Duke and David Cutcliffe have a good thing rolling in Durham and the 2015 season could prove this team is ready to reload rather than rebuild. A lucky schedule, upgraded facilities and 12 returning starters give the Blue Devils optimism entering fall camp. There are still holes to fill for this program, but Duke is now considered a threat every year in the ACC Coastal.
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Previewing Duke’s Offense for 2015
For the first time since David Cutcliffe took over at Duke in 2008, there’s not a clear-cut succession plan at quarterback. That said, junior Thomas Sirk emerged from spring practice as the leader in the race to replace Anthony Boone. Sirk has plenty of physical tools, but he still has rough edges to his throwing fundamentals. And while he has some reliable targets to throw to in wideout Max McCaffrey and tight end Braxton Deaver, the Blue Devils are still searching for a big-play receiver to replace Jamison Crowder. Duke’s hoping a candidate emerges from a collection of young but talented wideouts. Redshirt freshman Chris Taylor showed particular promise in the spring.
Look for Duke to lean more on the running game, where the Devils have power (Jela Duncan), speed (Shaun Wilson) and a mix of both (Shaq Powell).
There are big holes to fill on the offensive line as well, particularly at right guard, where four-year starter Laken Tomlinson moved on to the NFL. Cutcliffe believes the overall talent level of the program continues to rise and that there’s now depth across the board. Duke’s 2015 offense will put that belief to the test.
Previewing Duke’s Defense for 2015
Any discussion of Duke’s defense must go from back to front, as the strength of the Devils’ defense — perhaps the strength of the team, period — is its secondary. All five starters return, including play-making safeties Jeremy Cash and DeVon Edwards.
Duke will look to ball-hawk because it still lacks the bodies up front to physically dominate an opposing offense and force a bunch of three-and-outs. A key will be the health of senior linebacker Kelby Brown, who’s been one of the ACC’s top defenders — when he’s avoided the injury bug. Brown’s younger brother Kyler is playing a new stand-up hybrid defensive end position called the “Devil,” in which he’ll pass rush or drop into coverage as needed.
As for the rest of the front, Carlos Wray is the only returning starter. But for a change, the Blue Devils have some talented wide bodies in the interior defensive line. It’s just that those players — such as Edgar Cerenord and Quaven Ferguson — are young and untested.
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Previewing Duke’s Specialists for 2015
Duke’s blueprint involves using the special teams to take some of the pressure off an unproven offense, either by setting Sirk and Co. up with short fields or by doing their own scoring. That seems like a logical approach, given that the Blue Devils have proven All-ACC performers at key spots, including kicker (Ross Martin), punter (Will Monday) and kickoff returner (DeVon Edwards). For now, Duke has opted to go with the steady McCaffrey returning punts, but a talented true freshman could wind up with that job.
Duke will play the 2015 season amid signs of its revival. The quaint track at Wallace Wade has finally been removed, seating has been brought closer to the field and a new tower of luxury boxes will be under construction during the season.
As for the on-field product, the Blue Devils can show progress by managing to maintain their current status quo — a winning season and another bowl trip. There are probably too many question marks on offense to contend for the Coastal Division crown. But a manageable non-conference schedule (Northwestern is the biggest challenge) and avoiding Florida State, Clemson and Louisville in conference provides Duke ample opportunity to get to at least six wins and another bowl berth. The key may be Cutcliffe’s ability to convince a team that’s won 25 games in the past three years that it still has something to prove.