2015 CFB Preview – Duke

    Duke Blue DevilsGo to Team Page Blue DevilsGo to Selection Page           Nine wins felt oddly hollow in Durham. Now that is a

    June 30, 2015

    Duke
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    Nine wins felt oddly hollow in Durham. Now that is a sign of undeniable progress.

    By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello

    Duke has reached a point in its improbable evolution where failing to win the Coastal Division is borderline disappointing, arguably David Cutcliffe’s most impressive achievement to date. The Blue Devils are no longer just happy to be there, a seismic cultural shift in expectations that seemed unattainable just a few years ago.

    So, when back-to-back November losses cost Duke a chance for a return to the ACC title game, a feeling of unfinished business followed. Now, after winning 19 games over two seasons, the Blue Devils are determined to remain on the same course that helped make them one of college football’s feel-good Cinderella stories.

    For Duke to continue forging ahead, Cutcliffe must enhance his reputation as one of the game’s premier developers of young quarterbacks. Veteran Anthony Boone is gone, opening the door for Thomas Sirk to become more than just a situational runner, his role in 2014. As Sirk goes, so will the Blue Devils go this fall, because the passing attack can no longer rely on the exploits of record-setting WR Jamison Crowder. And although the backs have proven potential, Duke has always been about the balance during the Cutcliffe years.

    The defense in Durham is like a fine restaurant with awful service—the Blue Devils excel in the back of he house, but are suspect in the front. The secondary is a collection of athletic ball-hawks, LB Kelby Brown is returning from injury and P Will Monday is the unit’s best—albeit unheralded—friend. But Duke will remain vulnerable to north-south teams unafraid to go old-school on it. It’s the one area of the program that has remained consistently stuck in a bygone era when bowl berths were a perennial goal that went unmet.

    Wake Forest, another Tobacco Road school known best for its basketball teams, won 28 games in the three-year span from 2006-08. But the Deacons haven’t had a winning season since, a reality not lost on the Blue Devils. Duke remains a basketball school. Always will be. As long as Coach Cut is in charge, though, there’s a sense that football competitiveness is not only possible, it’s now expected on a yearly basis.

    What you need to know about the offense: Scottie Montgomery is back for his second season as the offensive coordinator, aiming to keep Duke’s pro-style attack humming. The Blue Devils have averaged more than 30 points in each of the last three seasons, while becoming increasingly balanced behind an underrated offensive line. Remaining on the rails in 2015, though, hinges squarely on the development of first-time starting QB Thomas Sirk, Duke’s version of BYU bulldozer Taysom Hill. Sirk was a change-of-pace runner in short-yardage a year ago, but he now assumes the reins of an attack looking to replace record-setting WR Jamison Crowder, elite OG Laken Tomlinson and veteran LT Takoby Cofield. As the new wide receivers gradually emerge out of obscurity, the Devils would be wise to lean a little harder on the ground troops. Not only will Sirk’s skills be maximized, but last season’s top rushers, Shaquille Powell and the precocious Shaun Wilson, are back in the fold as well.

    What you need to know about the defense: He’s an unknown outside of coaching circles, but coordinator Jim Knowles has done a fine job with the Blue Devil D. Without any household names, Duke allowed just 21 points per game in 2014. However, the unit is saddled with a nagging and routine problem, an inability to win the line of scrimmage. The shortcoming has allowed opponents to run right at the Blue Devils with impunity, daring them to mount a defense. Duke will again be vulnerable in the trenches and on the flanks after the graduation of three of last year’s starters. After DT Carlos Wray, there’s a ton of uncertainty and inexperience. The back seven, though, is an entirely different story. Former all-star LB Kelby Brown is back after missing last year to a knee injury, and the secondary is among the best in the league. All five starting defensive backs return, including All-ACC safeties Jeremy Cash and DeVon Edwards. Now, if Duke can only locate a consistent pass rush, throwing on this team will be a weekly nightmare.

    What to watch for on offense: Pass could fail. Sure, all eyes will be on QB Thomas Sirk, the likely heir to Anthony Boone. But the Devils must also replace their top two receivers, Jamison Crowder and Issac Blakeney, and longtime LT Takoby Cofield. While Max McCaffrey returns to the slot, he’s a possession receiver. For Sirk to soar, he’ll need Gabe Brandner to protect his blindside, WR Johnell Barnes to stretch the field and unproven Terrence Alls to get his off-field house in order. Brandner and Alls were named most improved of the spring, but the latter is currently serving a suspension.

    What to watch for on defense: The development of the D-line … again. This has become an all-too-familiar problem in Durham. Duke attracts good athletes for the back seven, but elite linemen have been scarce, a huge reason why last year’s team was No. 13 in ACC run defense. On the inside, Carlos Wray is a returning starter, and junior A.J. Wolf has enjoyed a good offseason. Depth and strength, though, will be concerns. And no returning end notched more than one sack in 2014. Seniors Kyler Brown and Britton Grier are being counted to deliver career years off the edge.

    The team will be far better if… the injury bug doesn’t infect the 2015 squad. Every team aims to avoid injuries. Duke, specifically, wants access to TE Braxton Deaver and LB Kelby Brown for an entire. Both players are difference-makers on offense and defense, respectively. However, both players are also coming off knee injuries and missed spring drills. Brown oozes leadership and can help offset the graduations of David Helton and C.J. France. Deaver could be the perfect safety valve for a young quarterback and a receiving corps in transition.

    The Schedule: The Blue Devils don’t have to face Florida State or Clemson from the Atlantic. Boston College and a trip to Wake Forest is about as good as it gets.
    – If Duke can get by Tulane in the opener, it catches a decent break with four straight home games. It’s not a breeze with Northwestern, Georgia Tech and Boston College to deal with, but this is where the record has to be built up because …
    – There’s a bad payoff on the back end. Five of the last seven games are on the road, and even though two of the games are at North Carolina and Wake Forest, it’s still a lot of time away from home.
    – If the Blue Devils can beat Northwestern, they should be 4-0 in non-conference play getting Tulane, NC Central and Army. The dates with the Green Wave and Knights might be on the road, but Duke can’t misfire against either one.
    – WATCH OUT FOR … Pitt. Considering it’s the only November home game, a loss to the Panthers would be utterly disastrous.

    Best offensive player: Senior C Matt Skura. Completely unsung during Duke’s recent run of success has been the play of the offensive line, which has yielded fewer than 20 sacks for four straight years. Skura is the new leader of a group now that LT Takoby Cofield and RG Laken Tomlinson have graduated. After being named Third Team All-ACC in 2014, Skura will be a Rimington Award candidate and a contender to be his league’s premier center during the upcoming season.

    Best defensive player: Senior S Jeremy Cash. Cash is NFL-ready. But he’s still a Blue Devil, great news for a secondary that was already flush with talent. Cash is the enforcer of a defensive backfield characterized by a fair amount of finesse, like Breon Borders, DeVon Edwards and Deondre Singleton. But he’s no one-note defender, stopping the pass nearly as well as the run. Cash is an All-ACC lock, with an opportunity to use his final year to beef up his draft grade.

    Key player to a successful season: Junior QB Thomas Sirk. Barring a surprise push this summer from Parker Boehme, Sirk du Soleil begins this fall in Durham. The Blue Devil staff loves the upside potential of its 6-4, 215-pound junior. But while Duke knows what Sirk brings as a running threat, he still needs to prove himself as a consistent threat through the air. There’s not enough overall skill on offense for the Blue Devils to overcome in the event that Sirk isn’t ready to handle the rigors of being a first-time starter.

    The season will be a success if … the Blue Devils win eight regular season games. There’s no sense in becoming greedy, especially in a year when a new quarterback is being worked into the system. Still, Duke is on a nice roll, having won 19 games over the past two seasons. And the mindset and culture are at all-time highs on this campus. Plus, the schedule is manageable, including a non-conference portion versus Tulane, N.C. Central, Northwestern and Army. Getting to 8-4 is achievable, particularly if the offense gels in September.

    Key game: Sept. 26 vs. Georgia Tech. This is the point where Duke’s 2015 campaign might pivot in either direction. The Yellow Jackets are the defending Coastal Division champs and the favorites to repeat this fall. But the Blue Devils won last year’s matchup on the Flats, and now get to host at Wallace Wade Stadium. Three games versus mediocre competition should also afford new QB Thomas Sirk the time—and reps—he needs to become more comfortable with his promotion.

    2014 Fun Stats:
    – Third-down %: Duke 42% – Opponents 34%
    – Sacks: Duke 29 – Opponents 13
    – Fourth-quarter scoring: Duke 103 – Opponents 56

    Players You Need To Know

    1. S Jeremy Cash, Sr.
    Cash has been a revelation for the Devils since transferring over from Ohio State a couple of years ago. He’s been All-ACC in both of his seasons, First Team in 2013 and Second Team a year ago. Cash was NFL-ready in January, opting instead to play one final season in Durham. At 6-2 and 205 pounds, he’s the total package in a safety, a power puncher with the athleticism to contribute on blitzes and in pass defense. In a statistical representation of his diverse ability, Cash had 111 tackles, 10.5 stops for loss, 5.5 sacks, two sacks, seven pass breakups and four forced fumbles in 2014.

    2. S DeVon Edwards, Jr.
    At some point, Duke might want to tinker with Edwards on offense, because he’s one of the nation’s best playmakers with the ball in his hands. In two seasons, the Blue Devils long ball hitter has already scored four touchdowns, two on kickoffs and two on pick-sixes. The 5-9, 175-pound jackrabbit is an impact defender from his safety position as well. Edwards was everywhere in 2014, notching 133 tackles, 7.5 stops for loss, 4.5 sacks, nine pass breakups and five forced fumbles to earn Third Team All-ACC.

    3. LB Kelby Brown, Sr.
    Brown is climbing up rehab mountain one more time. He’s torn his ACL three times in Durham, including last August, to warrant a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA. When healthy, Brown is one of the ACC’s premier linebackers and a leader in the Blue Devil locker room. In 2013, he peaked with 114 tackles, 11 stops for loss and two interceptions in an all-star campaign. Brown will take it slow this offseason before fully testing the knee again in the summer. Duke needs its 6-2, 230-pound sparkplug healthy this fall, so that he can incite the pass rush, a la Scooby Wright at Arizona.

    4. C Matt Skura, Sr.
    Dependable, hard-working and tough—Skura is exactly the kind of student-athlete David Cutcliffe has built his program around. And now that Laken Tomlinson and Takoby Cofield have exhausted their eligibility in Durham, Skura is poised to become this year’s leader of the Blue Devil front wall. He’s started every game of the last two seasons, pass protecting and run blocking his way to the All-ACC Third Team in 2014. The 6-4, 305-pounder is a rock in the middle of the line, directing traffic and always making sure his linemates aren’t out of position.

    5. TE Braxton Deaver, Sr.
    When Deaver was granted a sixth year of eligibility last November, the 2015 passing game received an immediate boost. The 6-5, 240-pound tight end has actually missed two of the last three years to injury, and even contemplated retirement last fall. But instead, Deaver will attempt to recapture his 2013 form, in which he parlayed 46 receptions for 600 yards and four touchdowns into Third Team All-ACC. His ACL recovery has gone well so far, though he’s yet to be cleared for contact.

    6. QB Thomas Sirk, Jr.
    No Blue Devil will be more important to the 2015 team’s success than Sirk, the likely successor under center to Anthony Boone. While Sirk is not without reps, he was mostly used as a change-of-pace scrambler, rushing for 238 yards and eight scores on 47 carries. However, as a passer, the rangy 6-4, 215-pounder was just 10-of-14 for 67 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. David Cutcliffe loves the overall skill set and makeup of Sirk, who now has to prove he can handle the responsibility of being more than just a complement in sub-packages.

    7. P Will Monday, Sr.
    Monday is one-half of one of the ACC’s best special teams units. He’s been a strong-legged asset to the Blue Devils since his first year in 2012, often bailing out the team’s defense. The 6-4, 210-pound Monday has been named All-ACC in each of the past two seasons, averaging 43 yards and placing 17 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line last fall. Named Duke’s top specialist last year, Monday has a future on Sundays.

    8. PK Ross Martin, Sr.
    When the offense stalls, Duke can always count on Martin to finish a drive with three points. After struggling a bit with his accuracy in 2013, the senior bounced back last year to make 19-of-21 field goal attempts, including 5-of-6 from beyond 40 yards. Martin, who earned Third Team All-ACC in 2014, also boasts four career field goals of at least 50 yards, so he has plenty of leg strength.

    9. WR Max McCaffrey, Sr.
    Now that Duke’s top two receivers, Jamison Crowder and Isaac Blakeney, have graduated, McCaffrey will be asked to shoulder a bigger role in the passing game in 2015. He’s expected to line up in the slot, where tight routes and soft hands should be the norm. McCaffrey has terrific size, 6-2 and 195 pounds, and a great feel for the game. But now he needs to command the attention of his quarterback after catching just 37 balls for 385 yards and three touchdowns as a full-timer in 2014.

    10. RB Shaquille Powell, Sr.
    When the Blue Devils want to grind out yards between the tackles, Powell’s number will be called. He rushed for a career—and team-high—618 yards and two scores on 134 carries a year ago, while also catching 18 passes for 154 yards and another touchdown. The 5-10, 205-pound Las Vegas native will bring momentum into 2015, having delivered his first-ever 100-yard game in the Sun Bowl. Powell may not be a 1,000-yard back, but he’s the kind of steady performer that this offense can count on, week-in and week-out.

    11. RB Shaun Wilson, Soph.
    Wilson is the homerun hitter of a deep collection of backs. He flashed his big-play ability as a rookie in 2014, ripping off six runs of at least 25 yards, and setting a single-game school record with 245 rushing yards and three touchdowns on just 12 carries in Week 3. But the 5-9, 180-pounder wasn’t a factor the rest of the way, winding up with just 598 yards and five scores on 78 carries. In 2015, though, Wilson will be employed more frequently, in the backfield, in the slot and even split out wide.

    12. S Deondre Singleton, Jr.
    Singleton is the least known of the Blue Devils’ dynamite safety trio. But the program appreciates his contributions from the bandit spot. Singleton is the centerfielder of the defensive backfield, lining up deep enough to see the entire field and prevent the big play. Still, the 5-11, 180-pounder is an effective stopgap against the run, making 70 tackles and breaking up seven passes in 2014, his second season as a starter.

    Head Coach: David Cutcliffe
    8th year: 40-48 | 15th year overall: 84-77
    Schedule

    Sept. 3

    at Tulane
    Sept. 12 NC Central
    Sept. 19 Northwestern
    Sept. 26 Georgia Tech
    Oct. 3 Boston College
    Oct. 10 at Army
    Oct. 17 OPEN DATE
    Oct. 24 at Virginia Tech
    Oct. 31 Miami
    Nov. 7 at North Carolina
    Nov. 14 Pitt
    Nov. 21 at Virginia
    Nov. 28 at Wake Forest
    Ten Best Duke Players
    1. S Jeremy Cash, Sr.
    2. S DeVon Edwards, Jr.
    3. LB Kelby Brown, Sr.
    4. C Matt Skura, Sr.
    5. TE Braxton Deaver, Sr.
    6. QB Thomas Sirk, Jr.
    7. P Will Monday, Sr.
    8. PK Ross Martin, Sr.
    9. WR Max McCaffrey, Sr.
    10. RB Shaquille Powell, Sr.

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