DURHAM – The Blue Devils closed out the first week of training camp with a full contact session on Friday morning. Duke is looking for two second-year players to step up in 2011 to help the Blue Devils improve upon their win total from a year ago. Ross Cockrell is expected to become the team’s top cornerback this fall, and Brandon Braxton will bring his playmaking skills to the potent Duke offense.
This is it, baby. The last Football Friday before training camp opens. Get excited, Blue Devil Nation! Football season is here. This week, BDN’s Bob Green looks at the 2011 Blue Devils’ bowl hopes, and we also previewed the October matchup with ACC favorite Florida State. As promised, we’ve got an in-depth look at the 2011 Blue Devil defense this week, so without further ado…
BDN Duke Football 2011 Team Preview: Defense
It’s no secret that the Duke defense struggled mightily in 2010. Simply put, the Blue Devils were unable to stop opposing offenses, placing nearly impossible pressure on the offense and first-year starting QB Sean Renfree to outscore opponents. The experiment with a 3-4 defense was short-lived and essentially doomed the Blue Devil defense. Without a clear defensive scheme or identity, Duke’s defenders often appeared out of position or overmatched. On the whole, the effort was there, but the execution was inconsistent. Jim Knowles takes over as Defensive Coordinator in 2011, and Rick Petri joins the staff as Defensive Line coach.
Newcomers: Jamal Bruce (R-Fr.),Will Bryant (F-Fr.), Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo (R-Fr.), Steven Ingram (R-Fr.), Dezmond Johnson (R-Fr.), Nick Sink (R-Fr.), Jamal Wallace (R-Fr.), Lucas Fisher (Fr.), Carson Ginn (Fr.), Sam Marshall (Fr.), Mario Sanders (Fr.)
2010 Review: Simply put, the Duke defensive line was unable to stop the run and failed to pressure opposing quarterbacks. After showing improvements between 2006 and 2008, the defensive line began a two-year slide in 2009. The line came up with just 19 sacks in 2009, allowing 153 yards per game rushing (4.0 average yards per carry). The numbers declined again in 2010, finishing with just 12 sacks and giving up 208 rushing yards per game (4.8 average yards per game). Those numbers finished last in the ACC and 113th in the country. Overall, the group battled through injuries and midseason schematic changes, but failed to find consistent success.
2011 Outlook: With seven redshirt-freshmen, along with four true freshmen, entering the depth chart this fall, this will be the deepest line Coach Cutcliffe has had at Duke, at least in numbers. With a preponderance of youth and inexperience, the hope is that Coach Petri, who is known as a great teacher, can accelerate the growth of this group. Overall, the unit should have improved size and speed relative to recent years, but significantly less experience. While projected starters Hatcher, Foxx, Sarmiento, and Anunike are expected to play the majority of snaps, they will be frequently rotated with several of the first-year players. Much like the Duke running game, the Blue Devil defensive linemen have to find ways to improve over their 2009 and 2010 numbers. Reports indicate that the talent is there to improve and compete, and now the players will have to go out and execute if Duke hopes to become bowl-eligible in 2011.
Losses: Adam Banks, Abraham Kromah, Damian Thornton
Key returners: Austin Gamble (Jr.), Kevin Rojas (R-So.), Kelby Brown (So.)
Newcomers: C.J. France (R-Fr.), Kyler Brown (Fr.), Britton Grier (Fr.), David Helton (Fr.), Jon Woodruff (Fr.)
2010 Review: The Blue Devils’ defense has seen their leading tackler come from the linebacking corps in seven straight seasons, and that tradition continued in 2010 with Abraham Kromah. Kromah was an unsung hero on the Duke defense, finishing with a team-best 123 tackles, which was good enough for 2nd in the ACC behind BC All-American Luke Kuechly. Even with five of the top six linebackers returning in 2010, freshman Kelby Brown proved to be too good to keep off the field. After burning his redshirt against Alabama, Brown was the biggest surprise of the year on defense, earning freshman All-American honors and leading the country in fumble recoveries per game. Injuries slowed the linebackers as a whole, and Brown saw his breakout season come to an early end with a knee injury against Georgia Tech. Departing seniors Kromah, Damian Thornton, and Adam Banks leave big openings on the depth chart heading into 2011.
2011 Outlook: Though the success of the Duke defense will begin (or end) with the defensive line, the linebackers also present question marks heading into the 2011 season. Kelby Brown is the only returning player with significant starting experience, and he is recovering from season-ending ACL surgery. The newcomers are likely to push Gamble and Rojas for playing time, and that competition should be interesting to watch starting on Monday. If Kyler Brown can replicate some of his brother’s freshman success, or if France, Grier, Helton, or Woodruff can contribute ahead of schedule, then this group again could be a pleasant surprise for the 2011 Blue Devils.
Key returners: Lee Butler (Sr.), Matt Daniels (Sr.), Jordon Byas (R-Jr.), Walt Canty (Jr.), August Campbell (R-So.), Anthony Young-Wiseman (R-So.)
Newcomers: Chris Tavarez (Fr.)
2010 Review: It’s hard to say that any position group had a good year among the 2010 Duke defense, but the safeties probably contributed the most to the small success that was had. Daniels, Canty, and Butler all finished in the top 7 in tackles for the 2010 defense. The safeties produced some of the defenses’ biggest plays in 2010, and that play-making ability ultimately led the staff to end the season with primarily a 4-2-5 scheme. In a tight fourth quarter at Navy, Matt Daniels forced a key fumble to secure the Duke victory. In a game where the offense struggled against Boston College, August Campbell’s school record 95-yard fumble return for a touchdown ignited the Duke team.
2011 Outlook: The deepest position on the Duke defense by far, the success of the 4-2-5 scheme will rely on safeties to become key playmakers. Duke will return all of their safety playmakers from 2010, though they will be without redshirt-freshman Issac Blakeney for academic reasons. Even without Blakeney, this will be the deepest and most experienced group among the Duke defenders. Senior Matt Daniels is poised for an All-ACC campaign, along with fellow senior Lee Butler. Byas, Canty, and Campbell are all capable of significant improvements over their 2010 efforts. If the Duke cornerbacks can provide good coverage, the safeties should find themselves in position to slow oppfisher rushers and make plays all over the field.
Losses: Chris Rwabukamba
Key Returners: Johnny Williams (Sr.), Tony Foster (R-Jr.), Zach Greene (R-Jr.), Ross Cockrell (R-So.), Garrett Patterson (R-So.)
Newcomers: Jared Boyd (Fr.), Tim Burton (Fr.)
2010 Review: Cornerback seemed to be a feast or famine position for the 2010 Blue Devils. Missed coverages, poorly-read throws, and converted third-and-longs plagued the Duke corners all year. That being said, senior Chris Rwabukamba was the top coverage guy, forcing opponents to look elsewhere. Cockrell and Williams, two of the team’s top athletes, but both playing their first year of college defense, struggled mightily. Overall, Duke finished last in the ACC in pass defense. Cockerel was just the second freshman to lead the Blue Devils in interceptions, giving fans a glimpse of his potential coverage ability.
2011 Outlook: This is another group that needs to show significant improvement in 2011 for the Blue Devils to win. The inconsistencies and missed coverages seen in 2010 cannot happen if Duke is going to be able to improve on their ACC-worst pass defense. If the corners are unable to shut down opposing receivers, the Duke safeties will be unable to be aggressive against the run. Cockrell, Williams, Greene and Foster are likely to start the year at the top of the depth chart, but any struggles will give an opportunity for highly-touted freshman Jared Boyd. Collectively, Duke has some of their best athletes at cornerback, and those athletes will have to play with more confidence and poise than 2010.
Practice kicks off on Monday! The Blue Devils will practice every day next week, putting on pads for the first time on Friday morning. BDN will be your best source for coverage inside Duke’s training camp, as the Blue Devils prepare for the 2011 season. WE ARE DUKE.
I remain convinced a team must successfully run the ball to consistently compete to win. After rushing 45 times for 142 yards in the win at Navy, Duke followed up by rushing for 230 yards on 45 attempts with six rushing touchdowns in Saturday’s 55-48 victory over the Virginia Cavaliers. So far in 2010, through nine games, Duke is averaging 132.8 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 85th out of 120 Football Bowl Series teams. Last season, Duke finished 120th in rushing.
On Saturday, Desmond Scott rushed for 97 yards on 17 carries including the decisive 35 yard touchdown scamper on a toss sweep. Brandon Connette was Duke’s second leading rusher gaining 78 yards on 12 carries, followed by Sean Renfree who gained 22 yards on 10 carries. Connette and Renfree each scored two rushing touchdowns.
Wide Receiver Donovan Varner was the fourth Blue Devil to score a rushing touchdown when he went in motion out of the slot, received an inside hand-off from Connette on a QB option, and darted off tackle for nine yards into the end zone. Varner gained 14 yards on two carries.
Improvement in the ground attack is a positive indicator Duke continues to progress toward turning the football program into an ACC contender.
It is no coincidence Duke has a plus five (+5) turnover margin in their three victories while being minus 14 (-14) during the six losses. Turnovers kill a team’s ability to win games. Duke remains last in the ACC in turnover margin at minus nine (-9) so if they are to extend their current two game winning streak they must value the football.
With all the success Duke has had running the ball recently, make no mistake, the Blue Devils remain a pass oriented offense. Duke is third in the ACC in passing offense averaging 261.3 yards per game. Sean Renfree has passed for 2270 yards and 12 touchdowns this season.
Conner Vernon (5.4), Donovan Varner (5.2) and Austin Kelly (4.4) are first, third and eighth in the ACC respectively, in receptions per game. With Austin Kelly out for the game and Conner Vernon injured returning a kick-off, tight end Cooper Helfet stepped up and caught seven passes for 126 yards against the Cavaliers. Helfet has 20 catches in eight games this season for a 2.5 receptions per game average. He was named one of the ACC players of the week for the second consecutive week.
On Duke’s game winning drive, Donovan Varner converted the critical first down when he caught a 26 yard pass on fourth and 18.
The kicking game is another phase of the game where Duke is excelling. Will Snyderwine is ranked number three in the ACC in scoring (kick) with 72 points. He has made 15 field goals out of 16 attempts plus all 27 extra points attempted.
Duke has attempted six onsides kicks this season and been successful four times.
Lee Butler averages 9.5 yards per punt return, which is fifth in the ACC. His longest return this season is 33 yards and he returned one punt for 26 yards in this week’s victory.
Desmond Scott is sixth in the ACC in all purpose yards with 957. Scott has rushed for 489 yards, gained 260 on kick returns, and caught 22 passes for 208 yards this season.
On the defensive side of the ball, Abraham Kromah ranks second in the ACC in tackles per game at 10.1. Kelby Brown is eighth with 7.6 and Matt Daniels is tied for eleventh with 6.9.
Injuries are starting to mount and could become an issue over the last three weeks of the season so I’m awaiting Thursday’s injury report with trepidation. Duke seeks to extend their winning streak to three games when the Boston College Eagles visit Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday.
The Duke Blue Devils earned a win on the football field in Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday afternoon by scoring 55 points, the most of any team in the past decade. While it is true, the defense struggled to stop Virginia, the real story was that these Blue Devils had no quit in them no matter the circumstances. There were a lot of positives to come out of the game and we’ll discuss those in our weekly BDN Sunday Quarterback article.
An ACC win and hindsight
Duke got a much needed conference win and in the process now have a three game winning streak against Virginia, a team which was coming off a win over Miami. One cannot help but look back at contests with Maryland and Wake Forest, two other games the Blue Devils could have easily won had the ball taken one extra bounce. That would put them at 5-4 on the season. While fans cannot dwell on that, it is a sign that Duke, at least on offense has improved and that they are playing their best football this season after Saturday’s effort.
Sean Renfree continues his great play
With 6:07 to go in the fourth quarter, Sean Renfree broke down the field for a 37 yard run and a touchdown, but it was his throw on 4th and 18 from the Duke 13 yard line to Cooper Helfet that really put the Blue Devils in position to win an exciting game. Renfree beamed with confidence in the post game press conference and it’s safe to say that he has turned another corner on the learning curve.
Speaking of Cooper Helfet …
The Duke tight end made some big time catches and led his team 7 catches for 122 yards. With Conner Vernon knocked out of the game, he became the playmaker and all his catches were huge. UVA clamped down on Vernon and Donovan Varner so Coach Cutcliffe used the big tight end to get Duke out of a lot of jams. Meanwhile, he got Varner in the game with a 9 yard run off the left tackle which scored.
And then there was Brandon Connette
Renfree looked like he had been in a prize fight after the win with some bloody nicks on his face and Connette was no different. Connette, a true freshman was a load for the Cavaliers defense rushing for 81 yards on 12 carries. On one drive Connette and Duke had the ball on the 46 yard line. The tough nosed youngster ran the ball the first five plays from scrimmage until the ball was on the Virginia nine yard line before the aforementioned Varner went untouched into the end zone while the Cav’s defense was prepping for another Connette run. By the way, both Renfree and Connette scored two rushing touchdowns apiece. Now go see when the last time two QB’s did that in one game at Duke via the record books. Oh yeah! And his two rushing touchdowns ties Chris Douglass as the most from a freshman.
A third quarterback from St. Louis played a role as well
I am an on the field guy when covering the games but the weather kept me in the press box during the first half. But once entering the battle zone in the second half, I got to talk to and see Thaddeus Lewis, Duke’s record setting quarterback who is now with the NFL’s St. Louis Rams. I came to know Lewis over his four years at Duke and his character hasn’t changed one bit. When Varner scored, he came up to Lewis who was by my side and the two exchanged pleasantries before he went back to the bench. Lewis was yelling encouragement to his ex teammates all game long and in crunch time he rolled into the bench area for support.
The game was physical and for men
The two teams were laying down some hits all game long and the play from up close was very physical in nature. After one defensive stand, Duke nose guard Charlie Hatcher came off the field right beside me and was punch drunk. I put my hand on his shoulder pad and pointed him the direction of the bench and about that time a teammate came up and got him there. Hatcher was a warrior in the middle and came right back and made plays including a shoe string sack of UVA quarterback Marc Verica.
Desmond Scott and Duke ran the ball well
The last time Duke gained 259 yards rushing was against NCCU last season but it was 2003 when Chris Douglass played that Duke gained as much against an ACC foe. Desmond Scott fell 3 yards short of 100 yard for the day but his touchdown as time was winding down will be long remembered. I just happened to be standing at the pylon near the endzone andthat meant I had an incredible birds eye view of the play. Scott ran wide with the ball and just when you thought he was down and Duke was close to allowing Will Snyderwine to be a hero, but the sophomore had other plans. Scott made a move and then tight roped his way down the sideline jumping and stretching toward the pylon two feet in front of me for the score. His effort was tremendous and he grew up even more as a running back on a play I can still see in my minds eye.
Ross Cockrell is a playmaker
There were times when I wondered what Cutcliffe had seen in his redshirt freshman defensive back for he has learned on the fly by trial and error this season. Cockrell had a coming out game versus Virginia with two interceptions and he was so close to a third that was called a dropped ball when nobody in the stadium saw it as such. The replay was insufficient for the angle was bad, but many feel he made the play, but why harp on that with a huge Duke victory? For what it’s worth, Thaddeus Lewis said he was going to be the real deal and used his name in the same sentence as other great Duke DB’s like John Tally. The lessons learned this season will make Cockrell one of the best at his position as his career moves ahead.
You should have been there, you really should have been there
Duke has just under 23,000 in attendance and those who missed this game, missed a good old fashioned offensive shoot out. I cracked on the students via our twitter game updates in that there may have been 30 there for kickoff and that number went to maybe 120 for the game. The students who were there were supportive and warriors and are to be commended but for others to not support a team playing their hearts out late in the season is a tad tacky if not selfish. The students there were shown appreciation by Cut and the team when they ran over to greet them after the game and it was emotional in a most good way. Cutcliffe would later say he appreciated their support, calling them and those around for the celebration their real fans. It would be nice to see the place full for the Boston College game this coming week where Duke can win their third straight game and pick up another ACC win.
Closing the season on a high note thus far
After many early struggles, this Duke team has showed they have no quit in them. Duke wants togo into the off season with momentum and they have a chance to do that in their remaining three games, two of which are at home. Duke had several recruiting prospects at the game and word is they were impressed by the direction the Blue Devils are going in. Many of the Dukies return a season from now and the rebuilding process is on track in a year when they lost key defensive players. Cutcliffe said their goal was to get better each day in practice and that hard work is starting to pay off. But nothing is sweeter than a win and yesterday Duke reached deep and won in exciting fashion. See you in Wade for the Boston College game and when I do let me see the friend you invited by your side. BDN supports Duke Football and so should you!
The Duke Blue Devils came out on fire scoring 21 first quarter points and they ended the fourth quarter with another 21 points in a thrilling 55-48 victory over Virginia. In between those quarters was an offensive showdown but in the end Desmond Scott danced down the sidelines for a 35 yard run for a touchdown shortly the possession after he fumbled the ball after a solid Virginia hit.
Demond Scott was quite simply resilient but he was not alone, for several Blue Devils stepped up to the plate and willed Duke to their first ACC win of the season and their second straight win. Scott would finish with 97 yards rushing on the day and the Blue Devils ran for a total of 230 yards, the most since 2003 against an ACC school.
Duke back up quarterback Brandon Connette had 78 yards rushing himself and two rushing scores, his first a 2 yard run and his second an exciting 20 yard jaunt. And then starting quarterback Sean Renfree ran for two scores as well including a 37 yard run for a score putting Duke up before the Cavaliers scored two touchdowns of their own, the last one a Keith Payne 6 yard run which put the Cavaliers up 48-47.
The Blue Devils were working on field goal position but Scott’s aforementioned run worked out just fine and according to Duke Coach David Cutcliffe, the play was just installed this week. The Duke defense then held after letting up 643 yards of total offense to the Cavaliers.
Another Duke star was tight end Cooper Helfet who pulled in 7 passes for 122 yards, a team high and a score. His play and the play of Duke’s wideout depth helped offset the loss of Conner Vernon who was knocked silly on a kickoff return.
The way Duke won was incredible in that it looked as if they were going to lose a heart breaker. With just over a minute Duke got the ball back and trailed by a single digit. Renfree was sacked by the Virginia defense in his first two plays and Duke was forced to use their last timeout and the next play was an incomplete pass to Helfet.
That sat the scene for a 4th and 18 play where Renfree hit a streaking Donovan Varner for a 32 yard completion to the UVA 47 yard line and just when you were thinking a Duke field goal to win the game Duke found the end zone and smiles abounded from cheerleaders, fans and players for Duke won a bonafide thriller.
There was so much action it’s hard to emcompess it in one article so we’ll have more coming your way shortly as Duke goes to 3-6 on the season with Boston College coming into Wallace Wade Stadium next week.