10 Questions For Spring Practice

Spring Practice 2008 brings with it an sense of change around the Duke Football program as new head coach David Cutcliffe will lead his new program onto the field for the first time. TDD poses 10 pressing questions facing the new coaching staff heading into the season.

With the "second season" of college football rapidly approaching, the Duke Blue Devils will officially be taking the practice field for the first time under new head coach David Cutcliffe. After failing to make any tangible progress under former coach Ted Roof, the Devils turned to the former Ole Miss headman as the latest "savior" of this floundering program. Cutcliffe has come in and immediately made his mark on the program, setting clear expectations for the players and sharply increasing the rigor of the offseason conditioning program.

Spring practice will represent the first real chance Cutcliffe has to reshape the Blue Devil football team from a 1-11 disaster a year ago to a team who Roof a year ago promised would be bowling this fall. The most pressing items on the staff's place are installing the new offensive and defensive systems, refining the special teams, and evaluating the current roster on the practice field. TDD will pose ten questions about Duke football that should be answered after spring ball.

Question one: Will the change in coaching staff eventually lead to a quarterback controversy?

This could possibly happen. Duke's 1-11 overshadowed the finest season by a Duke QB in a decade. Lewis threw for 2400 yards with 24 TDs and 10 interceptions. It seems that given this production under very adverse conditions, Lewis would have the job wrapped up. As Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast my friend!" Two prominent negatives Lewis displayed in 2007 were ball security and the propensity to take sacks. These two attributes are exactly the things David Cutcliffe vowed in his introductory press conference that the Duke quarterbacks would not do going forward. If Lewis is able to master these skills, Duke will have a heck of a QB on its hands. If Lewis struggles to adapt to these priorities, however, 2005 starter Zack Asack will get a chance to show what he can do. The one thing going for redshirt freshman Mike Capetto is with a new coaching staff, he will have a fresh start to show the new coaches what he can do. While it is doubtful he will rise higher than #3 on the depth chart this fall, he still will have to chance to show his skills on the practice field this spring.

Question two: Unlike the past "running back by committee" seasons, will one player step forward and seize the starting job?

I think this will happen, but I do not believe it will be the player you expect. The leading returning rusher is senior TB Re'Quan Boyette, who has amassed over 1100 yards in his career and has been Duke's leading rusher each of the past two seasons. Duke also returns FB Tielor Robinson for the rare 6th season of eligibility. He was sidelined with a season-ending injury in the 3rd game of 2007, which qualified him for a medical hardship. Robinson has proven to be effective when property utilized as shown by his 3-TD effort against UNC in 2006. Despite the past productivity of both players, my money is on senior TB/FB Clifford Harris to be the Devils' primary option in 2008. While Harris neither possesses Boyette's speed nor Robinson's power, he does have a nice blend of the two. Though he had limited carries, it is interesting to note that Harris has the highest yards-per-carry average among Duke's backs last season. The most impressive part of Harris's game is his versatility. He's Duke's best blocking back in blitz pick up not to mention the best receiver out of the backfield. Cutcliffe has stated that he wants versatility out of his player and Harris might be Duke's most versatile offensive player. He can even play QB in a pinch, doing so several times during the 2005 season.

Question three: Which players (one on each side of the ball) will benefit most from the new staff's emphasis on condition and agility over bulk?

Look no further than the trenches for the answer to this question. On the offensive side of the ball, junior Jarrod Holt has logged plenty of minutes during his first two years in Durham. The knock on Holt has not been his tenacity or intelligence, but his agility. So far in his career, he's been a good straight-line blocker but has struggled against the ACC's faster defensive linemen. Shedding extra weight and improving his agility will allow him better mobility to handle quicker opponents. He has all-ACC level talent, and this change could be a big help in letting him realize his potential. On the defensive side of the ball, all eyes will be fixed on the middle of the defensive line at big #3, Vince Oghobaase. In spurts, VO has lived up to his 5-star billing coming out of high school. He can command double-teams and cause havoc in the backfield. He quietly led all Duke defensive linemen in sacks and tackles for loss, which is quite a feat from the tackle position. Despite the productivity, he often had to play too many snaps and wore down late in ball games. Better depth development will help this problem, but having Oghobaase in better condition will improve his effectiveness later in games. If he is able to sustain his top level of play for longer stretches of the game, he will produce at an all-ACC level for Duke in 2008.

Question four: What impact will the new staff's emphasis on speed have on Duke's linebackers?

Duke is caught in a pickle here. The two most productive LBs on the 2007 squad, senior Mike Tauiliili and junior Vince Rey, do not fit into Cutcliffe's "If you can't run, you can play" mantra. Rey spent time at the Sam position in 2007, but because of their lack of speed, both guys will probably be limited to playing middle linebacker. Having both players on the field at the same time exposed Duke in underneath pass coverage. Those two can cover fullbacks and big tight ends, but both are mismatched with forced to cover faster players. This was painfully evident last season, when opponents routinely attacked Duke underneath and completed over 64% of their passes. Duke simply must get faster at this position, even if it means that these two quality players have to share one position. There are some other promising players here. Sophomore Adam Banks shuttled between outside backer and defensive end during his freshman year, but eventually settled at the second level. With a full off-season of learning the ropes he should be able to play more on instinct this year. With his 4.6 speed and 235-lb frame, he has the size and speed to excel in the ACC. Former QB/WR Marcus Jones is not the strongest in run-support, but understands pass coverage and can run to the ball. Senior Charles Robinson is undersized, but plays big and has decent speed. There are other players on the depth chart, but none have really distinguished themselves as of yet.

Question five: What sort of offense will Cutcliffe run and how will the current personnel fit it?

Cutcliffe has stated that he will run the no-huddle offense and from watching his Tennessee teams play, most of the snaps taken by the QB will be from the shotgun. Despite this formation looking like a spread offense, the aim is to control the clock with a short passing game attack. It is sort of a hybrid between the traditional spread offense and the west-coast offense. This type of attack puts a premium on mobile offensive linemen that can block in space, backs that can both run the ball and catch passes out of the backfield, receivers that can run short, disciplined routes, and QBs that can make smart decisions and get the ball out quickly. Looking at these factors, one can quickly see that Duke will need to make some changes to adapt to this style of offense. Previously, Duke relied on more bulky offensive linemen to drive block their opponents. Now the linemen will be on the light side and will be better able to block in space. This might cause problems on short fields, as the lighter guys might not be able to push the pile. Then again, Duke has not been lighting the world on fire with its success in short yardage anyway. The passing attack of last year was more of a vertical attack, especially the Lewis to Riley combo. Also, Lewis took most of his snaps from under center last season. Lining up in the shotgun will give Lewis more time to throw. He will need to guard against a breakdown in mechanics, as he will not have the rhythm of the drop from under center to keep his mechanics in line. Considering the trouble Duke had protecting the passer last year, Lewis needs every second he can get to find open receivers. The running backs will need to be more versatile. Whoever is back there will need to be able to run draws and screens, pickup the blitz, and run patterns out of the backfield. The receivers will need to get in and out of their breaks quickly and be ready to catch the ball more quickly than a season ago. Riley still might run some long patterns, but he will be going over the middle a lot more than last year. Once he returns from injury, Raphael Chestnut might thrive in this offense. His bread and butter is working the shorter, underneath routes.

Question six: Which starting roles will be the most hotly contested?

The good news for last years' returning non-starters is that they will have a clean slate with the new staff. Granted there will most likely be an opening spring depth chart, but there will be plenty of opportunity for depth chart movement during the spring and summer. If there is one position where a shakeup could occur, it will probably be offensive line. Much of Duke's offensive struggles last season can be traced to the performance (or lack thereof) of this unit. The Devils were unable to get much of a ground game going, and the pass protection was not much better. Duke was the worst running team in the ACC and also allowed the most sacks. If the Devils are to win more games this season, those numbers must change. The two returning players most likely to start are right tackle Fred Roland and junior guard/tackle Jarrod Holt. These two have NFL-caliber size and ability to go along with multiple seasons of ACC-level experience. 2007 starting left tackle Cam Goldberg was injured during off-season workout and his status for the upcoming season is in the air. The other line positions are going to be a free-for-all. The Devils have returning 5th year senior Rob Schirrman, who started all 12 games last season, but there are some second and third year players that will press for playing time. Bryan Morgan is the ACC's smallest lineman in 2007, but showed the coaching staff enough to play significant minutes and even earned a few starts as a true freshman. He is not big enough to play tackle as he did a season ago, but could be a very light, mobile center. 3rd year players Rob Drum, Jeff Cowart, Marcus Lind, and Mitch Lederman, all have the potential to be good ACC linemen. It is up to the staff to get these guys to play to their abilities. Second-year lineman Chris Shannon might have the most ability of them all and will also vie for playing time.

Question seven: What will be the biggest difference between the 2007 Blue Devils and the team that will take the field this spring?

The biggest difference will be quickness. The Blue Devil coaching staff has set a team weight loss goal of 1,000 total pounds. As of this writing, the word is the team is at 300 pounds and counting. Duke will probably the smallest team in the conference this fall. They were not very big last year and now will take the field about 10 pounds per man lighter. The good news is that weight loss will result in increased quickness, agility and stamina. This will manifest itself in very subtle ways on each side of the ball. On offense, the line will be able to better block in space. This will be readily apparent when Duke throws a screen pass. In previous years, the Devils had all sorts of trouble using their linemen to block opposing linebackers and defensive backs in space. With less weight to carry, they will find this task much easier to accomplish. On the defensive side of the ball, the lighter load each man is carrying will almost certainly result in better tackling. The defensive players will be able to get themselves into position a shade quicker. This is usually the difference between and good form tackle and an arm tackle. As anyone who has watched Duke recently, there has way too much arm tackling going on. Watching the defenders able to move into position and not be out-quicked will be a sight to behold for the Duke faithful.

Question eight: Which player (one on each side of the ball) will make the biggest leap forward in their development this spring?

Conventional wisdom suggests that most players make their biggest strides between their freshman and sophomore years. Using this wisdom uncovers two players that had baptisms by fire in their freshman campaigns. The lumps that they took on the field last year should pay great dividends when they take the field this spring. On the offensive side of the ball, Austin Kelly has all of the measurables you would want in a receiver: size, speed, hands, and timing. He played QB in high school and had very little experience with the nuances of wide receiver play. Things like getting off jams, body control in and out of cuts, and proper ball catching fundamentals were relatively new to Kelly. With a year under his belt, he should flourish under the new staff and provide a complimentary threat opposite senior Eron Riley. Defensively, LB Adam Banks shuttled between defensive end and linebacker before finally settling in at the second level. Banks struggled with the adjustment to the speed of college football at times, but also showed great athleticism and a natural feel for the game at others. With the ideal size and speed for a college linebacker, Banks should get more comfortable with his responsibilities at outside backer. Once he can react without having to think, he will become a very difficult player for opposing offenses to account for.

Question nine: What new faces should Duke fans be on the lookout for?

The Devils were able to redshirt over half of last year's freshman class. Of those, the player that has a chance to make the biggest immediate impact is redshirt freshman OL Chris Shannon. With the line being in a state of turmoil, Shannon has a real opportunity to make a statement for a starting job this spring. He has legitimate ACC level size and talent, and with a redshirt year under his belt should be better physically able to handle the rigors of college football. Another player to look out for is the only incoming freshman participating in spring practice, CB Randez James. After spending last season playing for Hargrave Military Academy, James enrolled at Duke for the spring semester. James has natural coverage ability and blazing speed, and those assets will probably allow him to compete for a starting job right away. James also can return kicks and will probably be utilized in that capacity this fall. Another new player that could make an impact is TE Kyle Hill. When he was originally signed, the staff planned to beef him up and play him on the offensive line. He has shown enough ability, however, to move back out to tight end. With his OL experience on last year's taxi squad, he should be able to make an impact as a blocker and receiver in the red-zone.

Question ten: What does Duke need to accomplish overall to set themselves up for success in 2008?

The Devils will need to get several things accomplished this spring if they are to break their long ACC losing streak and truly give the faithful something to cheer about this fall. Two, the staff must get the offensive and defensive schemes installed, so the players understand what is trying to be accomplished on both sides of the ball. Two, Cutcliffe will need to get the quarterback situation figured out and have an established packing order going into the summer. Three, a new Duke football identity must be established. For over a decade now, that identity has been losing. Things need to change immediately for Duke to get some positive momentum going on the field, in recruiting, and in fan support. If the staff can accomplish all of these goals by the end of spring practice, they will give Duke the best chance

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