Category Archives: Duke Football

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Football Friday: Offensive Line Preview

DSC_0137-001Offensive line performance has been a team strength and primary contributing factor to Duke winning 25 games and playing in three bowl games the past three seasons. The front five is the fulcrum upon which the offense pivots. Whether it is running or passing the ball success starts with the big guys up front and in 2015 the Blue Devils once again have the talent and depth to excel.

Three starters return from 2014: center Matt Skura, left guard Lucas Patrick and right tackle Casey Blaser. The three combined have started 53 games and played 4,042 snaps in their Duke careers. Skura, Patrick and Blaser return from an offensive line which allowed only 41 tackles for loss and 13 sacks last season. The 41 TFLs or 3.15 per game was the fewest allowed in the nation.

Projected to round out the starting five are right guard Cody Robinson (541 snaps) and left tackle Gabe Brandner (58 snaps). Brandner was awarded Co-Most Improved Offensive Player honors following Spring practice.

The second five consists of players who were highly sought after 3-Star recruits coming out of high school. In this video preview of the offensive line, Head Coach David Cutcliffe states the 2015 team will be able to play some depth along the offensive line moreso than at any time since he has been at Duke. Those are strong, encouraging words!

Let's take a look at the 2-Deep Rotation:

Center:

Matt Skura (6'4", 305, RSr) - has started 27 consecutive games and is on the watch list for the Outland Trophy, Rimington Award and Lombardi Award. Voted Preseason All ACC by the media at the ACC Football Kickoff in Pinehurst, NC.
Austin Davis (6'4", 290, RSo) - has played 61 snaps in seven games. Davis was rated as the number six center in his high school class by ESPN.com.

Left Guard:

Lucas Patrick (6'4", 305, RSr) - is a returning starter who has started 13 games, including two bowl games, and played 1,110 snaps in his career.
Jake Sanders (6'5", 305, RFr) - redshirted in 2014.

Right Guard:

Cody Robinson (6'3", 300, RSr) - has played in 33 games with 541 total snaps and one start against Tulane in 2014.
Tanner Stone (6'6", 300, RJr) - has played 78 career snaps in six games. Stone is pushing Robinson for the starting assignment at right guard.

Left Tackle:

Gabe Brandner (6'6", 285, RSo) - has played 58 total snaps in five games during his career to date.
Sterling Korona (6'7", 290, RSo) - has played 62 snaps in five games during his career to date.

Right Tackle:

Casey Blaser (6'5", 290, RJr) - is a returning starter who has started 13 games and played 902 snaps in his career.
Christian Harris (6'5", 290, RFr) - redshirted in 2014.

Offensive Line Coach and Run Game Coordinator John Latina is entering his fourth season at Duke. Under Latina, Duke has almost doubled their Rushing Yards per Game from 94 to 181. He previously served underneath Head Coach David Cutcliffe for six years at Ole Miss from 1999 to 2004.

Expectations for the 2015 season include an increased emphasis on the run game. The offensive line playing to its potential will be huge in meeting that expectation. While it is easy to prognosticate the offensive line taking a step back, due to losing two starters who are currently on NFL rosters, Duke lost two starters off the 2013 team (Perry Simmons/Dave Harding) and one starter off the 2012 team (Brian Moore), but the line not only survived it became better each season.

Coach Latina will lean on his three returning starters to lead the offensive line in executing a "next man up" philosophy to replace the two departed starters and once again develop into a better overall unit in 2015.

Football Friday: Offensive Line Preview

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Football Friday: Previewing the Front Six

DSC_0066A youth movement will have to take place in 2015 if the defensive front six is going to show significant improvement this season. The good news is there are some experienced players back to lead the way. Senior Carlos Wray and redshirt junior A.J. Wolf at defensive tackle, redshirt seniors Kyler Brown and Britton Grier at defensive end.

Wray started all 13 games in 2014, while Wolf was recognized as the Co-Most Improved Defensive player following Spring practice.

Seniors Dwayne Norman at linebacker and Deion Williams at defensive end can also be included on the list of experienced players; however, Norman and Williams are moving to new positions in 2015 so their experience level must be marked with an asterisk.

Redshirt junior Allen Jackson is finally healthy at defensive end and is a player who could have a breakout season in 2015. He has good size at 6'5" 260 but it remains to be seen if he has the requisite skill set as he has only played 39 snaps in his career to date.

The bad news is that's the end of the list for experienced upper classmen so freshmen and sophomores must step up now and be productive in order for Duke to field a championship quality defense. The offense is replacing key players at quarterback, wide receiver and on the offensive line so it will be imperative the defense minimizes opponent's scoring to reduce pressure on the offense.

The Blue Devils defense yielded 21.8 points per game in 2014, which was an improvement over the 26.6 points per game yielded in 2013. In order to compete for an ACC Championship in 2015, and make no mistake competing for championships is this team's goal, the defense must once again decrease the amount of points per game yielded.

The defensive line's job is to control the line of scrimmage and create a pass rush. If the Blue Devils are going to field an improved defense this season, the front six is going to have to be more productive controlling the line of scrimmage and pressuring the quarterback. In order for the front six to produce at the level required, multiple underclassmen are going to have to significantly contribute to the total effort.

Who are the young players on the defensive line?

Defensive Tackle: Mike Ramsay, Edgar Cerenord and Quaven Ferguson.

Defensive End: Taariq Shabazz.

Ramsay played 228 snaps in 2014, while Cerenord and Shabazz are both players who were rated 3 stars coming out of high school. Shabazz struggled with injuries as a high school senior and in his redshirt year at Duke. Reports coming out of Pinehurst this week indicate he is healthy.

The linebackers are tasked with being multidimensional players who must be able to defend the run, drop into pass coverage and blitz the quarterback. Middle Linebacker is the defensive quarterback who is tasked with calling out alignments and shifts.

Who are the young linebackers? Zavier Carmichael, Chris Holmes, Dominic McDonald and Tinashe Bere. Carmichael was rated 4 stars by ESPN, while Holmes, McDonald and Bere were all 3 star recruits. Both Carmichael and Holmes played significant snaps during the 2014 season so while young they are not raw. Carmichael is the leading candidate to step in and fill the MLB position.

Up to this point, the preview has not included discussion on any true freshmen because it is difficult to predict which ones will or will not earn playing time in their first season. However, defensive end is a position ripe for a true freshman seeing immediate playing time and the Blue Devils have two youngsters who could compete for immediate playing time: Marquies Price and Trevon McSwain.

Price (6'6" 240) was an early enrollee so he participated in Spring Practice and was impressive. McSwain (6'6" 265) is 25 pounds heavier and was rated slightly higher by the various recruiting services. Both of these guys have the potential to play as true freshmen and make an impact.

As stated in the preview of the secondary, expectations for 2015 include seeing a Duke defense, which will bend a little less, while refusing to break. With the front six, defensive coaches Jim Knowles, Jim Collins and Clayton McGrath will mix players who are older and more experienced with youngsters who have arrived in Durham higher rated than the players they replaced to create a unit capable of propelling the team toward an ACC Championship.

Finally, coaching changes have taken place in the off season. Former defensive line Coach Rich Petri has moved on to the same position at Louisiana Tech. In 2015, coaching duties for the front six are split as follows:

Inside Linebackers - Jim Knowles
Outside Linebackers and Defensive Ends - Jim Collins
Defensive Tackles - Clayton McGrath

The new coaching assignments combined with an infusion of youth into the 2-Deep rotation has the potential to produce result up front analogous to what took place in the secondary two seasons ago. It should not be a surprise when the defensive front six show a significant uptick in production in 2015. It is the natural next step in program development in Durham.

Behind the leadership of veterans Carlos Wray, A.J. Wolf, Kyler Brown and Dwayne Norman, and capitalizing on the young talent of Zavier Carmichael, Edgar Cerenord, Mike Ramsay, Taariq Shabazz and company, the defensive line and linebackers are ready to step up and make a statement.

Football Friday: Previewing the Front Six

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Football Friday: Best Secondary in the Nation!

Jeremy CashIt is a football axiom that defense wins championships so it is reassuring to know when the Duke Blue Devils take the field in 2015 the secondary will arguably be the best in the nation. All five starters plus the top reserves return from 2014, which represents a huge first step toward fielding a championship quality defense.

Coached by Derek Jones (cornerbacks) and Matt Guerrieri (safeties), and going by the moniker the Cheetahs, the secondary will be anchored by senior team captain and All American safety Jeremy Cash and feature redshirt junior All ACC safety Devon Edwards.

Defensive Coordinator Jim Knowles employs the 4-2-5 defense to utilize speed to counter the ubiquitous spread offense. The 4-2-5 is especially adept at defending the run sideline to sideline. Having an extra safety on the field provides Coach Knowles flexibility in assigning run/pass defensive responsibilities.

Let's take a look at the 2 Deep Rotation:

Jeremy Cash (27 games/27 starts/232 tackles/6 interceptions) - is the starting Strike safety. Strike is a hybrid defensive back/linebacker position in the 4-2-5 defense. Cash is a redshirt senior and unquestionable Duke's most valuable defensive player. He can do it all and do it all well - cover receivers, defend the run, rush the quarterback.

Deondre Singleton (25 games/22 starts/133 tackles/1 interception) - is the starting Bandit safety. Utilizing conventional terminology, Bandit is the strong safety position. Singleton is a junior who is exceptional in a run support role and as a cover safety.

Devon Edwards (27 games/20 starts/197 tackles/4 interceptions) - is the starting Rover safety. Using conventional terminology, Rover is the free safety position. Edwards is a redshirt junior and a playmaker. Whether it is as a member of the defensive backfield or on special teams, Edwards is explosive when he gets the ball in his hands.

Bryon Fields (27 games/14 starts/112 tackles/1 interception) - is a starting cornerback. Fields is a junior who has been a solid performer to date. His production is expected to increase due to increased experience and the continued development of positional skill sets.

Breon Borders (27 games/13 starts/65 tackles/7 interceptions) - is a starting cornerback. Borders is a junior who has excelled during his first two seasons. His seven career interceptions are the most on the team. Opposing quarterbacks think twice before throwing in Borders' direction.

Corbin McCarthy (28 games/4 starts/46 tackles) - is the top reserve at Strike safety. McCarthy is a redshirt junior who plays strong, with a reckless abandon. Unfortunately, his style of play resulted in some injuries early in his career at Duke. McCarthy maintained his health in 2014 playing in all 13 games.

Evrett Edwards (12 games/20 tackles/1 interception) - is the top reserve at Bandit safety. Edwards is a redshirt sophomore who saw significant action in 2014. Edwards can also play cornerback so he provides additional flexibility to the defensive backfield.

Zach Muniz (12 games/7 tackles) - is a second string cornerback. Muniz is a sophomore who played 140 snaps as a true freshman.

Alonzo Saxton II (8 games/12 tackles) - is a second string cornerback. Saxton II is a sophomore who played 124 snaps as a true freshman, but was limited with a shoulder injury down the stretch in 2014.

Phillip Carter (8 games/2 tackles) - is the top reserve at Rover safety. Carter is a redshirt sophomore who has seen limited action so far in his Duke career.

Improvements on defense have taken place across the board over the past several seasons, with none more important than open field tackling. Duke's defensive backfield has excelled in both pass coverage and run defense with significantly improved open field tackling skills being a huge part of the success.

Expectations for 2015 include seeing the cornerbacks and safeties lead the defense in taking another developmental step forward, with the "keep everything in front of you bend but do not break" approach becoming firmer and harder to beat. This season the Duke Blue Devils defense will bend a little less, while still not breaking.

Football Friday: Best Secondary in the Nation!

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Football Friday: Wide Receiver Competition

DSC_0050-001Duke's primary offensive formation features a single running back, a tight end and three wide receivers. Max McCaffrey is the lone returning starter at the wide receiver position resulting in two open starting slots.

A balanced offensive attack has been key to Duke's success over the past several seasons. In 2014, the Blue Devils scored 47 touchdowns from scrimmage with 23 coming through the air and 24 on the ground. On plays from scrimmage, Duke passed the ball 49 percent and ran 51 percent of the time. Duke gained 2,814 yards through the air, while rushing for 2,364.

While an increased emphasis on the running game is expected in 2015, maintaining offensive balance via the passing game will be a prime objective for Head Coach David Cutcliffe and Offensive Coordinator Scottie Montgomery. When the running game is clicking, the play action pass becomes a valuable weapon.

Max McCaffrey has 65 career receptions for 698 yards and seven touchdowns. He is a sure handed receiver capable of working in minimum space over the middle of the field. McCaffrey recorded a career best seven receptions for 79 yards and two touchdowns in Duke's 41-3 victory over Kansas. He has started 25 games over his first three seasons as a Blue Devil.

The receiving corps will be young so McCaffrey leveraging his experience to provide on field and locker room leadership will be vital to ensuring the receivers maximize their productivity.

Johnell Barnes' bio at GoDuke.com lists him as a starting wide receiver and he is the odds on favorite to be a top receiver in 2015. Barnes has shown flashes of brilliance over his first two years so a break out season as a junior would not be a surprise. Barnes is a strong runner who can gain significant yards after catching the ball.

As a true freshman, in 2013, Barnes averages 14.5 yards per reception with a long of 50 yards. His yards per reception decreased to 10.3 during the 2014 season, but his total number of catches increased. Barnes has caught 38 passes for 454 yards and one touchdown over the first two seasons of his career.

Chris Taylor is a redshirt freshmen who has impressed the staff since his arrival on campus prior to the 2014 season. His bio at GoDuke.com lists him as a starting wide receiver. Taylor has good size at 6'1" with all reports leaking out of practice indicating he is an excellent route runner who possesses all the requisite physical skills to develop into a special player.

When practice opens in August; McCaffrey, Barnes and Taylor will be designated as the starters. Will they be the starters in New Orleans on September 3? The question this article seeks to explore: who steps up and challenges for one of those starting spots?

Here are the candidates wide receivers coach Jeffrey Farris has to work with:

Anthony Nash is 6'5" and fast. Those are tremendous physical skill sets, which set him up to compete to become an impact player. He is currently listed as a second string wide receiver. Nash, a rising redshirt junior, has caught five passes for 47 yards in 16 career games. He has the tools to be a deep threat, which can stretch defenses vertically, if he can take the next developmental step. Nash is definitely a player to keep an eye on in 2015.

Trevon Lee is a highly thought of redshirt freshman currently listed as a second string wide receiver. He was considered a leading candidate to play as a true freshmen last season but remained on the sidelines due to Duke being deep and talented at wide receiver. Lee will see the field and produce results in 2015.

Ryan Smith is currently listed as the second string slot receiver. He played as a true freshman and has caught three passes for 41 yards. He has returned four punts for 90 yards. Smith struggled with an ankle injury for part of 2013. In the victory over Georgia Tech in Atlanta, he recovered two Yellow Jackets onside kicks to help preserve Duke's lead.

Quay Chambers is another big receiver at 6'3" 220. He spent his redshirt freshman year at quarterback before transitioning to wide receiver in the Spring of 2014. Coach Cutcliffe described him as an exceptional athlete back in August 2013 after Chambers ran 63 yards for a touchdown in a team scrimmage. Chambers possesses explosive big play potential and seems tailor made to see action as the motion receiver, a position where his running abilities could be utilized via the jet sweep or end around.

Terrence Alls had a terrific spring practice highlighted by his being named most improved offensive player. Unfortunately, he was subsequently suspended from game competition for a violation of team rules so his status for the 2015 season is currently unknown. His status is expected to be updated prior to the season commencing, but there is no guarantee.

And there are two true freshmen on the roster who will head to practice in August intent on jumping over the competition to earn immediate playing time:

T.J. Rahming shined at the U.S. Army All American Bowl scoring two touchdowns against top level talent. He is dimunitive at 5'10" 165 so adding strength will have to be a priority for his development. Rahming is an interesting situation as his size definitely singles him out as a redshirt candidate; however, his talent level indicates he could make an immediate impact.

Aaron Young is 6'2" 200 and a redshirt candidate in 2015.

The 2015 receiving corps will be a young group, but they are a group with a great deal of unproven talent which equates to unlimited potential or a high ceiling. It will be important for the group to take advantage of the favorable early season schedule, four home games in a row after the opener at Tulane, to work out the kinks in order to be firing on all eight cylinders when the calendar turns to October and the conference schedule starts in earnest.

Football Friday: Wide Receiver Competition

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Football Friday: A Look at the Running Backs

DSC_0058The calendar has flipped to July, which means August and the start of football practice is just around the corner. Anticipation is building for what promises to be another solid year in the ongoing resurgence of Duke football so the time is right to resurrect the Blue Devil Nation weekly Football Friday feature.

Some folks, talking heads and analysts, are looking at 2015 as a possible rebuilding year in Durham due to the players who left. A better approach is to focus on the players who are back and there are lots of players returning in 2015 who were part of the successes achieved in 2014 and 2013. Add in 13 redshirt freshmen and a true freshmen or two and Duke will send a bunch of talent onto the gridiron in 2015.

This first article will take a look at running back, which is one of the deepest and most talented position on the roster alongside safety.

Shaquille Powell will be the starting running back in Duke's single back offensive formation. He is a powerful between the tackles runner who has 1,055 career rushing yards as a Blue Devil. The best descriptor for Powell is workhorse, he is a player willing and able to do the dirty work - whatever it takes - blocking, running up the middle for a tough yard, catching the ball out of the backfield.

Powell has rushed for four touchdowns in his career with his signature moment coming in the 4th quarter of Duke's 48-30 win over Miami in 2013. On 4th and 1 at the Miami 33 yard line, Duke opted to go for the 1st down and Powell took an hand-off and broke free up the middle for a touchdown.

Shaun Wilson set the Duke single game rushing record with his 245 yard performance against Kansas on 9/13/2014. Wilson, who possesses elusive moves and breakaway speed, rushed for 598 yards and five touchdowns on 78 carries for a 7.7 yards per carry average as a true freshman last year. He also caught 18 passes for 179 yards.

During Spring practice, there was some buzz about Wilson lining up in the slot as well as split wide. Coach Cutcliffe has previously stated his desire to maximize the playmakers on the field so Wilson seeing action as a slot receiver in addition to lining up in the backfield as a running back is a distinct possibility.

Jela Duncan rushed for a combined 1,115 yards during his freshman and sophomore seasons prior to missing the 2014 season. He was the team's leading rusher as a true freshman in 2012. Duncan's return to action provides the Blue Devils with another powerful runner to complement Powell, especially when Duke switches up the offensive look and goes to a two back formation.

The return of Duncan is a huge positive, which is tough to overstate. He is a versatile back who runs with power and speed, in addition to being able to catch the ball out of the backfield or serve as an additional pass blocker.

Joe Ajeigbe is the last of the quartet of running backs. He carried the ball 41 times for 150 yards in 2014. Ajeigbe's marquee performance was when he rushed for 53 yards on eight carries in Duke's 31-25 upset of Georgia Tech in Atlanta on 10/11/2014. He has the potential to provide increased production with more touches in his sophomore season.

An increased emphasis on the running game is expected in 2015 due to several factors. First, the talent and experience at running back on the roster; second, two quarterbacks who are strong, fast runners; third, an offensive line that continues to be a team strength. Combine those factors together and the result is a team which will look to run the ball with authority.

With four talented running backs in the rotation, look for Duke to spread the carries around once again in 2015 in order to keep pounding away at the opponent's defense with fresh legs.

Be sure and check back next Friday for another football article as Blue Devil Nation ramps up the coverage through practice and on to opening kick-off in New Orleans on September 3rd.