Duke

Duke football: Cutcliffe searching for new playmakers

David Cutcliffe started his spring football press conference with a 10-minute breakdown of his team.

There are that many new pieces to fit in place.

"We all know that we have to prove it at quarterback, we have to to prove it on the offensive and defensive lines," Cutcliffe said. "That’s the biggest issue we got. And we've got to see who is going to make the plays."

Here’s a closer look at the new faces filling in major roles.

Defensive line

Just one of four starters returns: defensive tackle Carlos Wray. That’s a major reason Cutcliffe feels better about the interior than the end positions.

Redshirt seniors Kyler Brown and Britton Grier are starting at defensive end right now. There has been a scheme tweak, though, as the Blue Devils have been working on turning one end into an outside linebacker/defensive end combination, standing up instead of having his hand in the ground.

"It gives you a more of a linebacker feel, so you can make some more plays," Brown said.

Along with Wray in the interior, redshirt freshmen Edgar Cerenord and Quaven Ferguson are ready to compete for time, Cutcliffe said, alongside veteran backups A.J. Wolf, Keilin Rayner and Mike Ramsay.

Duke ranked seventh in the ACC in sacks per game last year (2.31) and 12th in tackles for loss per game (4.69).

Offensive line

"Offensively, it's going to start up front, to me," Cutcliffe said. "Everyone wants to talk about the quarterback. I want to talk about the right guard and left tackle. That's where football begins."

Redshirt senior Cody Robinson, the only backup to see significant snaps last year, is slated to start at right guard. Redshirt sophomore Gabe Brandner, who played just 58 snaps in five games last year, is holding down the left tackle spot. There isn’t much difference in right versus left tackle in the Duke offense, though the quarterback gets rid of the ball so quickly that there isn’t as high of risk for a blind-side busting hit.

Wide Receiver

Duke needs two new top options on the outside (senior Max McCaffrey will once again start in the slot). With four spring practices complete, these receivers have received first-team reps: juniors Johnell Barnes and Ryan Smith, redshirt junior Anthony Nash redshirt sophomore Terrence Alls, redshirt freshman Chris Taylor. Alls, in particular, has made major strides in the weight room, Cutcliffe said, and he looks faster as a result.

Running back

This is the deepest unit, and redshirt junior Jela Duncan is back after serving a year-long academic suspension. He was Duke’s leading rusher in 2012. During his time away, Duncan underwent two shoulder surgeries and stayed in close contact with Cutcliffe and the team, living with Josh Snead, a senior on last year’s team.

"Do I think he has matured and grown, absolutely," Cutcliffe said. "I don't think he wasted a day that he was out."

Senior Shaquille Powell will remain the starter, and Cutcliffe said he is in the best shape of his career.

Quarterback

Redshirt junior Thomas Sirk, who has attempted 14 career passes, is the unquestioned No. 1 on the depth chart.

"He has taken upon himself what you want to see a starting quarterback do," Cutcliffe said. "He's in command, he's in command of what he's doing, he's in command of the offense. He's throwing the ball exceptionally well. He's got a lot of work, a lot of work, a lot of work that he has got to continue to do to fine-tune things. But he's physically throwing the football well."

Sirk spoke of taking a genuine interest in each offensive player, trying to learn more about them through shared film sessions and quality time off the field. That type of care is in his nature, Cutcliffe said.

"Thomas is your warm person," Cutcliffe said. "Sincere about everything. His humility is a great personality trait, because it's real. Yet he is fiercely competitive and will speak up in a leadership role."

Duke’s spring game will be Feb. 28, and practice will conclude March 6.

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