Ten questions from spring: Revisited

Earlier this year, I wrote an article posing ten questions about Duke heading into the "second season" of spring practice. Now that we've started the countdown to the 2008 season and preseason practice is underway, it is as good a time as any to review the questions posed in March. Some predictions were pretty accurate. Others were not so good. So, without further ado, here we go.

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

Spring Answer: This could possibly happen.

Fall answer: It could possibly happen, but it is VERY unlikely. Thad Lewis is progressing nicely under the tutelage of Cutcliffe and QB coach Kurt Roper. Cutcliffe has commented on Thad's natural gifts such as timing, arm strength and confidence. What Lewis needs to perfect now are fundamentals and the nuances of the David Cutcliffe system. Sacks, interceptions and QB fumbles will not be tolerated. Lewis struggled with the sacks and fumbles last year. The good news for the Devils is that the first four opponents are not exactly the stingiest defenses in the world. Lewis will undoubtedly make some mistakes during this time. Playing the lesser defenses first, however, will help build confidence and make rebounding from those mistakes easier. If Lewis develops a chronic bad habit, such as ball security, Cutcliffe will not hesitate to insert junior Zach Asack in his place. Still, it would take an injury or mental collapse by Lewis for him not to be the starter for Duke for the next two seasons. He has the chance to be Duke's best in well over a decade.

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

Spring Answer: "… my money is on senior TB/FB Clifford Harris"

Fall Answer: I'm glad there were no bets placed on this prediction. By all indications, senior TB Re'Quan Boyette has stepped up and seized the starting nod. He will be spelled by Harris among others, but at this point, there is little question as to who the starter is. The load will probably be split to the point that Duke will not have a 1,000 yard rusher, but, Boyette will get the lion's share of the carries barring injury. Sophomore Tony Jackson played himself into the competition for the backup role with his strong spring culminated by a 75-yard TD run in the spring game. He still needs to get stronger to see more than 8-10 carries a game, but has the blazing speed that can be deadly in the open field.

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?

Spring Answer:
Offense: OG Jarrod Holt
Defense: DT Vince Oghobaase.

Fall Answer: Right now, it is too early to tell, but there are some visible candidates for most improved in the weight loss category. On offense, the entire line will be better off as a result of the slimmed-down look. Duke will probably be the lightest test in the conference at center (255 lb Bryan Morgan) and left tackle (265 lb Cameron Goldberg). While this lack of bulk might not lend itself to success in short-yardage situations, the line is not much quicker and should prove more effective in every-down situations. Cutcliffe has commented that Duke has some quickness up front, but those players have been carrying too much weight to utilize it effectively. Re'Quan Boyette has mentioned that he's now much faster than last season; a fact that can only help the Blue Devil ground game.

There are also positive reports on the defensive side of the ball as well. Oghobaase has reduced his body fat percentage considerably, while maintaining his weight at almost 300 pounds. He is on some preseason all-ACC lists and, if lives up to his high-school accolades, will be there at the end. Ayanga Okpokowuruk has shed 20 pounds and has moved back to end after spending last season at the nose. Senior DT Cliff Respress is now the starter in the middle and has also benefited greatly from the increase workout intensity.

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

Spring Answer: Duke will not be able to play Mike Tauiliili and Vincent Rey at the same time.

Fall Answer: As Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast, my friend!"

Duke has four legitimate ACC starting caliber linebackers right now and the top two guys are Tauiliili and Rey. To get both players on the field at the same time, Rey has dropped nearly 20 lbs and has move to the outside. Tauiliili has also shed considerable weight and might be the smallest middle linebacker in the ACC. Size, however, is no substitute for instincts and toughness and Tauiliili has both of those traits in spades. With a strong senior season, he will challenge current Tennessee Titan Ryan Fowler as Duke's 2nd all-time leading tackler. One of the few Blue Devils who have actually gained weight under Cutcliffe's watch is OLB Marcus Jones. After two seasons splitting time between wide receiver and quarterback, he was already lean but needed more bulk to stand up to the physicality of his new position. Now with a season under his belt, he looks confident and is primed for a strong senior season. He will be pushed by 230-lb sophomore Adam Banks. Possessing great size, 4.5 speed in the 40, and good instincts, Banks has all the tools to be a great one for Duke.

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

Spring Answer: No-huddle, shotgun, with a ball-control short passing game.

Fall Answer: This one was easy.

The Devils will use the shotgun extensively this season, and do not look for the Blue Devils to huddle much, if at all. Cutcliffe wants to dictate the game tempo to the defense, as well as have the ability to see the defensive alignment before the snap. The no-huddle also prevents the defense from substituting as liberally as they would like. Despite the no-huddle approach, this will not be a hurry-up offense. The Devils will use a steady offensive tempo that will feature short passes, screens and running plays out of the shotgun. This will mean that senior Eron Riley will catch many more ball than a season ago. Cutcliffe commented that he might "double his number of receptions this season." Lofty expectations, considering he caught 40 balls last year for 800-plus yards and nine touchdowns. While the emphasis on short passes might hurt his ACC-best yards per reception average, he will become a more consistent presence in the Duke offense. This is music to the ears of the Blue Devil faithful.

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

Spring Answer: Several offensive line positions (left tackle, right guard, and center)

Fall Answer: All five starting positions seem to be settled.

It was reported early this spring that Cameron Goldberg suffered a back injury in off-season workout and might not return for his senior campaign. Apparently, that information was not quite accurate as he returned from the injury inside a month and quickly anchored himself back at his familiar left tackle position. With Fred Roland back, both tackle positions appear to be in experienced, capable hands. Bryan Morgan shifted from tackle to center (as expected) to replace 2007 starter Matt Rumsey. The guard positions appear to be in the hands of Rob Schirrman and Jarrod Holt. All of the players except for Morgan needed to reshape their bodies this offseason and shed some of the extra weight they were carrying around. Apparently, this group as a whole has responded well, and might be a pleasant surprise for Duke in 2008.

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

Spring Answer: Quickness

Fall Answer: Quickness, along with stamina and confidence.

The team speed as a whole will be greatly improved. That is fine, but the more important gain from the off-season conditioning will be the ability to finish football games. A perfect example of not being able to finish in 2007 was the Navy game. The Devils had that game seemingly wrapped up, but the Midshipmen were the team in better shape and pulled victory from the jaws of defeat with two late scores against a exhausted Duke defense. If Duke loses a game at the end this season, Cutcliffe will make sure it is not because the team is fatigued. Now if something can be done about the kicking game, Duke will have covered the end-of-game problems that have plagued them over the last several seasons. The Devils will also enter the season with the confidence of preparedness which seems to have been lacking under previous head coaches. After last season's opening-game loss to Connecticut, CB Leon Wright remarked the Huskies did things on offense that the Duke defense was not prepared for. Those words will not be repeated after the 2008 opener. Cutcliffe will have the Blue Devils prepared on August 30th.

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

Spring Answer:
Offense: WR Austin Kelly
Defense: OLB Adam Banks

Fall Answer: I will defer to later in the season on this topic. Until the games are played, we do not know who will step forward and perform on Saturdays. I've heard these names as players who have made tremendous strides under Cutcliffe's watch:

LT - Cameron Goldberg
RB – Re'Quan Boyette
WR – Ryan Wood

NG – Clifford Respress
LB – Vincent Rey
LB – Marcus Jones
SS – Catron Gainey

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

Spring Answer:
Offense: Chris Shannon, Kyle Hill
Defense: Randez James

Fall Answer:
Offense: RB Tony Jackson
Defense: Safety Matt Daniels, CB Randez James.

Chris Shannon will start the season as backup center and long snapper. Incoming freshman Jackson Anderson might take over the long snapping duties, but the coaches probably prefer that Shannon win the job so Anderson can redshirt. Kyle Hill has settled in as backup left tackle and could impact Duke's fortunes should Cam Goldberg suffer an injury. Assuming health, converted CB Tony Jackson might be the new face on offense that makes the biggest impact. His 75-yard TD run in the spring game came just a few weeks after moving over from defense. With time this offseason to prepare for running back duty, Jackson should play important minutes this fall.

On defense, Randez James has not disappointed since his January arrival. He might not start, but will almost assuredly figure into the CB mix as the season progresses. He has blazing speed and the toughness to play as a true freshman. His participation in spring practice gives him a leg up on the other incoming freshmen in terms of impact this fall. Safety Matt Daniels was the defensive highlight of the 2008 recruiting class. If he's able to pick up the nuances of the college game early, he will play. He's a fierce hitter who can also cover. He's also physically ready to play at this level, and will be an excellent player for Duke, sooner rather than later.

Question ten: What does Duke need to accomplish overall to achieve success in 2008?

Spring Answer: Install schemes, Pick a QB, and establish an identity.

Fall Answer: The following three things:

1. Good QB play - Lewis and Asack both need to have a firm grasp of the schemes and concepts that Cutcliffe is trying to teach. It's a steep learning curve for both, but they are capable of grasping it. While Duke has decent starters on defense, they will not be able to completely shut opposing offenses down. This will require Duke's offense to score more than the paltry 17+ points per game they averaged last year. Cutcliffe's goal for this season is to score 30 points in every game Duke plays. If the Devils come anywhere close to that number, wins will follow.

2. Solve the kicking game woes – I have never seen a kicking game in as much disarray as what Duke fielded a season ago. The Devils have to be able to kick a 30-yard field goal with some measure of consistency. If not, this will force Cutcliffe to go for it on 4th down, even in obvious punt and kick situations. This might cause the Blue Devil faithful some heartburn, but if you stink at something, you might be better off trying something else, even if it seems risky. In a best-case scenario, Duke will have the option of kicking field goals from inside 40-yards. At this time, however, the confidence of being able to make such kicks is not there. This could cost Duke wins if the problem is not corrected.

3. Win the first game – James Madison will be a 1-AA (sorry, I'm not using FCS) powerhouse this coming season, and the Devils have to play well to win this game. Cutcliffe seems to have the troops focused on the first game and the first game alone. If the Devils can come out and get the first win on the board, that will set the stage for an interesting month of September with 3 more home games, all against very beatable opponents. Lose that game, however, and Cutcliffe might not see 10,000 fans in the stadium for the second game. Duke has been the butt of college football jokes for 20 years now. The only way to stop the joking is to win some football games. That starts on August 30th against JMU.

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