>Pre-Season Preview: Duke Blue Devils

>2009 Record: 5-7 (3-5 in ACC)
2009 Bowl: None
Final 2009 AP Ranking: Not Ranked
Head Coach: David Cutcliffe (9-15 at Duke, 53-44 All-Time)
Non-Conference Schedule: Elon (9/4), Alabama (9/18), Army (9/25), at Navy (10/30)

2009 Offensive Statistics
Scoring: 25.2 points per game (8th in ACC)
Rushing Yards/Game: 63 (last in ACC, last in Nation)
Passing Yards/Game: 305 (1st in ACC, 9th in Nation)
Total Yards/Game: 368 (7th in ACC) 

2009 Defensive Statistics
Scoring: 28.3 points per game (9th in ACC)
Rushing Yards/Game: 152 (9th in ACC)
Passing Yards/Game: 215 (7th in ACC)
Total Yards/Game: 368 (9th in ACC)

2009 Misc Stats
Turnover Margin: +0.17 per game (4th in ACC)
Penalties: 44 yards per game (3rd in ACC)

Returning Starters
Offense: 9
Defense: 6
Kicker/Punter: 2

Top Returning Statistical Leaders
Passing: QB Sean Renfree, Soph (34 of 50 for 330 yds, 4 TD, 2 INT)
Rushing: RB Desmond Scott, Soph (70 carries for 262 yds, 1 TD, 3.7 ypc, 29 ypg)
Receiving: WR Donovan Varner, Jr (65 rec, 1047 yds, 8 TD, 16 yds/rec, 5.4 rec/game)
Tackles: SS Matt Daniels, Jr (83)
Sacks: DE Wesley Oglesby, Sr (1.5)
Interceptions: CB Lee Butler, Jr (1)

2010 Pre-Season Rankings
Athlon Sports: #70
Sporting News: #70

2010 Pre-Season ACC Coastal Prediction:
Athlon Sports: #5
Phil Steele: #5

I like David Cutcliffe as Duke’s coach. He has a lot of returning starters this year to work with but will be without the QB that led the team to be one of the most prolific passing teams in the NCAA last year. This is Cutcliffe’s third year at the helm and more of the guys that he recruited are working their way into the program and onto the field. That being said, Duke also plays in the ACC Coastal Division and will have tough games this year against Miami, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and UNC. They also face Boston College from the Atlantic Division and they catch out of conference foes Alabama and Navy. I would like to see Cutcliffe post a winning record at Duke, I just don’t see it happening this year. Jason Palmatary of the The Chronicle, which is an independent daily newspaper at Duke University, answered our questions and gives us his perspective of Duke football.

What are the major strengths and biggest weaknesses of the team?

With this team, it is always going to start with talk about the wide receivers. The top three ballcatchers from last year’s squad are all back. With the departure of Georgia Tech’s Demaryius Thomas to the NFL, junior wideout Donovan Varner, who topped the 1000-yard mark last year, is the conference’s leading returning receiver. The Blue Devils also welcome back sophomore Conner Vernon, one of the conference’s top-10 wideouts last year. Rounding out the corps is senior Austin Kelly, whose four touchdowns last year gave the trio 15 for the season. The playmaking ability of this group will definitely be relied upon heavily as the offense tries to replicate what was a very impressive aerial attack last year.

Ironically, this team’s biggest weakness was its inability to ever establish a consistent ground game. Running the ball effectively always starts with the offensive line, so a good deal of the blame starts with that unit and their inability to control the line of scrimmage. Last season, dismal rushing outputs were a constant, but with four of five starters on the offensive line returning, there is hope that the group will be able to open up some creases for the stable of running backs the coaching staff plans to employ.

Looking at the schedule who will be the first major test and why?

A quick look at the Duke schedule and the one game that really jumps out at you is the September 18th tilt with Alabama. Realistically, there is no conceivable way that the Blue Devils could possibly hang with the defending national champions. However, if head coach David Cutcliffe can get his players to turn in a respectful showing with the ABC regional broadcast crew in town, it would go a long way in setting the tone and building momentum as the team prepares for its ACC slate.

What team on the schedule do you fear the most?

Rather than identify one matchup that Duke fans cringe at the thought of, I will give you two: Georgia Tech and North Carolina. These two games, the final two on the 2010 schedule, represent a significant challenge for several reasons. First, Duke has had very little success with these two opponents since Cutcliffe took over as the head man two seasons ago. In their four games against these two, the Blue Devils have been outscored by a combined 123-36. And, secondly, with their eye on their first bowl game appearance since 1994, these two games could be pivotal in gaining bowl eligibility.

Who is the best player on your team that nobody talks about?

Senior linebacker Damian Thornton is a guy on the defensive side of the ball that doesn’t get a lot of publicity that will be counted on to do a lot this year. After moving into the starting lineup midway through last season as an outside linebacker and recording 60 stops, including six for losses, Thornton will be counted on for much more this season. He has been moved inside for his senior campaign and for a player who the coaching staff describes as “tremendously athletic and very physical,” he will be expected to be a big contributor on what is a rebuilding defense.

Who is the best offensive player on the team?

At this point, the best offensive player on this team has to be Donovan Varner. He is a very versatile receiver and has shown terrific playmaking ability from both the slot and the outside. Varner is undersized and thus typically does most of his damage after the catch. He had a number of receptions of over 30 yards last year and routinely demonstrates a natural penchant for finding the soft spot between the linebackers and safeties. However, don’t sleep on the talented Sean Renfree—we could easily be calling him the most talented offensive player a few games into the season.

What player(s) needs to step up this year in order for the team to reach its full capability?

Sophomore running back Desmond Scott is a guy that really needs to step up and show up why the Blue Devil faithful was so happy when the Durham product and highly touted recruit decided to stay close to home. Scott showed flashes last year both on offense and in the return game but was not consistent. Some of his struggles are a byproduct of the offensive line’s inabilities to create holes, but it is up to Scott to at least turn the running game into a solid change of pace.

Who is the top offensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

An interesting newcomer to keep an eye on is freshman quarterback Brandon Cornette. Fans can rest assured that Cornette will not be the starter. But, the young man was very impressive in the spring after graduating from high school early. He impressed the coaching staff with is mobility in the pocket and ability to take off and make a play with his feet when a play would break down. So, look for Cornette to possibly get action in option situations or possibly see short stints in other roles in the offense.

Who is the top defensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

On the defensive side, redshirt freshman Kevin Rojas is a guy that could contribute this year both on special teams and defense. Rojas, who was actually a receiver in high school, has tremendous speed for a linebacker. After being named most improved defensive player during the spring season, expect Rojas to contribute in some capacity this fall.

Gut feeling on the teams final record at the end of the regular season and what makes this a successful season in your eyes?

5-7. It really is pretty hard to predict how this team will perform this season. There are so many question marks on what is a rebuilding defense. There are definitely some talented playmakers on offense, but a great deal of their success will hinge on how well quarterback Sean Renfree performs coming back from reconstructive knee surgery. But, I would have to say, in year three of the Cutcliffe Era, anything less than a bowl berth would be considered disappointing as the team looks to build on the prior year’s success.

Check out The Chronicle’s Sports Blog and the newspaper’s Main Website. You can also follow the Chronicle’s Sports section on Twitter @chroniclesports.

Previous ACC Previews
Boston College Eagles
Florida State Seminoles
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Maryland Terrapins
Virginia Tech Hokies

Next Up: Navy Midshipmen

2010 Previews
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SEC- Auburn Tigers, Kentucky Wildcats, Mississippi Rebels, South Carolina Gamecocks, Vanderbilt Commodores
Sun Belt- Troy Trojans
WAC- New Mexico State Aggies

Kevin Causey

About Kevin Causey

dry humorist, beer snob, occasionally unbiased SEC fan, UGA alumni, contributor for The Student Section and founder of College Football Zealots

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