Positional Preview: Special Teams

The final positional preview of 2008 takes a long and frank look at Duke's special teams unit. Perhaps no group on the roster has struggled as much over the past few years and with some routine conversions on makable field goals, the Blue Devils wouldn't be looking for a first conference win in a few years.

* indicates red-shirt candidate

Projected Starters: P – Kevin Jones (6'3", 200 - SO), PK – Nick Maggio (6'4", 190 - SO), Holder/ PR – Ryan Wood (6'1", 190 - SR), KR – Jabari Marshall (5'11", 195 - SR), PR - Leon Wright (5'9", 170 - JR), LS Chris Shannon (6'4", 270 – R-FR)

Reserves: K – Joe Surgan (6'4", 210 - SR), K – Will Snyderwine (5'9", 165 – SO), * K – Paul Asack (6'2", 215 - FR), PR – Randez James (5'11", 175 - FR), KR Jay Hollingsworth (5'11", 185 - FR), LS Jackson Anderson (6'4", 240 – FR)

Much of what fans have said about the Duke kicking game in 2007 is not fit for print. The Devils can directly contribute two losses to lack of execution in this area. Punter Kevin Jones was 11th in gross and net punting last season, and that is the good news. Duke's place kickers put forth one of the most inept performances in recent college football history. The Devils only made three field goals in 2007 out of eleven attempts. Even worse, the Devils only converted 75% of their extra point attempts. Things got so bad, that in the middle of last season, Duke held open tryouts for any person on campus who could kick a football. Luckily, punter Nick Maggio tried his hand at place kicking and gave the Devils piece of mind they would make extra points.

This fall, Maggio has once again won the starting kicking job from enigmatic senior Joe Surgan. Maggio has consistent mechanics, but does not have much leg strength. He is a risky proposition outside of 40-yards though, so Surgan will be attempting the longer kicks as well as handling kickoffs. Walk-on Will Snyderwine will also push for playing time as well. All is not gloom and doom for the Devils. Punter Kevin Jones has made great strides under the new coaching staff and, if preseason is any indication, will be one of the better punters in the ACC this fall. He struggled to find his groove last year, only averaging 37 yards per punt. This preseason, he is booming high, 40-yard-plus punts on a consistent basis.

On the return side of special teams, Duke is showing a lot more promise. Returning kicks for the second straight season will be Jabari Marshall. During his first go-around, Marshall averaged nearly 25 yards per return, which was third-best in the conference. At times, though, he struggled to hang on to the ball, fumbling twice against Virginia Tech. Still, he is a dangerous weapon in the return game. Returning punts for the second straight year will be cornerback Leon Wright. While not breaking any long returns, Wright showed consistency catching punts and should be more comfortable in the role this season. Also look for Ryan Wood or Randez James to field a few punts, should Wright struggle. Duke must replace 4-year starting long snapper Casey Hales. This preseason, the job was claimed by redshirt freshman Chris Shannon. After dealing with the blocking limitations of the 205-pound Hales for four seasons, Shannon should solve that issue with his 270-pound frame. Wood will also resume his holder duties for the second straight year. Despite his consternation about the Duke kicking game, Cutcliffe heaped praise on Wood this spring, calling his performance "excellent".

Jones appears to be on his way to becoming a quality ACC-level punter. The Devils had a few breakdowns last season on the coverage units, but overall they played pretty well. Marshall gives the Devils a true touchdown threat in the kick return game. With Chris Shannon, Duke now has an offensive lineman- sized center. This should better prevent teams from stunting up the middle for kick blocks.

The Blue Devils still have the worst group of placekickers in the conference, if not the country. Maggio is a punter that is being forced to placekick. The Devils thought they might have the answer in true freshman Paul Asack, but he has struggled (like many freshman do) kicking off the ground and will redshirt. While Marshall is a weapon returning kicks, he must do a better job with ball security. He had two costly fumbled which turned the Virginia Tech game form a competitive affair to a rout. Wright is a dependable punt catcher, but the Devils need a big play here and there out of the punt return game.

Bottom Line
Until proven otherwise, the kicking game remains the Blue Devils' biggest question mark. The fact of the matter is had the kickers made a few clutch kicks over the past three years, Ted Roof might still be Duke's head coach. This fall, if Cutcliffe is not confident in their ability to hit a field goal from a given distance, Duke will go for it rather than risk coming away with no points from the kicking game. It is up to Maggio, Surgan and Snyderwine to make the kicks they are capable of making. Marshall and Wright must show their upperclassmen leadership by making plays in the return game. Duke might struggle early because of Shannon's inexperience at long snapping. With Ryan Wood's sure hands on the receiving end, ball placement on scrimmage kicks shouldn't be an issue. Any positives the Devils can get out of this phase of the game will be a big bonus. If Duke is even average in the kicking game this fall, the winning will start, sooner rather than later.

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