Blue Devils have plan for spring

Football team looks at three areas

Staff WriterFebruary 16, 2011 

When Duke opens its spring football camp today, it will carry onto the practice field the distinction of having won more games over the past three seasons than it had won in the previous eight.

The Blue Devils, after finishing last season 3-9, have won 12 games since 2008. In the eight season from 2000 to 2007, they won just 10 games.

That points to progress under David Cutcliffe, who enters his fourth season as the Devils' coach. Still, each of his Duke teams has finished with a losing record, and, though improved, the program has yet to surrender its reputation as an also-ran.

"Now is a time to address a total change in mentality," Cutcliffe said. "We've won a little bit more than we did. ... The intangible that we've missed is that we rarely go out to play to win. When we have, when we've played that way, we very much have been an aggressive football team."

Cutcliffe has an opportunity to continue forging this new mentality among his squad, which is made up of nearly half - 42 percent - redshirt or true freshmen.

Entering spring football, and those practices on frosty February mornings, the Devils will focus on developing a maligned defense, reversing a turnover trend that plagued them last season and establishing depth on a young roster.

Here's a look at their top concerns:

Defense

With only six returning starters on defense, the Devils must turn to the recruits they have brought in over the past two seasons. They look specifically to improve the defensive line.

"It starts up front for us," said Cutcliffe, whose team had the ACC's 12th-ranked total defense.

The Devils had just eight interceptions, a symptom of little or no pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Nose guard Charlie Hatcher and defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento are the only returning starters off the line.

Redshirt junior Kenny Anunike, who played in 12 games last season, will miss spring practice with an injury.

By the fall, the Devils are projected to have 15 defensive linemen on the roster - 10 of them true freshmen.

"We better get salty fast," Cutcliffe said. "We think we're more talented there than we've been. Now, it's time for production."

Turnovers

Last season, the Devils finished the season with a minus-11 turnover margin, the worst in the ACC.

They committed 28 total turnovers while forcing just 17, an area Cutcliffe said the team must address.

"Turnover ratio really hurt us," he said.

Redshirt junior quarterback Sean Renree completed 285 of 464 pass attempts last season, throwing 17 interceptions and 14 touchdowns. He stumbled through a series of games in which he threw multiple interceptions, but he emerged as a steady presence in the pocket by season's end. He finished with league's seventh-best passing efficiency rating (120.0).

He also averaged a third-best 260.9 passing yards per game.

He will be expected to run the offense and make better decisions in his second season as the starter, especially with the receiver duo of Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner returning.

Depth

With so many unproven faces, Cutcliffe will use the spring as a key evaluation period of many players who have been redshirted over the past two seasons.

"We're going to have a lot of live football," he said.

Cutcliffe said it's a priority to identify players who will contribute immediately and find a meaningful place for them on the depth chart. Depth is always an issue with a young team.

Other key players who will miss spring practice with injuries are linebacker Kelby Brown, redshirt freshman cornerback Quan Stevenson and senior safety Lee Butler.

As they build depth and identify difference-makers, the Devils will look for overall consistency, aiming to play the run better defensively.

"The absolute fundamentals of the game," Cutcliffe said. "We have to play blocks better. We have to tackle better. We have to start from ground zero."

edward.robinson@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4781

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