matt Pridemore, Raphael Chestnut, or even true freshman Josh Trezvant.

Positional Strengths:

Kick Return Game – With Jabari Marshall, along with Chris Davis and Ronnie Drummer, the Devils are blessed with a trio of guys that have already proven to be dangerous return men. With the kickoff point moved back 5 yards to the 30 these guys will be able to return even more kicks.

Virginia Tech Flavor – One of the more subtle moves Ted Roof made in the off-season was the hiring of new tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Danny Pearman. Having descended from the Frank Beamer coaching tree, Pearman's knowledge of special teams techniques and philosophies should serve the Devils well this fall.

Positional Question Marks:

Pressure Situations – The Devils have been horrible at making clutch kicks over the past few seasons. Last year was probably the worst of the worst. For Duke to maximize their opportunity for victory this fall, they must make the special teams plays when they matter. They cannot get game-winning kicks blocked nor can they blow kick and punt coverages in tight games. These are the mistakes that separate teams that win games from teams that do not.

Net Punting – In a game that depends on field position, Duke cannot afford to give territory away so easily in the punting game. Yet in 2006, Duke gave away an average of six yards of field position every time they exchanged punts with their opponent. Six yards might not sound like a big number, but over the course of the season that added up to 276 yards of field position. Football is often referred to as "a game of inches". There are plenty of inches the Devils lost in 2006 due to their net punting average.

Bottom Line:

For the Devils to win football games this fall, they must execute special teams more efficiently than last season. If they do not, the Devils might be staring another winless season in the face. All of the hopelessness and despair of the fan base could have been somewhat alleviated by making that 27-yard field goal against Wake Forest but kicking and blocking breakdowns killed the Devils' chances. The entire 2006 football season can be summed up on Duke's final touchdown of the season. Patrick Bailey had just returned an interception for a touchdown to seemingly cap off a two touchdown 4th quarter deficit. The Devils had all of the momentum and were poised to tie the game. In true Duke fashion, the most routine play in football, the extra point, was botched. The Devils lost by one point.

Often times in the game of football, special teams can be taken for granted. Because of the negative effect special teams had on last season, the members of the 2007 Duke football team will likely do no such thing. There will be at least one contest this fall where the outcome will be decided on special teams. How Duke executes this phase of the game will win or lose this contest. From the kicker to the punter to every last man on involved with the kicking game, they must do everything in their power to turn around Duke's special teams, and team's, fortunes.

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