DURHAM — As coach David Cutcliffe enters his sixth season with the Blue Devils, there’s a new feeling coming with the start of this camp.
For the first time in a long time, there are expectations for success in Durham.
“There’s a mentality of belief,” Cutcliffe said last month in Greensboro. “There’s an expectation, not hope. There’s a difference between hoping and expecting, and I personally like that.”
The fruits of Cutcliffe and his staff’s labor finally began to reveal themselves last season when Duke snapped a 17-year bowl drought with its appearance in the Belk Bowl. There is still more work to do, as the Blue Devils’ 6-7 finish kept alive a losing streak that dates back to 1995. And Duke has never made back-to-back bowls.
Team leaders quarterback Anthony Boone and cornerback Ross Cockrell said they expect Duke to be back in postseason play. But while expectations are running high internally, the media that voted in the ACC preseason poll picked Duke to finish last in the seven-team Coastal Division.
“It makes me realize we have a lot of culture work left to do,” Cutcliffe said to reporters after the votes were revealed. “People really aren’t as educated as we think they are about who we are.”
Four main issues need to be addressed in order for Duke to prove the doubters wrong:
Can the secondary limit big plays?
The obvious weak link for Duke is the secondary, an area where it will be counting on many young, inexperienced players.
Even with a more veteran group last season, the secondary struggled down the stretch as Duke lost its final five games, giving up at least 42 points and an average 586 yards per game in that span. Many of those yards came on long passing plays, as the Blue Devils gave up five passes of at least 20 yards against Florida State, nine against Clemson, two against run-heavy Georgia Tech and seven apiece against Miami and Cincinnati.
To address the issue, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has simplified the scheme for the three new starters at safety – projected now to be redshirt freshman Corbin McCarthy, redshirt sophomore Jeremy Cash and sophomore Dwayne Norman. True freshmen Evrett Edwards, Jake Kite, Chris Homes and Phillip Carter could challenge for time, too.
“Those are the main concepts: keep it in front and inside,” Knowles said. “More plays are taking place in space now with the perimeter game. Catch the ball, make the tackle and limit big plays.”
Will Boone successfully replace Renfree at quarterback?
Renfree, a three-year starter who holds Duke records for best completion percentage in a season and for a career, is now with the Atlanta Falcons. Boone, a redshirt junior who led the Blue Devils to wins against Wake Forest and Virginia last year, is now the starter.
With the change in quarterbacks comes a change in philosophy, as Duke will call more zone-read plays, allowing Boone to use his feet to gain chunks of yards.
“You’ll see what’s different is our quarterback is capable of running the football,” offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said. “I don’t think he’s a guy that can necessarily run for 100 yards, but because of the schemes we can use with him in the run game, it’s enough that the defense has to account for it. That’s a big difference.”
Accuracy in the air remains Roper’s main concern for his quarterback, and he and Boone have set a goal of a 60 percent completion percentage for the season. How close Boone is to that mark will likely correlate strongly with Duke’s win total.
Can the line be the strength of the defense?
All the starters are back, with redshirt senior Justin Foxx at left end, redshirt junior Jamal Bruce at nose guard, redshirt senior Sydney Sarmiento at tackle and sixth-year senior Kenny Anunike at right end.
“We’ve got some grown men,” Knowles said. “These are guys who have fought a lot of battles and at time may have been undersized or behind the 8-ball, now we’re expecting them to move it forward.”
If all goes well, one of those guys, and not a safety, will lead Duke in tackles.
Will the offense be able to run the football?
With more emphasis on the zone-read, Duke would like more of a 60-40 split on passing and running, as opposed to the 70-30 mentality the Blue Devils had in years past, Boone said.
Duke likes its quartet of running backs, all of whom are back from last season: senior Juwan Thompson, redshirt junior Josh Snead and sophomores Jela Duncan and Shaq Powell. They will be given ample opportunities to produce.
Staff writer Wade Rupard contributed to this report.