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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. 89: Duke

Duke has improved its scoring output in each of David Cutcliffe’s three seasons: from 215 points in 2007, Ted Roof’s final year, to 240 points in Cutcliffe’s first; from 240 to 302 in 2009; from 302 to 303 last fall. Unfortunately, the defense has taken a dip in each of the last three years: from 218 points allowed in 2008 to 340 points in 2009 to 425 points last fall. So, the clear lesson we take from this is that while you can be one-dimensional and win at some stops — Oklahoma State’s defensive allergies come to mind — it’s not possible to do so at Duke. Well, it’s possible: Steve Spurrier did it, winning 20 games in three years on the back of his offense. Of course, that was in an A.C.C. that lacked Florida State, Boston College, Miami (Fla.) and Virginia Tech. And there’s only one Steve Spurrier.

Atlantic Coast, Coastal

Durham, N.C.

Blue Devils

Returning starters
14 (8 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 68

2010 record
(3-9, 1-7)

Last year’s

No. 103

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
  • Sept. 10
  • Sept. 17
    at B.C.
  • Sept. 24
  • Oct. 1
    at F.I.U.
  • Oct. 15
  • Oct. 22
    Wake Forest
  • Oct. 29
    Virginia Tech
  • Nov. 5
    at Miami (Fla.)
  • Nov. 12
    at Virginia
  • Nov. 19
    Georgia Tech
  • Nov. 26
    at U.N.C.

Last year’s prediction

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. 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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Some of Duke’s defensive showings: 406 yards allowed to Elon; 500 to Wake Forest; 626 to Alabama; 643 yards to Virginia… you get the idea. The number of opponents Duke held to under 400 yards of total offense? Four. This defense was really bad. Bad at getting to the quarterback; 12 sacks, last in the conference. Not surprisingly, given that fact, Duke finished dead last in the A.C.C. in pass defense. Equal-opportunity bad: 208.3 yards allowed on the ground, also last. Bad at creating turnovers, though worse in committing them. Bad at getting stops on fourth down, bad at getting stops in the red zone. Bad, if you follow my drift. But not uncompetitive. The Blue Devils did enough offensively to lose five games by 10 points or less, including each of their last three on the year. Perhaps it’s heartening to know that despite being so inept defensively, Duke wasn’t all that far off from six wins.

High point Back-to-back wins to bridge October and November. The first, Navy, was Duke’s best win on the year. The Blue Devils took a 24-0 lead, dominating the first half and forcing the Midshipmen to turn to the passing game to claw back into contention. They did, actually throwing for 227 yards, but it wasn’t enough. A week later, a win over Virginia pushed Duke to 3-6.

Low point A 54-48 loss to Wake Forest on the second Saturday of September foreshadowed some of Duke’s main issues throughout the year. Namely, an offense that was good enough to win games but a defense that didn’t carry the load. Ironically, in Duke’s best defensive showing on the year (275 yards allowed against Maryland), it was the offense that came up short. Maryland won that game, 21-16.

Tidbit Say what you will about Duke’s slide last fall, but Cutcliffe has still won 12 games in three years. That’s the program’s best stretch by a single coach since Spurrier, who went 20-13-1 from 1987-89. Another Spurrier streak that Cutcliffe can match in 2011? Consecutive 300-point seasons: Spurrier had three, and until last fall was the only coach in program history to have two. Just as a note, Duke had won a total of 13 games over the previous nine years prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival.

Tidbit (November edition) Duke won its first November game under Cutcliffe last fall, outlasting Virginia, 55-48, which doubled as the team’s first conference win of the season. The Blue Devils had gone 0-9 from November over Cutcliffe’s first two years and went 0-3 after defeating the Cavaliers. Such a late-season swoon might not have meant anything last fall, but at 5-3 through October, an 0-4 finish to 2009 prevented Duke from reaching bowl eligibility.

Former players in the N.F.L.

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

Arbitrary top five list

Duke men’s basketball players in the N.B.A.
1. SF Grant Hill (1994-present).
2. PF Elton Brand (1999-present).
3. PF Carlos Boozer (2002-present).
4. SG Jeff Mullins (1964-76).
5. C Mike Gminski (1980-94).


David Cutcliffe (Alabama ’76), 12-24 after three seasons at Duke. He improved Duke’s win total in each of his two seasons, laying the ground work for an expected — by me, at least — return to bowl play in 2010. That didn’t happen, and it was a disappointment. Nevertheless, Cutcliffe has begun the process of bringing Duke into the A.C.C. picture, as a potential challenger not just for one bowl trip but for multiple bowl trips, should he combine the strides made on offense with a competent defense. His career mark, which includes parts of seven seasons at Ole Miss, is 56-51. 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. Cutcliffe can coach, we know that. But it takes a special kind of coach to win at Duke.

Players to watch

Junior quarterback Sean Renfree cut down his interceptions during the second half of 2010, tossing only three from Oct. 23 on after throwing 14 picks over the year’s first six games. Ten of his 14 touchdown passes also came over the first half of the year, so the key for Renfree in 2011 is to reconcile aggressive quarterback play with careful, error-free play. The two can go hand-in-hand, though typically once a passer gets a year or so of experience under his belt. It’s easy to think of Renfree as a tested hand, since he arrived on campus with such ballyhoo and took a number of snaps as a freshman, but he’s still green. I think the light turns on in 2011.

Duke’s receiver pairing of senior Donovan Varner and junior Conner Vernon is the most productive in the A.C.C.: the two combined to make 133 grabs for 1,709 yards last fall, with Vernon’s line (73 catches, 973 yards, 4 scores) netting him first-team all-conference honors. It’s easy to see Varner and Vernon doing even more in 2011, especially with Renfree a year older and Duke’s high hopes with the running game, which will create more balance. Sophomore Brandon Braxton (14 for 180) continued to impress during the spring. He could give Renfree another talented option, which should intimidate any A.C.C. or non-conference foe with questions at cornerback. Then there’s tight end Cooper Helfelt (34 for 380, 2 scores): another weapon for Renfree, Cutcliffe and his staff to work with.

I like Duke’s decision to move Brian Moore inside from guard to center. His presence in the middle will help the Blue Devils offset Bryan Morgan’s departure while steadying the interior of the line. The line as a whole has been highlighted for its inability to get things going on the ground, though one can very easily get caught up in a chicken-or-the-egg argument: Does Duke struggle running the football because of the line or because the staff doesn’t put enough emphasis on the running game? It’s not a coincidence that Duke went 3-1 when rushing the ball 40 times or more.

The Blue Devils should run the ball more. They have the offensive line to do so, in my opinion. It starts with Moore, but Duke also touts a pair of pretty good tackles in Perry Simmons and Kyle Hill, the latter entering his fourth year as a starter. Sophomore guard Dave Harding is an up-and-comer, and there are several first- and second-year players poised to take on large roles for the first time in their careers. Thanks to diligent work on the recruiting trail, the line is bigger and deeper — simply more talented. This is easily the program’s best offensive front under Cutcliffe, and it therefore stands to reason that is Duke’s best offensive line in years and years.

Running back Desmond Scott will benefit. Again, it depends if the coaching staff opts to run the ball more often, but Scott looks like a guy who could challenge for a 1,000-yard junior season — if his body can take the pounding. He rushed for 530 yards a year ago, most on the team, and added another 34 grabs for 266 yards through the air. At worst he’s one of the A.C.C.’s better dual-threat running back options. Backup quarterback Brandon Connette mixes-and-matches with Renfree as a running option, especially in the red zone. With Josh Snead, Jay Hollingsworth and Juwan Thompson also back in the mix, Duke brings back its five leading rushers from 2010.

A shift to a 4-2-5 defense will play to Duke’s strength at safety while avoiding a potential trouble area at linebacker. On the second level, the Blue Devils lost a pair of solid starters in Abraham Kromah and Damian Thornton while the third starter, sophomore Kelby Brown, is still recovering from knee surgery. Another would-be contributor, Tyree Glover, was dismissed from the team in April. So there’s a lack of numbers from top to bottom, and even those who return either have injury issues, like Brown, or are not experienced enough to be comfortable with. It’s not a good situation.

The front seven as a whole is the team’s biggest weakness. It really isn’t even close: Duke is a borderline bowl team even with this front seven, but even an average front seven would make this a seven-win team. It’s actually a bit unfortunate. Cutcliffe has done a great job replenishing the offensive line, but Duke lacks numbers and talent at linebacker and proven talent along the defensive line, which I’ll touch on below.

At least there are safeties. Two are returning starters: Matt Daniels finished second on the team in tackles last fall with 93 (6 for loss), while Lee Butler added 58 stops and an interception. The third addition to the three-safety look might be junior Walt Canty, who made six starts a year ago, but it’s more likely sophomore Austin Campbell, who made the move from linebacker during the 2010 season and seemed to take to his new role. Campbell is just part of the depth at safety, as you’d expect with this move to the 4-2-5. Many are Cutcliffe’s young recruits, so I know the staff is excited to see what they can do on the field.

Losing Chris Rwabukamba at cornerback hurts: he didn’t get a ton of credit, thanks to how poor the defense played overall, but Rwabukamba routinely lined up against the opponent’s best and held his own. That led the rest of the A.C.C. to throw at his mates at cornerback, but perhaps that’s not a bad thing – at least the returning contributors gained some valuable experience. Ross Cockrell is one of those guys, a sophomore who last fall became the first Duke freshmen in more than two decades to lead the team in interceptions. It’s hard to project how good Cockrell can become, but he’s still growing; he’ll continue to get better with each Saturday.

Zach Greene, a junior, and Johnny Williams, a senior, are the elder statesmen of the group. Neither are all that experienced, however. Greene’s been around a bit, playing in 12 games as a reserve in each of the last two years. But while Williams has the athletic ability to be a factor, he’s still learning the position after moving over from receiver prior to last season. Another former receiver, Tony Foster, moved over to defense in the spring.

Position battle(s) to watch

Defensive line Duke’s bowl hopes hinge on the defensive line’s ability to do what defensive lines are asked to do: stop the run and rush the quarterback. These Blue Devils don’t even have to do these two things all that well, just better than they did a year ago. That still might be asking too much. There’s only one senior up front, Charlie Hatcher, though the Blue Devils do bring back a second starter in sophomore Sydney Sarmiento. This pair will start up front, Hatcher on the nose, with Curtis Hazleton pushing the pair for snaps. In a dream situation, the Blue Devils can find a replacement for Sarmiento on third down, as the sophomore was a non-factor on passing downs. Perhaps that help comes from a few redshirt freshmen, though it’s hard to predict what kind of impact these rookies will have. The story at end is that of potential. Case in point: Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo, a redshirt freshman who was praised nearly throughout spring ball. Same with Jamal Wallace, another redshirt freshman. And junior Kenny Anunike, who has been stymied by injuries. And sophomore Justin Foxx. New line coach Rick Petri, formerly of Miami (Fla.), is a good one, but he has his hands full with this group.

Game(s) to watch

Duke must go 3-1 outside of A.C.C. play. I think we pencil Stanford in as a loss, so the Blue Devils must avoid slip-ups against Richmond and Tulane and beat a confident Florida International squad on the road. Wins against Wake Forest and Virginia are also a must.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The offense is there. The defense is not. It’s that simple for Duke, and I could stop there when describing this season in a nutshell. Looking a little closer, however, you see a young team that is still progressing on each side of the ball – yes, even the defense. Begin on offense, where it’s clear to me that the Blue Devils have rebuilt an offensive line that was nearly in shambles when Cutcliffe and his crew arrived roughly four years ago. Now, we see a group with a nice blend of returning talent, especially at center and both tackles, and young, rising talent. It all starts up front in any offense, and Duke is headed in the right direction. Renfree is an all-A.C.C. level quarterback; there are two strong receivers; and the backfield returns roughly intact. The play-calling needs some tweaking, especially when it comes to perhaps refining the running game, but the offense is there, as noted. But the defense is not up to par, and that’s why Duke is at best a borderline bowl team in 2011. The defensive line is particularly poor, though the pass rush might improve if these young ends are ready – but I don’t think they are. The front seven as a whole is a tremendous question mark, even though the secondary has potential. Take that and add a tough schedule and you have the makings of a five-win team at best, in my mind. I know I thought Duke was ready last fall, but I was clearly off. Now I think we’re a year away.

Dream season It all comes together. Offense, defense, special teams, seven wins, bowling.

Nightmare season The offense takes a step back and the defense remains the same. Two ingredients for a 2-10 season.

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.

Word Count

Through 32 teams 85,227.

Up Next

Who is No. 88? There’s a 34-year difference in the graduating years between the offensive and defensive coordinator at tomorrow’s program.

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  1. Alex Payne says:

    This one hurts a little, because I’ve always felt bad for those poor, tortured souls in Ames.

    Next up is Iowa State.

  2. tulaneoutlaw says:

    No Shane Battier in the top 5?

  3. Steve says:

    Iowa State may be the most boring team….ever and always. Watchable when they had Troy Davis but they still were a very bad team. Can’t believe they draw like they do. Indiana is more interesting then Iowa State.

  4. Jim W.... says:

    Hope Duke Football proves you wrong at number 89 here…

    Bowl baby bowl

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