DURHAM — Duke set a school record for points last season on the strength of its passing attack.
Conner Vernon became the ACC’s career leader in receptions and yards. Desmond Scott was nearly his equal. They combined to catch an ACC-record 151 passes for more than 1,700 yards.
Both are gone, leaving just three full-time receivers and tight ends who caught more than 10 passes during 2012.
Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said Tuesday the Blue Devils have depth at receiver but also a lot of uncertainty.
“I think the first thing you look at is we’re replacing a lot of catches and a lot of yards with Conner (Vernon) leaving and with Desmond (Scott) leaving,” Roper said. “So who’s going to replace those roles? We have guys we’re excited about and guys we think are potentially really good playmakers who I think can step into those roles. But until you really get to the game situations, we don’t always have those answers as coaches.”
Duke returns junior Jamison Crowder, who matched Vernon in yards (1,074) and touchdowns (eight) last season. The big-play threat had five touchdowns last year of more than 50 yards, and his short touchdown catch beat North Carolina.
Issac Blakeney will move from tight end to the starting slot wide receiver, which is the position Scott played last season. In 2012, Blakeney caught 32 passes for 290 yards. The transition to slot will change where Blakeney lines up and the routes he will run. It also could create mismatches.
“I want a long, lengthy wide receiver that’s tough enough to go block somebody,” Roper said. “When we start recruiting for tight end, that’s what we’re looking for. I don’t want the guy that is just a glorified tackle that can’t make plays in space. So my recruiting the tight ends and putting the tight ends we have on the field, the defensive coordinator has to make a decision. Are we going to match up in personnel when he’s outside and get a (defensive back) on him, or are we leaving my big person in the game for when he comes back and become a tight end in the backfield or a tight end on the line of scrimmage?”
Roper said he expects Crowder and Blakeney to anchor the receiving corps, which will be catching passes from Anthony Boone.
Sophomore Max McCaffrey is penciled in as the starter opposite Crowder on the preseason depth chart. McCaffrey caught two passes for 31 yards last season.
“Jamison (Crowder) is a guy that’s proven,” Roper said. “Blakeney made some plays in the passing game last year, so he’s done it on the game field and he’s going to do it at the wide receiver position for us this year. He’s not a complete unknown in that situation.
“Max (McCaffrey) getting out there, I love what I’ve seen from Max. … We’ve got several guys that need to step up and play good, so I think it’s answering both ways. I think we’ve got guys who can potentially can be really good, but let’s find out what happens when the lights come on.”