DURHAM — Duke entered its preseason camp with an abundance of optimism and high expectations. And as the camp portion of the season comes to a close, nothing had changed in that regard.
“As coaches, you always feel good about your plan and how you’re working, who is taking those roles and the steps needed to be a good player,” offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said. “But really, the game is going to tell you. As soon as we get the first game, we’ll know more.”
Before Duke’s first game against N.C. Central kicks off on Aug. 31, let’s take a look back at the questions the Blue Devils wanted to answer this preseason:
Can the secondary limit big plays?
There will be four new starters in the secondary, along with All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell. Jeremy Cash, the redshirt sophomore safety who sat out last season after transferring from Ohio State, has looked like he can be a big-time playmaker in the middle of the field. Coach David Cutcliffe went out of his way to praise Cash’s work in Duke’s final scrimmage.
Dwayne Norman, forced to play significant snaps last year as a true freshman after injuries devastated the secondary, will start as a sophomore. And for quite possibly the first time in Cutcliffe’s six-year tenure, there is a competition for starting positions that were not forced by injuries. Senior Anthony Young-Wiseman is competing with redshirt freshman Corbin McCarthy for the final spot at safety. Cutcliffe has said both will see significant playing time.
The biggest pleasant surprise for the secondary has been the emergence of true freshman Breon Borders at cornerback. Several upperclassman, including Cockrell, wide receiver Jamison Crowder and defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento, have offered unsolicited praise for the newcomer from Statesville. He will challenge redshirt senior Garrett Patterson for the starting spot opposite Cockrell and will most certainly play significant snaps this year
Will Boone successfully replace Renfree at quarterback?
The answer here appears to be a resounding yes. The coaching staff didn’t doubt Boone, and he exceeded their already lofty expectations for him in camp.
“Anthony has great big-play potential,” Cutcliffe said. “His command of our offense is beyond what I thought. He’s really been good in that regard.”
Cutcliffe also mentioned that backup Brandon Connette has played well, along with true freshman Parker Boehme, who has played well in scrimmages.
Can the line be the strength of the defense?
Duke returns all four starters on the defensive line, and all four will be ready to go for the opener. Left defensive end Justin Foxx, who was limited for most of the preseason, is now practicing full speed, and Cutcliffe expects him to be available for the opener.
“He’s a savvy veteran,” senior guard Dave Harding said of Foxx, Duke’s most consistent defensive lineman. “He’s got great hands. “When we’re doing one-on-one pass rush, I don’t like to see him lined up in front of me.”
As far as the order to lead the defense, Harding said, “those guys have taken on the challenge well.”
As camp breaks, though, it’s the offensive line that is surrounded by questions. Backup tackle Tanner Stone is out for the season with an ankle injury, and another backup tackle, Casey Blaser, is out indefinitely with a hand injury. Cutcliffe called the loss of both backup tackles a “devastating blow,” and said the depth on the offensive line is his biggest concern on that side of the ball.
The starting five, which includes four starters from last season, are solid. After that, though, there’s uncertainty.
Will the offense be able to run the football?
Cutcliffe said he has zero questions about the running backs, all of whom are back from last season. That’s a thought that has been echoed by other players and coaches.
“There’s no question this team is experienced in the right places,” Cutcliffe said. “I expect them and anticipate them to play well. Hopefully extremely well.”
And at this point in the year, there’s no reason not to be hopeful.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley