For the first time during Coach David Cutcliffe’s tenure at Duke, the Blue Devils have built depth at several key positions. To those close to the program, the increased depth has been apparent, raising the level of competition in drills and scrimmages this fall. The increased competition led to highly-contested position battles at several spots on the Blue Devils roster. BDN was on the scene throughout the 2010 training camp and offers a brief breakdown of the roster as the depth chart is finalized.
Running Back - For Duke to be successful in 2010, they must improve upon their league-worst rushing attack from 2009. Despite the loss of fifth year senior Re’quan Boyette to graduation, the Blue Devils have considerable talent at running back. Coach Cutcliffe recently said, “over time, there’s never enough backs,” but with five players vying for carries, hopefully Duke will have enough to get through a 12 game schedule. Junior Jay Hollingsworth was the starter heading into fall camp, but was beaten out by sophomore Desmond Scott. After leading the team in rushing as a true freshman in 2009, Scott will enter the year as the starter and see plenty of carries. Redshirt-sophomore Patrick Kurunuwe has also had a good training camp and will compete for playing time. True freshman Josh Snead enrolled in January and impressed during spring practice, where he ran for 99 yards on just 9 attempts during the spring game. True freshman Juwan Thompson has also shown his speed during fall camp; both Snead and Thompson have already earned playing time as true freshmen, and may see their roles expand as the year progresses. “We’ve got to play a lot of people to stay fresh,” Coach Cutcliffe explained. All of the backs will likely see time on the kick return units as well.
Wide Receiver - In short, Duke is loaded at wide receiver. Duke returns All-ACC performer Donovan Varner, Freshman All-ACC performer Conner Vernon, and senior Austin Kelly. While all three starters were limited at times by minor injuries during training camp, younger players stood out and earned playing time of their own. Redshirt-sophomore Tony Foster demonstrated serious big-play capability; redshirt-freshman Tyree Watkins and redshirt-junior Josh Trezvant both showed off good hands and route-running. “We’re going to play the guys at receiver who have earned it,” Coach Cutcliffe stated last week. For the most part, the receivers were able to find good rhythm with QB Sean Renfree, which will be key for the offense to continue its prolific passing attack.
Tight End - Duke is also deep at tight end, where four players will play. Seniors Brett Huffman, Brandon King, and Danny Parker are joined by junior college transfer Cooper Helfet, who coaches have described as a tight end with wide receiver skills. In fact, Helfet played wide receiver in junior college and will line up in several different sets for the Blue Devils this fall. The depth at tight end will give Duke a lot of flexibility in their offensive sets. Expect to see all four tight ends receive significant playing time this year.
Backup Quarterback - With redshirt-sophomore Sean Renfree firmly entrenched as the starter, a battle ensued for the backup position, with true freshman Brandon Connette winning the job. “Brandon Connette is our backup and we’ll find some opportunities for him to play in certain situations,” Coach Cutcliffe announced after the last scrimmage of training camp. Connette’s ability to run with the ball has stood out in practices, and his arm accuracy should improve with experience. Redshirt-freshman Sean Schroeder has not yet taken the next step in his development from a year ago that the coaches were hoping to see, and likely will fall to third on the depth chart to start the year. True freshman Anthony Boone has also impressed with his elusiveness and poise, and will only improve as he continues to adjust to the college game. Expect Connette to see time early in the year to acclimate him to the college game, while keeping Renfree fresh.
Offensive Line - Duke is fortunate to return a veteran offensive line, where senior Bryan Morgan will anchor the group at center. Morgan has made 24 consecutive starts at center and is one of the leaders of this year’s team. Redshirt-freshman Perry Simmons stood out in training camp and may have beat out redshirt-junior Jon Needham at right tackle. Returning starters redshirt-sophomore Brian Moore, redshirt-senior Brandon Harper, and redshirt-junior Kyle Hill will fill out the starting line. Redshirt-senior Mitch Lederman, who started seven games in 2009, will also see time in the rotation. “We’re going to play a few more offensive lineman than you might normally play,” Coach Cutcliffe declared after the last scrimmage. Expect to see redshirt-freshman John Coleman and redshirt-sophomore Conor Irwin join the rotation up front early in the season.
Defensive Line - It’s no secret that the defensive line is one area where Duke lacks depth. In fact, senior linebacker Damian Thornton lined up at defensive end during parts of fall practice, and may play there in certain defensive schemes. Redshirt-seniors Patrick Egboh and Wesley Oglesby, along with redshirt-junior Charlie Hatcher are cemented in as the starters in the new 3-4 alignment, and will have to stay healthy and fresh. Redshirt-sophomore Kenny Anunike has transitioned nicely from tight end and will add depth to the rotation. Redshirt-freshman Sydney Sarmiento is recovering from knee surgery, but will play, along with redshirt-freshman Justin Foxx.
Linebacker- Duke’s defense will rely heavily on a trio of senior linebackers in Damian Thornton, Adam Banks, and Abraham Kromah. Their leadership and versatility will allow Duke to utilize creative defensive fronts to slow opposing offenses. They will be joined by sophomore Austin Gamble, who beat out redshirt-freshman Kevin Rojas for the fourth starting spot. Sophomore Tyree Glover and redshirt-freshman August Campbell have also looked good this August and will see plenty of action in Duke’s aggressive defense. Duke will play a deep rotation at linebacker.
Secondary - The secondary was the site of the most competition during 2010 training camp. The group is led by redshirt-senior Chris Rwabukamba and junior Matt Daniels. Redshirt-freshman Ross Cockrell beat out junior Johnny Williams for the starting spot at left cornerback, and junior Lee Butler held off redshirt-sophomore Jordan Byas at left safety. That being said, Duke will look to keep their playmakers on the field, so expect Johnny Williams to see playing time in all phases of the game this year. Also expect to see Duke rotate in several young speedsters into the secondary, including sophomore Zach Greene, sophomore Walt Canty, and redshirt-freshman Anthony Young-Wiseman.
Kicker - Redshirt-junior Will Snyderwine and senior Nick Maggio waged a competition during this year’s spring and fall training camps for the starting kicker job, and it has gone down to the wire. The field goal and place kicking job will likely be finalized early this week.
Punter - Redshirt-senior Kevin Jones returns as Duke’s punter, and will be backed up by junior Alex King.
Kick/Punt Return - This was another fierce competition among Duke’s young, speedy playmakers, with little separation. Expect several players to be rotated through as return men at the start of the year, led by Desmond Scott, Josh Snead, and Juwan Thompson. Johnny Williams is likely to see time as the primary punt returner, but others may rotate in.