SERIES: It's the first time the Blue Devils and Dukes will meet on the gridiron. When Duke faces a first-time opponent the Blue Devils are historical pretty strong, winning 42 of the 79 games against teams they've never seen. Piggybacking that fact, Duke has historically been solid in season openers going 54-38-3.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: The Blue Devils are picked in their customary basement position for the 2008 ACC season and are coming off a 1-10 season in 2008. Meanwhile the Dukes, who return 15 starters from 2007's 8-4 campaign, are picked in the top five in virtually every Football Championship Subdivision preseason poll.
DEVILS ON OFFENSE: The biggest question surrounding the Blue Devils' program in the preseason was the look of the new offense installed by Coach Cutcliffe and how it'll translate with Duke's current roster. Throughout camp the Blue Devils showcased a dynamic passing attack that should allow third year starter Thaddeus Lewis improve on his 2,430 yard performance as a sophomore - which was already the ninth most passing yards in a season.
The running game will rely on senior Clifford Harris, who has taken over after preseason starter Re'quan Boyette went down with injury. Harris, who battled periodic injury throughout camp, looked to be Duke's best running back at times during the 2007 season and will now get his shot as a starter in Durham. In 2007 he averaged nearly 4.5 yards a carry, but saw his playing time limited to the tune of just 16 carries for the season. In addition to being a solid per carry back, Harris' real value came catching passes out of the backfield where he hauled in 15 balls for 155 yards (10.3 yards per catch). Backing up Harris will be sophomore converted defensive back Tony Jackson. As a high school senior at Bishop Kearny (N.Y.) High, Jackson tallied a staggering 638 yards on 35 carries. As a junior Jackson rushed for 1,600 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Senior wideout Eron Riley needs just 11 more receiving yards to claim seventh place on Duke's all-time list. As a junior Riley led the team and placed third in the ACC with a 20.8 yards per catch average. What has hampered even better numbers for Riley in the past has been the lack of a consistent second and third target on the offensive unit. Early camp reviews have players such as senior Raphael Chestnut and surprise freshman Johnny Williams as capable fill-ins there. Williams, in particular, has drawn rave reviews as a speedy threat in the slot.
While the skill positions all seem to be ready to go, the most important unit is the offensive line, which has provided spotty protection to Lewis over the past two seasons. The starting unit will be experienced with three seniors - OT Fred Roland, OT Cameron Goldberg, and OG Rob Schirmann, and sophomore C Bryan Morgan all having starters' experience. Only sophomore left guard Kyle Hill makes his starting lineup debut. All told the offensive line starters have combined for 71 starts and 5,369 snaps.
Should the offense move the ball reliably, the Blue Devils will turn to recently named starting placekicker Nick Maggio to put points on the board. As a freshman Maggio converted all 13 of his extra point attempts, but was just 2-of-5 on field goal attempts. Maggio beat out senior Joe Surgan for the job.
JMU ON OFFENSE: JMU's offense begins with returning starting quarterback Rodney Landers a second team all-conference performer in 2007. A dual threat quarterback who toped 100 yards rushing six times in 12 games, Landers signature performance came against Rhode Island where he passed for 266 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for an additional 166 yards. Landers has recorded the top two quarterback rushing performances in school history with 171 and 166 yards in games last season.
Other notable returning offensive starters include offensive linemen Scott Lemn, Terrence Apted, and Dorian Brooks as well as Landers' top receiving targets - Rockeed McCarter (20 catches for 285 yards) and Bosco Williams (18/157).
After being hit by a season ending injury early in the 2007 season, the previous year's starter Eugene Holloman who was a First-Team All-Conference selection in 2006 after running for just under 1,100 yards and eight scores and catching 11 passes out of the backfield for the Dukes. Backing up Holloman is 2007 reserve Griff Yancey, who tallied 650 yards and eight scores a season ago despite his status as a backup. The Dukes' rushing attach is a cornerstone of their offense and it's rare that an opponent will gain more rushing yards than JMU. In 31 of its last 35 games, JMU has tallied more rushing yards than its opponents.
The offensive attack of the Dukes will look to spread out the Blue Devil defense and attack the gaps with speed and misdirection. In order for Duke to avoid a second straight season opening loss to a FCS team, the defensive unit will need to stay disciplined and avoid the big play.
In addition to the Dukes being able to move the ball, they are also extremely good on special teams where senior kicker Dave Stannard converted 12-of-14 attempts last year.
DEVILS ON DEFENSE: Top to bottom the defensive unit boasts more top rated prospects coming out of the high school ranks than the offense with none being more noticeable than former five star defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase. The fourth year junior ranks ninth among active ACC players with 20.0 tackles for loss. In 2008 "VO" looks to continue to his career's upward trajectory after logging 49 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 2007. Perhaps one of the biggest beneficiaries from Cutcliffe's off-season changes, Oghobaase enters the season as Duke's top NFL prospect. Lining up with Oghobaase are Wesley Oglesby, Clifford Respress, and Greg Akinbiyi - giving Duke three upperclassmen starters. Former starter Ayanga Okpokowuruk will rotate in at both end positions while along with sophomore Patrick Egboh - who has continued to build off an impressive close to the 2007 season.
The linebacking corps boasts the ACC's leading tackler in senior Mike Tauiliili and the league's leading tackler from a year ago in second year starter Vincent Rey. Former quarterback Marcus Jones has completed his transition to outside linebacker and will lineup with 32 career tackles to his credit. All told the starting linebackers combined for 251 tackles and 24.0 tackles for loss during the 2007 season. Tauiliili and Rey have combined for 19 double-digit tackle games in their careers with Tauiliili owning 12 such performances. Meanwhile, Rey finished second in the ACC in 2007 with three forced fumbles. With Cutcliffe's renewed emphasis on zone blitzing, look for these numbers to continue to rise.
The off-season for the defensive backfield has been highlighted by the addition of some big time recruits including safety Matt Daniels and cornerback Randez James. Both freshman project to see some time on Saturday, but it'll be in a backup role. The unit's leaders will be starting cornerbacks Jabari Marshall and Leon Wright. Wright, who started every game in 2007, lead the team with three interceptions and eight pass deflections. He also finished fourth on the team with 68 tackles. Converted safety turned cornerback Glenn Williams returns to his safety position after injuries required him to play the season's final 10 games on the corner last year. Former starter Adrian Aye-Darko will back up Williams, with Daniels waiting in the wings. Junior Catron Gainey and sophomore Eddie Morgan will man the other safety position.
JMU ON DEFENSE: Led by senior LB D.J. Brandon and CB Marcus Haywood, the Dukes' defense returns several key players from a season ago. Brandon - another first team all-conference selection - posted 75 stops and 5.5 tackles for loss a season ago and has a reputation as a speedy linebacker who can deliver a punishing hit across the middle of the field. However, Brandon's experience will need to rub off on his teammates in a hurry as true-freshman Jamie Veney and Gerren Griffin bring a combined four tackles in their careers to the starting lineup.
Four rotational players return in the trenches for the Dukes led by DE Arthur Moats who logged an impressive 45 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and 6.5 sacks from his left defensive end position in 2007. Opposite Moats will be J.D. Skolnitsky who added another 53 stops and 2 sacks to the unit last season. In the middle of the line the Dukes will likely start Sam Daniels and Hassan Abdul-Wahid - both are a bit undersized with Abdul-Wahid tipping the scales at just 245 pounds. The average weight of the JMU defensive line is just 254 pounds.
Haywood leads the defensive backfield from his free safety positionwhich is the hallmark of the defensive unit for JMU. In 2007 Haywood recorded a team best 93 tackles and one interception. Fellow 2007 starter Evan McCollough lines up at one corner position where he recorded 53 tackles and one interception a season ago while senior Darrieus Ramsey (26 tackles, 2 INT, 1 forced fumble) mans the other. . A pair of redshirt freshman, Pat Williams and Jon Williams will handle the strong safety position.
SUMMARY: For the Blue Devils to finally take what has been an illusive step towards respectibility, several things must happen. Paramount will be the protection the offensive line provides Lewis. The Dukes' defensive unit isn't overly big or strong, but they are quick which will test Cutcliffe's new "in-shape" offensive line - especially in the areas of mobility. If the line can protect Lewis, the Duke receivers should be able to make enough plays to take some pressure off a running game that will have a lot of questions both at the line and in the backfield. The good news for Duke fans is that throughout preseason camp the young backs looked extraordinarily decisive when picking their lanes and finding holes to run through - a marked departure from years past. Perhaps the biggest change with the offense has been one that the players had no control over - the play calling.
Over the past few years the Blue Devil program has been extremely conservative on the offensive side of the ball resulting in third and long becoming a familiar circumstance. Based on the early reviews from camp, those problems seem to be a thing of the past. Look for Cutcliffe and his staff to attack the inexperience and youth between the defensive line and defensive backs on the JMU defense with several short passes that allow speedsters such as Williams to make plays from the slot with Harris catching the ball out of the backfield.
Defensively Duke must avoid the big play that has plagued them in recent years. The new defensive scheme includes as heavy emphasis on blitzing and ball pressure. A welcomed sight to those in Wallace Wade will be the emphasis placed on the defensive backs jamming their receivers at the line. Paramount will be controlling Landers - who can beat teams with his arm or his feet. If the defensive line plays well, it'll free up Duke's talented linebackers to ballhawk if Landers decides to take off to the races or if a JMU back tries for the corners.
THE PICK: In the end Saturday will be both a culmination and a new-beginning of sorts. From the time he took over in December, Cutcliffe has been like a whirlwind inside the Yoh Center. He immediately took the team to task for being lazy and out of shape. He immediately improved the conditioning and emphasized doing the little things that are so easy to neglect. Fast forward eight months and this year's team looks much different than any in recent memory. They are faster and they are fitter. Practices have extraordinarily competitive. Kick-off of JMU will offer an answer to all those wondering what all the off-season changes and preparation have meant for Duke.
The first quarter will likely produce some miscues from the Blue Devil as the excitement and adrenaline take over, however look for Cutcliffe to calm his team down and get some points on the board in the first quarter. The test for change will be how Duke plays in the third quarter. If the Blue Devils come out and avoid the customary post-halftime letdown, then obtaining that all important first victory is likely. In the past that hasn't happened and if the game's outcome is still in doubt in the fourth quarter, it'll be up to Cutcliffe to offer a crash course in "knowing how to win" to his players. Judging from the last eight months, that's exactly what will happen.
Duke - 26
James Madison - 17