Irish Opponent: Duke

It's hard to run a football program at a basketball-dominated school. Ask Indiana and Kentucky about this dilemma. A team that certainly fits into this discussion is Duke. The Blue Devils, under Coach K, are the premier program in college basketball and winners of three national titles since the early 1990's. The football team, on the other hand, has a tough time just getting a win.

Duke played 12 games last season and lost every single one. Three of those contests, against Wake Forest, Miami (FL) and North Carolina, were all decided in the final minutes. But the Blue Devils found ways to lose. Currently, Duke has lost 20 straight contests and head coach Ted Roof is a lowly 5-34 in four years. The Blue Devils can't seem to stop losing.

"It's extremely tough for fans to get excited about the season," said David Dohrmann of TheDevilsDen.com. "But there are some things to look forward to. There were some coaching staff turnover. We have a lot of players returning on offense and Duke should score a lot more points."

As for Roof, another losing season could spell doom for him in Durham.

"I think this is a make or break year for him," Dohrmann said. "He inherited a situation where Duke, for two or three years, had a lot of recruiting misses and the talent pool was shallow. The one thing Ted has done well is recruit well the past three seasons. We've been in the middle of the pack in the ACC and I think you'll start to see some of those classes produce. But eventually, Ted has to win some football games."

This season, Duke will travel to South Bend to battle Notre Dame on November 17th. It's the Blue Devils 11th contest of the year but it's part of a brutal stretch of games. In seven straight weeks, Duke plays at Miami (FL), vs. Wake Forest, vs. Virginia Tech, at Florida State, vs. Clemson, vs. Georgia Tech and at Notre Dame. The season ends with a road trip to rival North Carolina. Don't expect the Blue Devils to be getting out of the losing hole anytime soon.

"Most of the so-called experts think our schedule is one of the top-10 toughest in the nation," Dohrmann said. "Our easiest game is the first game against UCONN on September 1st. That stretch will be tough but if somehow Duke can come out it, they'll be alright."

There is a Notre Dame connection to the November 17th contest. The Irish decided not to retain quarterbacks coach Peter Vaas after two seasons in South Bend under head coach Charlie Weis. Vaas was replaced by Ron Powlus. Duke selected Vaas to be the new offensive coordinator of a unit that was 105th nationally in total offense and 112th in scoring offense. Dohrmann said he would be shocked if the Blue Devils didn‘t put it in the air 30-40 times a contest.

OFFENSE

There's good and bad with this unit. Last season, Duke had one of the worst offenses in college football. In addition to the rankings mentioned above, the Blue Devils were 112th in rushing offense, 76th in passing offense and 115th in sacks allowed. Duke broke the 30-point barrier just once last year. The good: 11 starters are back in Durham to improve the dreadful statistical numbers.

It starts with quarterback Thaddeus Lewis. As a freshman in 2006, the 6-2, 190-pound signal caller threw for over 2,000 yards and tossed 11 touchdowns. Lewis learned some valuable lessons, as evidenced by his 16 interceptions and 53 percent completion rate. Lewis should benefit from Vaas's tutelage and the new offensive system. Zack Asack will return in the fall after being suspended from the team last season for academic reasons. Asack does have starting experience and will up the competition level at the position.

"I am very high on Thaddeus Lewis, about as high as any Duke quarterback since I‘ve been following them," Dohrmann said. "He can make all the throws and when he has time in the pocket, he can carve up defenses. He had great games against Georgia Tech and North Carolina. Those are the types of games where the pressure wasn't great and if Thaddeus has time to throw, he can dissect defenses pretty well."

The rush attack was a major problem last season. Duke averaged just 98 yards per game on the ground. The Blue Devils do have experience coming back but how good is it? Junior Re'quan Boyette led the team in rushing with a paltry 388 yards in 2006 while senior Justin Boyle added 358 yards and five touchdowns. The lack of production could open the door for junior Clifford Harris and senior Ronnie Drummer. Fullback Tielor Robinson can run and catch the football and might see additional carries.

"Justin Boyle is the starter but he hasn't been able to stay healthy," Dohrmann said. "He's a big, strong back when healthy, about 230-235 pounds. He has surprising speed but again it comes down to health. Boyette is more of a change of pace back. A guy who didn't get a lot of carries until the last few games of the season is fullback Tielor Robinson. He's an Army transfer and was ignored until the North Carolina game last year and he caught three touchdowns and a two-point conversion. The inkling I've got is that Robinson is going to get a lot more carries this year."

Was is lack of talent at the running back position or a horrible offensive line? The case could be made for the latter. In the country, Duke was fourth from last in sacks allowed in 2006 with 43 and clearly did not win at the point of attack, as evidenced by the rushing statistics. All five starters are back and a year more experienced. Senior Matt Rumsey will man the center spot while left tackle Cameron Goldberg has a position locked up. LG Zack Maurides and RT Fred Roland started 11 of 12 games last year while RG Rob Schirmann notched 10 starts. Besides Rumsey and Goldberg, no one on the offensive line should feel safe about being the opening day starter. Sophomore Jarrod Holt and senior Garrett Mason could push for playing time.

"At the beginning of last season, Duke only had one starter returning from the 2005 line," Dohrmann said. "They were breaking in four new starters and only had seven guys they could put out there. Through the first four games, Duke was shutout three times and they were averaging 38 yards per game rushing. They had already allowed 24 sacks by then. After the Alabama game, things clicked. The rushing numbers went up from 38 YPG to around 150 YPG. The scoring went up from 3 PPG to 20 PPG.

"Duke also had a great recruiting haul in 2006 along the line and most of those guys were red shirted last year. It provides great depth and the line shouldn't be a rag tag bunch anymore."

Duke does have some size at the wide receiver position and the top five reception leaders from last season return. Senior Jomar Wright caught 40 balls for 561 yards and two scores last year while junior Eron Riley added 643 yards and three touchdowns, including a 20-yard per catch average. Riley's career YPC average is tops in the ACC among current players. Junior Raphael Chestnut nabbed 39 balls and two scores but managed only nine yards a catch. Throw in tight end Nick Stefanow's 10 receptions and a touchdown in 2006 and Vaas has a few pieces to open up the offense with and help in Lewis's development.

"Riley isn't a burner but is a taller wide receiver who can really jump," Dohrmann said. "He does great on jump balls and those types of passes. Jomar Wright is a big, strong wide receiver and more of a possession type of receiver. He's built like a running back. It's tough for defenders to tackle him because he's so strong. Chestnut is the third down receiver and has some speed."

DEFENSE

This side of the ball doesn't have the luxury of 11 returning starters. Duke has five players back on defense and the numbers weren't much better than the offensive ones in 2006. Statistically, the Blue Devils were 105th in total defense, 114th in scoring defense, 99th against the run, 92nd defending the pass and 111th in sacks. As acute observers can now deduct, there was a reason Duke was 0-12 last season. Roof, the head coach, will assume the title of defensive coordinator in the hopes of turning around the unit. The team will switch from a passive 3-4 scheme to a more attacking 4-3 style.

The Blue Devils do have a big body up front in the middle of the line. DT Vince Oghobaase stands at 6-6, 310-pounds and totaled 29 tackles last year, including 6.5 for losses. DE Patrick Bailey is back and was third on the team in 2006 with 77 tackles and second with 12.5 TFL. At the other end spot, Ayanga Okpokowuruk should get first dibs to start after registering 12 tackles last season. A more concentrated effort will be needed in applying pressure to the quarterback.

"I believe the defensive line is going to be one of the biggest positions of strength this fall," Dohrmann said. "Through Ted Roof's recruiting, he has improved that position by leaps and bounds. Oghobaase was a five-star recruit and Duke beat out Oklahoma, Miami and all the other big schools. He struggled with knee injuries his first two years but he's shown flashes of being the five-star player. Okpokowuruk was a four-star recruit a few years. Duke will start a five-star defensive tackle, a four-star defensive end and two three-star guys at the other two spots. That sort of talent level is not what is usually seen in Durham."

Duke did have a reliable performer in the middle of the linebacker group. Junior Michael Tauiliili was going to return after leading the Blue Devils with 93 tackles, including 11 for losses. But Tauiliili was suspended indefinately in August for off-the field conduct, leaving a big void at MLB. Sophomore Vincent Ray might have the inside track at the position after appearing in all 12 games last year. Dohrmann thinks the other outside spot is one of the bigger question marks on the team. Junior Charles Robinson and converted quarterback Marcus Jones should be in line for the other starting spot.

Duke allowed 227 yards per game through the air in 2006 and that number must improve in order for the defense to get better. The strength is at the two safety spots. Senior Chris Davis recorded 64 tackles last season while junior Adrian Aye-Darko added 55 and an interception. Sophomore Catron Gainey adds some depth at safety after seeing action in 11 games last year.

The big hole is at cornerback where there is two starting spots to be had. Gone is John Talley, who picked off seven passes in 2006 and ended his career as Duke's all-time leader in interceptions. Besides Talley, the Blue Devils had only three more pickoffs on defense. Possible replacements could include sophomore Leon Wright, senior Rodney Ezzard, junior Jabari Marshall and incoming freshman Matt Pridemore. Junior Glenn Williams, who totaled 51 tackles last season, could play either safety or cornerback.

"One of the corner spots will go to Leon Wright," Dohrmann said. "He was pretty highly recruited coming out of high school. You see him at practice and he's going to be pretty good. The other cornerback position is like the outside linebacker position. It's up in the air. I think Marshall and Pridemore will battle it out for the other starting spot. Marshall is one of the fastest guys in the country while Pridemore is a phenomenal athlete."

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker Joe Surgan did not have a highlight sophomore season. Surgan hit just 3-of-10 attempts in 2006. What was worse is that in two games, Surgan was a major reason for a defeat. In a one-point loss to Wake Forest, Surgan had a game-winner blocked while in the one-point defeat to North Carolina, the kicker shanked an extra point that would have tied the game late in the fourth quarter. The junior is back to redeem himself.

"2006 was definitely a bad year for Joe Surgan," Dohrmann said. "He's got a great leg and he can easily hit 60-yard field goals. The problem is that he gets worked up in games and it messes up his mechanics. If he can right his ship, Duke can have an asset at kicker, especially with the kickoff line being moved back to the 30-yard line."

There's a new punter in the fold and this could be a good thing. Duke was 112th in net punting last year and Kevin Jones and Nick Maggio are in a race for the job. In the return game, the Blue Devils were 110th in punt returns but 15th in kick returns. Jabari Marshall averaged 25 yards per return last season and every yardage of field position the offense gets is a special one.

OVERALL

It's no secret Duke is one of the worst programs in college football. The Blue Devils last winning season was back in 1994. This could very well be Notre Dame's easiest game, on paper, in the 2007 season. Vaas coming back to South Bend will be one storyline but the Irish, who have contests with Navy and Air Force before November 17th, should be hitting their groove. It might be another long, losing season for the Duke football team.

"Most of the fan base is ecstatic that we're coming up and playing in a place like South Bend," Dohrmann said. "I believe we got a 5,000 ticket allotment and most of those were sold pretty quickly. There will be a lot of Duke fans up there for the game. There are some fans who think we shouldn't be playing Notre Dame. They say if you can't beat Richmond, why you playing Notre Dame? There's that school of thought. Something the Domers should look out for is that Duke has played a couple of big non-conference games and done pretty well in them. They had Alabama on the ropes last year and almost beat Tennessee before that."


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