Austin Kelly - Jr.
Johnny Williams - So.
Sheldon Bell - Jr.
Conner Vernon - Fr.
Tyree Watking - Fr.
A season ago when the Blue Devils needed a big catch there was no doubt in the stadium where quarterback Thaddeus Lewis was looking first, second, and sometimes third. The target was Eron Riley - now a member of the Baltimore Ravens. So, head coach David Cutcliffe and receivers' coach Scottie Mongtomery are looking for a new top flight target for Lewis. The good news is that instead of one player, the Blue Devils appear to have several option.
As the season begins all eyes will be on 6-foot-2 junior Austin Kelly who has showed flashes of becoming an elite player at the position with a mixture of speed, fluid route running, and explosive athleticism. That's certainly high praise for a player who hauled in just 13 catches for 142 yards in 11 appearances a season ago, and yet throughout the pre-season, Kelly has appeared to emerge as Cutcliffe's top receiver thanks to extra work put in during the off-season.
"I really worked hard on my conditioning over the winter and through Spring and pre-season," Kelly told TDD. "I've added a little bit of weight, but I've really worked with the speed and agility coach to improve my explosiveness and lateral quickness. By working on those things, I've gotten better footwork and have improved my route running."
Right behind Kelly - and the projected second starter - is 5-foot-10 sophomore Johnny Williams. The speedy Alabama native surprised many in 2008 by starting nine games in which he recorded 30 catches for 327 yard, but no touchdowns. Like Kelly, Williams has spent most of the pre-season camp in a dual role of leading by example, but also working to become the vocal leader of the receiving corps.
"We are definitely trying to be the leaders," said Kelly. "But there are a lot of guys who are leading by example. Overall we are a competitive group who wants to push each other get better while moving up the depth chart. If someone makes a huge play, guys aren't worried that it means they will lose their spot. Instead they are the first one over pulling the guy up and congratulating him. We are highly competitive, and we know that allows us to build a very deep unit that can contribute to this team winning and better our offense."
Fellow junior Sheldon Bell is in an interesting position as well. With a 6-foot-4 frame, Bell will no doubt look to become a target in the red zone for jump balls. A season ago he appeared in all 12 games and recorded 14 catches for 93 yards. However, he's got some stiff competition for the third receiver slot from a pair of first year players in the form of Conner Vernon and Tyree Watkins. Both freshman have come to camp ready to play and appear to have made it nearly impossible for the coaching staff to consider red-shirting them in 2009.
"Those two guys have caught everyone's eye - both coaches and players," said Kelly. "They have come in and worked hard, and they are both really talented. If they stay healthy and keep this up, they will play a lot this year. It'll be hard for them not to."
In addition to the freshmen, Duke has another slot option in the form of second year player Donovan Varner. Like Williams, Varner had a strong first season in Durham before being slowed by injuries. The bug appeared to bite him again during preseason camp at times, but if he's healthy, Varner provides Cutcliffe's offensive scheme another player with an explosive first step and breakaway capability.
At the tight end position, the coaching staff welcomes back fourth year junior Brandon King who will see time at both end and H-back - and even fullback on short-yardage situations. At 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, King has a surprising set of hands and has proven the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and as a true fullback. Last season, Duke's offense took a major hit when King was lost for the season before the year even kicked off with an injury. As a sophomore in 2007, King's major contribution to the passing game was made in redzone situations. Despite hauling in just 10 catches for the season, four of them were for touchdowns.
Fellow fourth year junior Brett Huffman appears to have a chance to solidify himself in the rotation at the tight end spot as well. Last season's 14 catch for 171 yards and one score performance made him the favorite entering Spring ball and then preseason, and not much appears to have changed. At 6-foot-4 and nearly 245 pounds, Huffman can help in the passing game by either providing a big target over the middle or engaging a linebacker on a blitz package. He's been tabbed as a preseason third team All-ACC pick by the media.
Another junior, Danny Parker, enters his third year in Durham as one of the group's best pass catching option along with 6-foot-5, 230 pound redshirt freshman Kenny Anunike. Both players are expected to see action throughout the season as Cutcliffe puts together different passing attacks.
With so many versatile options at the tight end and receiver positions, it's no wonder that both Lewis and Cutcliffe were excited at the ACC's annual media day. Another group that will no doubt appreciate the makeup of the roster is the running backs, who will have some pressure taken off as they look to build on their 2008 performance. As Kelly noted in his interview, the receivers are well versed on their responsibilities in not only catching the ball and making plays, but also meeting their less glamorous responsibilities.
"We are drilled on the blocking and finishing out the plays. As receivers we can really make or break a big play for our running backs. If they bust through the line, there's really only one guy who can get to them and that's the safety. Our coaches are always on us to get to the safety. If we can do that, then we can help our running game really flourish. If we take a play off, though, it makes it hard for our backs to break any game changing plays."