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Braxton Deaver, Duke offense struggle to find rhythm

Duke tight end Braxton Deaver (89) fires up the team at the Blue Devils first football practice in August. This season, Deaver has two catches for 17 yards.
Duke tight end Braxton Deaver (89) fires up the team at the Blue Devils first football practice in August. This season, Deaver has two catches for 17 yards. cseward@newsobserver.com

As Duke’s offense struggles to find a consistent rhythm and efficiency, one question comes to mind.

Where is Braxton Deaver?

In 2013, the tight end was Duke’s second-leading receiver, hauling in 46 catches for 600 yards and four touchdowns and third team all-ACC honors (behind UNC’s Eric Ebron and FSU’s Nick O’Leary). And after missing last season with an ACL tear, Deaver is back.

But his production is not.

Through four games, Deaver has been targeted just six times by quarterback Thomas Sirk, according to SB Nation’s Football Study Hall. Out of Sirk’s 126 passes, he has targeted Deaver just 4.8 percent of the time. Deaver has two catches for 17 yards on the year. Eight other Blue Devils have more.

At the past two weekly press conferences, head coach David Cutcliffe has been asked about Deaver.

“We’re playing three tight ends. We’re trying to become what we need to become offensively. We’ve been a run-first offense, a little bit more maybe than when Braxton was playing previously. But those guys, tight ends are unique guys. They can be, quote, pass-game weapons. They’ve got to play at a high level themselves, and practice at a high level, to become a part of all of this,” Cutcliffe said.

Cutcliffe went on to describe what he wants from a tight end: “a combination of a great physical player that is also a great pass catcher. That’s the role of a tight end. They’re not wide receivers. If that were the case, I would rather put a wide receiver in there. We want the total game. The physicality, the ability to catch the ball in traffic, the ability to be a factor.”

So it doesn’t sound like an accident that Deaver has vanished from the passing game. Duke is running the ball on 57.2 percent of its offensive snaps, limiting everyone’s pass catching attempts more than in years past.

Deaver is also splitting time with David Reeves and Erich Schneider. Deaver leads the three with 220 snaps, but Reeves isn’t far behind with 176, and Schneider has 95 of his own (Duke doesn’t separate snap counts for special teams, so there are undoubtedly a few of those in the totals for Reeves and Schneider).

Deaver confirmed before last Saturday’s Georgia Tech game that he’s 100 percent healthy. He also said it wasn’t the playcalling by second-year offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery that was limiting the tight ends. It’s just a matter of Sirk not going to them as often as former quarterback Anthony Boone would.

“We run great plays that would get us open,” Deaver said. “It’s just the relationship between me and Thomas. We have to continue to work on our relationship, and we have to continue to get open for him. We have to just pull the trigger and work to improve that relationship. Hopefully we’re going to keep getting our shots, because we’re working really hard to get open for him.”

Deaver and Boone were close friends and roommates for several years, and Deaver and Sirk aren’t as close.

Still, as downfield throwing is a bit hit-and-miss for the offense, one would think that shorter throws over the middle to a tight end—any of them—could be effective. And this line of thinking could prove even more useful in the heavy rain expected for Saturday’s game against Boston College.

And for the record, Cutcliffe isn’t putting Duke’s inconsistencies on offense on any one person or group. Football Study Hall ranks the Blue Devils as the 103rd-most efficient offense nationally out of 128 Division-I teams (the stat is a measure of “efficiency and consistency in staying on schedule and putting yourself in position to move the chains”). Cutcliffe sees that more as a combination of small errors across the board that are adding up to a bigger problem.

“We could block better all the way around,” Cutcliffe said. “We can run routes better, we can make decisions at quarterback better, protect the football better, run the football better. It’s interesting, because a lot of people have asked me. You can’t pick on anybody. It’s not the offensive line, it’s not the running backs, it’s not the quarterback. It’s just getting in sync all the way across the board.”

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