Duke’s quest for back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in school history officially begins Monday with the start of spring practice. Seven starters (four on offensive, three on defense) are gone from last year’s 6-7 campaign, the most successful season for Duke since 1994. With the turnover comes a few questions:
Is Anthony Boone ready to lead the offense?
Boone, a redshirt junior, has spent the past three seasons learning behind former quarterback Sean Renfree. But head coach David Cutcliffe believes in getting his backup quarterback into games, so Boone has already thrown for 829 yards in his career. He is more of a running threat than Renfree, his predecessor, which will give the Blue Devils more options on offense.
Will the offensive line develop better run-blocking abilities?
Speaking of running, if Duke is going to be successful running the zone-read offense Cutcliffe wants, then the offensive line is going to have to do a better job. There has been progress, as Duke ranked eighth in the ACC with an average of 125.2 rushing yards per game. That was the first time under Cutcliffe that the rushing offense wasn’t ranked either 11th or 12th (last) in the league.
The line returns four starters and must replace departed center Brian Moore.
How quickly will players adjust to new positions?
The most notable position change is Brandon Braxton’s move from safety back to wide receiver, the spot he played during his freshman and sophomore seasons. Braxton was a starting safety but struggled to stay healthy, missing five games due to injuries. Other players switching positions are Nick Sink from defensive tackle to tight end and Nick Hill from wide receiver to safety.
Who will fill the holes in the secondary?
Duke’s defense struggled mightily last year, finishing 11th in the ACC by yielding an average of 469.2 yards per game. The 36 points per game the Blue Devils gave up on average ranked worst in the league. Two of the top three corners are gone, though, as well as two starting safeties. Jeremy Cash, who sat out last season after transferring from Ohio State, will likely will one of the two safety spots. The other openings will be an open competition.
How will the Blue Devils respond to success?
When Conner Vernon and Sean Renfree first came to Duke, they were sold on Cutcliffe’s vision for the future. When they left this winter, the program was undoubtedly in a better position, as the Blue Devils earned their first bowl berth since 1994. With those seniors gone, a new group of leaders will have to arise.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley