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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 68: Duke

Long a fixture along Tobacco Road, Duke is looking to make some noise on the gridiron.

Duke’s not ready – at least the Blue Devils weren’t in 2009, though the team continues to make significant progress under the underrated David Cutcliffe. Don’t allow the 5-3 mark through October to fool you: Duke was better, but minus a three-touchdown victory at N.C. State, those five wins were not especially impressive. I don’t mean to impugn the job that the former Mississippi coach has done with the Blue Devils, as he has granted the program respectability, an intangible it has missed since, well, Spurrier. In that case, five wins is cause for celebration.

Atlantic Coast, Coastal

Durham, N.C.

Blue Devils

Returning starters
15 (9 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 96

2009 record
(5-7, 3-5)

Last year’s

No. 76

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
  • Sept. 11
    at Wake Forest
  • Sept. 18
  • Sept. 25
  • Oct. 2
    at Maryland
  • Oct. 16
    Miami (Fla.)
  • Oct. 23
    at Virginia Tech
  • Oct. 30
    at Navy
  • Nov. 6
  • Nov. 13
    Boston College
  • Nov. 20
    at Georgia Tech
  • Nov. 27
    North Carolina

Last year’s prediction

Still, this team looks to be the best Duke team in 15 years. I don’t think anyone would find an argument with naming Lewis as one of the top two quarterbacks in the A.C.C., and if Cutcliffe can develop a solid running game (tough to do with an almost entirely new line) and find a new No. 1 receiver, the offense will be better. Over all, there is a lot to like about Duke football — starting with David Cutcliffe — as well as enough concerns to keep me from believing the program is ready to reach bowl play. As I said in last year’s preview, it looks like 2010 is the year the Blue Devils will make the jump to six wins and bowl eligibility.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Let’s not break out the champagne just yet: Duke did improve on offense – the 302 points are the second-most since 1990 – yet was inconsistent in A.C.C. play. A three-game win streak saw Duke score 96 points, but the Blue Devils scored only 32 in its next three games, all losses. The same can be said of the defense, which allowed nearly five more points per game as it did in Cutcliffe’s debut season. Is this being too hard on the Blue Devils? Absolutely not. Five wins is nice, but this is no longer the pre-Cutcliffe Blue Devils, where fans should be happy merely with a distraction until basketball season. These Blue Devils will be held up to a higher standard. They have the coach to get there.

High point The 5-3 start, which left Duke on the verge of bowl eligibility and, believe it or not, well in the mix for the Coastal division crown. The Blue Devils won three straight conference games heading into November: by 49-28 at North Carolina State, by 17-13 against Maryland and by 28-17 at Virginia.

Low point Standing on the verge of bowl eligibility – needing only a single win in November – Duke lost to rival U.N.C., Georgia Tech, Miami and Wake Forest by a combined score of 147-66. No game was close, obviously; even in a 13-point loss to the Tar Heels, Duke managed only 125 yards of total offense. As strong as Richmond turned out to be, the Blue Devils opened the season with a disappointing eight-point loss at home to the Spiders.

Tidbit Duke averaged only 63.5 yards rushing per game last fall, the worst total in the country. In some good news, Duke’s six rushing touchdowns was only 119th nationally, ahead of the five scores from lowly Washington State. Now, back to the bad news: if you remove Duke’s 233-yard performance against N.C. Central, the Blue Devils averaged only 48.1 yards per game on the ground.

Tidbit (golf edition) The debate on which North Carolina university has the best basketball team is heated, to say the least. Duke and North Carolina obviously lead the debate, though N.C. State and Wake Forest have had varying levels of success. I don’t think I have time to address that debate. However, we have finally put to bed this eternal question: Which is the best public golf course in the Triangle, the region that includes Duke, U.N.C. and N.C. State? It’s the Duke University Golf Course, by a landslide. Duke’s course earned 37 percent of the 1,668 votes, with N.C. State’s Lonnie Poole Golf Course coming in second with 23 percent, North Carolina’s Finley Golf Course third with 12 percent and Wake Forest’s Heritage Golf Club landing seven percent.

Former players in the N.F.L.

6 LB Patrick Bailey (Pittsburgh), QB Thaddeus Lewis (Chicago), LS Patrick Mannelly (Chicago), DE Ayanga Okpokowuruk (New York Giants), LB Vincent Rey (Cincinnati), WR Eron Riley (Baltimore).

Arbitrary top five list

Famous Dukes
1. Richard III, 1st Duke of Gloucester.
2. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.
3. Prince Edward, 1st Duke of Windsor.
4. Randolph and Mortimer, owners of Duke & Duke
5. Bo and Luke, Dukes of Hazzard.


David Cutcliffe (Alabama ’76), 9-15 after two seasons at Duke. He has improved Duke’s win total in each of his two seasons, laying the ground work for an expected return to bowl play in the near future. More than anything, Cutcliffe has begun the process of bringing Duke into the A.C.C. picture, as a potential challenger not just for a postseason appearance but – potentially, potentially – an eventual conference champion. His career mark, which includes parts of seven seasons at Ole Miss, is 53-42. Though he earned national praise for the job he did at Mississippi, Cutcliffe is most well known for his long association with the University of Tennessee, where he spent 19 seasons as an assistant. That stretch began in 1982, when Cutcliffe started as a part-time assistant coach, and continued through 1998. After being fired from Ole Miss in 2004, health issues forced him to take one year off from coaching; he was hired to be Charlie Weis’s first quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame before stepping down before the start of the season. In 2006 Cutcliffe returned to Rocky Top for a two-year stint before being tabbed as Duke’s next head coach. With the Volunteers, Cutcliffe spent six seasons as the tight ends coach (1983-88), a single season coaching the running backs (1989) and three as the quarterbacks coach (1990-92) before being promoted to the offensive coordinator spot, where he earned the well-deserved reputation as one of the nation’s best game-planners and play-callers. At Ole Miss, Cutcliffe finished a winning record in each of his first five seasons, including a 10-win 2003 season highlighted by a SEC West co-championship and a Cotton Bowl win. The 2004 team, rebuilding after the graduation of quarterback Eli Manning, slid to 4-7, leading the Ole Miss administration — in its infinite wisdom — decided to fire Cutcliffe; the program, under the direction of Ed Orgeron, went 10-25 over the next three seasons. Not a great call. As he’s illustrating at Duke, the man can coach. I only hope, for Duke’s sake, he hangs around to see the rebuilding process through.

Players to watch

The offensive line entered last season as a question mark, thanks to the departure of three starters and the groups poor play in 2008. It’s a slightly different story entering this fall: four starters return, though the Blue Devils need to land an improved performance from this offensive front in 2010. The left side of the line will again be manned by junior Kyle Hill at tackle and senior Mitchell Lederman at guard, though Lederman did miss the spring while recovering from a foot injury. Senior Bryan Morgan, despite his lack of prototypical size, is one of the finest centers in the A.C.C.if not the country. Sophomore right guard Brian Moore, is cut out of the same mold: slightly undersized for an interior lineman, but very productive. Junior Jon Needham, an important reserve last fall, will step in at right tackle. This is the most talented Duke offensive line in years; nevertheless, it must do a better job, especially in the running game, in 2010.

The Sean Renfree era begins in 2010.. hopefully. Renfree has been the heir apparent to Thaddeus Lewis — the terrific departed signal caller — since he signed with the Blue Devils two years ago, earning valuable experience a year ago as the team’s backup. He played in six games, throwing for 330 yards while completing a superb 68 percent of his attempts; unfortunately, Renfree’s season was cut short after six games due to an A.C.L. tear. He was limited during the spring while recovering from that injury, though it seems that the sophomore will be ready to go come the fall. It’s vital that Renfree is ready: beyond being a future star, and the burgeoning face of the program, neither redshirt freshman Sean Schroeder nor true freshman Brandon Connette, his reserves, are ready for the A.C.C.

Duke has weapons at wide receiver, beginning with junior Donovan Varner. The all-conference performer had a breakout 2009 campaign, posting team highs in receptions (65), receiving yards (1,065) and touchdowns (8) after making only 21 grabs as a freshman. Varner will be joined by sophomore Connor Vernon (55 catches for 746 yards), one of the top freshman receivers in the country last fall, and senior Austin Kelly (54 for 625, 4 touchdowns). Despite the talent at the position, Duke is relatively young at receiver: Kelly is the lone senior among this group, and the Blue Devils have five first- or second-year performers, including Vernon, poised to serve as part of the rotation.

It will be very important for Duke to create some semblance of balance on offense, putting forth at least a competent running game to go with this talented passing attack. Last year’s struggles on the ground do stem back to the play of the offensive line, of course, but it would help matters if Cutcliffe and his offensive staff made a more concrete effort to run the ball with consistency. Duke has the talent at running back to justify giving the run game a larger role: sophomore Desmond Scott, a highly-touted recruit, has 1,000-yard ability. He rushed for a team-best 262 yards a year ago despite missing the first three games of the year. Scott is not Duke’s only option; the team could also call on junior Jay Hollingsworth (179 yards rushing) and sophomore Patrick Kurunwune (149 yards).

Duke will miss the production of linebacker Vincent Rey, one of the top play makers at the position in the A.C.C. a year ago. The Blue Devils do return a pair of starters at linebacker, however, with senior Damian Thornton projected to make the move from weak side linebacker to the middle in an effort to replace Rey. Thornton made 60 tackles (6 for loss) last fall, fourth on the team. Another senior, Abraham Kromah, will swap from the strong to the weak side to fill Thornton’s shoes. His former spot on the strong side remains open to competition, though senior Adam Banks has starting experience at the position. He made four starts there last fall, helping him land 33 stops on the year. Sophomore Tyree Glover and redshirt freshman Kevin Rojas will be the top reserves on the strong side.

The secondary took a sizable step forward last fall, largely due to the solid play of departed cornerback Leon Wright. Replacing a player of Wright’s caliber — not to mention his team-best five interceptions — will be difficult, though Duke believes junior Johnny Williams, a former wide receiver, has the athleticism to excel on the defensive side of the ball. Williams made 31 catches for 385 yards a year ago, when he served as an important member of the rotation at receiver. The Blue Devils could also turn to sophomore Zach Greene, one of last’s season young contributors in the defensive backfield.

Senior Chris Rwabukamba, a 13-game starter over his career, returns at the second cornerback spot. Senior strong safety Matt Daniels had a good debut season in the starting lineup last fall, standing stout against the run in finishing third on the team with 83 tackles. The secondary does have a hole at free safety, thanks to the departure of Catron Gainey. Junior Lee Butler, who started at cornerback last fall, is an option here, as is sophomore Jordan Byas. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Butler continue to see time at cornerback — if not return there altogether — while Byas, a solid performer a year ago, looks like the future at the position.

Position battles to watch

Defensive line The loss of tackle Vince Oghobaase and end Ayanga Okpokowuruk, each all-conference performers, raises a few concerns about the health of the Duke defensive front. Two starters do return, however, with one, Charlie Hatcher, ready to take the next step. Largely a two-down player last fall, Hatcher has the ability to dictate the tempo when lining up on the nose. He made 39 tackles (7 for loss) and 1.5 sacks last fall, stepping up his play during a four-game stretch when Oghobaase was lost to injury. Patrick Egboh (34 tackles, 1 sack) will again man one of the two end spots, with senior Wesley Oglesby (15 stops, 1.5 sacks) stepping for Okpokowuruk on the opposite side. Oglesby has extensive starting experience, with two games last fall joining 14 starts over his first two seasons. My biggest worry is replacing Oghobaase at tackle. There’s little depth or experience on the interior of the line — outside of Hatcher, obviously — though Duke can call upon several youngsters if it opts to go with a by-committee approach. One of those youngsters is redshirt freshman Sydney Sarmiento, who spent last season adding valuable size to his frame. Sophomore Curtis Hazelton, lightly-used last fall, is another option.

Game(s) to watch

Though the schedule does not present a chance for Duke to rise for air, the potential is there for a 4-1 start. That would set Duke right on the path for at least six wins, so keep an eye on how Duke handles winnable games against Elon, Wake Forest, Army and Maryland.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell This is the year: I think Duke will reach bowl play in 2010. But it will be close. The schedule is extremely difficult, pitting the Blue Devils against Alabama and Navy in non-conference play; against the four terrific Coastal division teams — U.N.C., Miami (Fla.), Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech; and on the road against Maryland, a team comparable in talent, but not coaching. Now, about that coaching. Cutcliffe has done a wonderful job in Durham, reversing a generation of ineptitude in three short years, rapidly developing a roster devoid of meaningful talent and installing an offense capable of scoring points in conference play. This year will be no different offensively, though much does depend on how well Renfree can recover from his knee injury. If he’s ready to go come September, as expected, the Blue Devils will challenge the school record for points scored in a season; if he’s not, all bets are off when it comes to reaching that sixth win. No, Duke is not terrific, not a conference title contender, but I do think this team is prepared to take the next step.

Dream season Duke reaches bowl play in style, winning eight games and finishing second in the very stout Coastal division.

Nightmare season The Blue Devils regress, losing a win off of last season’s total to finish 4-8.

In case you were wondering

Where do Duke fans congregate? There are a number of options out there to talk to Duke sports, though more than a few are focused mainly on the university’s basketball team. Still, if you’re interested, check out Duke ReportDevils Illustrated and The Devils Den. As always, send me your favorite blogs, message boards and local beat reporters yearning to be included in this section.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. Here’s the question:

Cutcliffe will face off against his alma mater when Alabama travels to Duke on Sept. 18. Can you name the last Alabama alum to lead a team against the Crimson Tide, and cite the result of the game?

Teams already spoken for: Navy (Shawn), Texas (Noefli), Texas A&M (Dr. Norris Camacho), Texas Tech (Freakville), Virginia Tech (James), Wake Forest (jjtiller) and Washington (Dr. Klahn).

Up Next

Who is No. 67? Our next school my have 99 problems — such as the impending departure of its controversial athletic director — but its basketball team, perennially among the nation’s best, isn’t one.

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  1. katster says:

    So, the answer would be Dabo Sweeney in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in 2008. Unfortunately, his alma mater steamrolled his team 34-10.

    Paul: I think the California sun has been getting to you. While Dabo is currently the coach at Clemson, Tommy Bowden began the 2008 season as the team’s head coach. The answer is easier than you might think.

  2. katster says:

    Haw, I misread a date. :P Argh.

    Okay, how about Sylvester Croom, the former Miss State coach? His last game against Alabama also ended badly, 32-7.

    Paul: That’s the one. Croom’s Bulldogs played his alma mater pretty tough, just not in 2008. Leave your team pick in the comment field below.

  3. Jeff says:


  4. katster says:

    California sun’s pretty much right, although less of it up here in the northern half than down LA way. I’ll take my California Golden Bears, if that’s cool.

  5. george howley says:

    Lew Perkins is on his way out:Kansas?

  6. [...] willing to make that bet over the weekend on his blog "Pre-Snap Read," pegging Duke to end the second-longest bowl drought in the country this winter. The Devils are coming off their best season in 15 years, and you know, it has to [...]

  7. [...] of the ACC, Pre-Snap Read continues its countdown, including Navy opponents Wake Forest and Duke. Mouse Davis, father of the modern Run & Shoot, is back on the staff at Hawaii. Some hometown [...]

  8. Jack says:

    Hey now! Why the snub of Archduke Franz Ferdinand?

  9. bba says:

    just found you and really like the site. great previews. just one qualm a/b my devils though- they were not on the cusp of bowl eligibility in nov. since they played nc cen. and richmond, they had to get to 7 wins to go bowling. but your insights and overviews for a random team like us is just as good as the pages devoted. looking forward to my other alma mater’s preview (uga). thanks, i’ll continue to check out the site.

  10. Wayne Nance says:

    Good 2010-2011 team, not great but very good. IF only they could stop the long yardage gainers against DUKE. Those long runs or run backs are “back breakers” for the moral of the team (it also affects Duke fans). F.Y.I.

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