After beating Virginia Tech on Oct. 24, the Duke football team was sitting at 6-1 with a perfect 3-0 ACC record. But a very disturbing Halloween night loss to Miami began a four-game tailspin that took the Blue Devils out of the Coastal Division race. Duke rebounded by edging Wake Forest in the regular season finale and then beating Indiana to win the Pinstripe Bowl.
But there are key losses for David Cutcliffe’s squad, some that were expected and one major injury that creates a void at the game’s most important position. Here are some thoughts on Duke’s spring outlook.
5 Storylines to Watch in Duke’s Spring Practice
1. The quarterback position
Thomas Sirk had a solid season throwing the ball for Duke in 2015 and was the team’s leading rusher with 803 yards. But Sirk ruptured his Achilles tendon for the second time during a February conditioning drill. That puts Parker Boehme in the spotlight this spring. The Jacksonville, Fla., product saw action in 10 games last season, completing 55 percent of his passes for 579 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He filled in for an injured Sirk in the Pittsburgh game and saw extensive action against Virginia. Now, he will be getting No. 1 reps all spring.
2. Replacing other skill position talent
Boehme is not the only offensive skill player that will be asked to raise his level of play. With leading receiver Max McCaffrey and top running back Shaquille Powell both graduating, there will be opportunities for emerging players. T.J. Rahming had a very good freshman season with 43 catches for 571 yards and two scores. He will be Boehme's first option in the passing game. Anthony Nash is a reliable contributor and sophomore Trevon Lee will hope to show what he can do after an injury plagued 2015 season. Running backs Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson combined for nearly 900 yards rushing and will do battle in the coming weeks to see who can claim the top running back spot.
3. Interior of the offensive line
The offensive line returns three starters, but it’s the middle that will be in flux. Left guard Lucas Patrick was a two-year starter for the Blue Devils and was honorable mention All-ACC as a senior. The biggest hole, though, is at center where offensive leader Matt Skura is now preparing for an NFL future. Zach Harmon will angle for the starting center position while Trip McNeill and Jake Sanders are guard contenders. All of these players will have a new line coach as longtime assistant John Latina announced his retirement and Marcus Johnson has been elevated to line coach from his analyst position.
4. Good-bye Jeremy Cash
When you talk about the great players in Duke football history, Cash’s name will come up. His play on the field over the past three seasons was very impressive though his leadership skills may be even more difficult to replace. Fortunately, Duke has another talented defensive back that is ready to step into Cash’s shoes. DeVon Edwards has been an honorable mention All-ACC selection the past two seasons and tied Cash for second on the team in tackles with 101 last year. He also is a dynamic returner that took three kicks back for scores. Like Cash before him, Edwards may not just be the leader of the defense; he may be the leader of the entire team.
5. New bodies on the defensive front
With Dwayne Norman, Carlos Wray and Kyler Brown leaving, Duke will have a considerable task in rebuilding the front two levels of its defense. Norman led the team in tackles this past season with 114 while Wray and Brown were anchors along the defensive line. Two players that the coaching staff will closely watch this spring are rising sophomores Marquies Price, a defensive end, and Brandon Boyce, a defensive tackle.
Pre-Spring Duke Outlook in the ACC
Graduation hit the Blue Devils hard following the 2015 season. Max McCaffrey, Shaquille Powell, Matt Skura, and Lucas Patrick were important members of the Duke offense while the losses on the defensive front along with ACC Defensive Player of the Year Jeremy Cash will hurt. Add in the Thomas Sirk injury and Duke will look like a whole new team when they suit up this spring. But that’s okay. David Cutcliffe has done this before. You don’t go to four straight bowls at Duke without knowing how to juggle a roster. Younger players will get an opportunity including members of the most recent recruiting class which may be the best in Duke history. Two of those recruits, cornerback Mark Gilbert and athlete Jacob Morgenstern, have already enrolled and will be participating this spring. There will be personnel changes in Durham, but the optimism is not going away.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.