2011 Record: (3-9, 1-7 in ACC)
Head Coach: David Cutcliffe (15-33 at Duke, 59-62 overall)
Last Bowl Game: 1995 Hall of Fame Bowl: lost to Wisconsin 34-20
ACC Away Games: 9/29 at WF, 10/13 at VT, 10/27 at FSU, 11/17 at GT
ACC Home Games: 10/6 vs UVA, 10/20 vs UNC, 11/3 vs Clemson, 11/24 vs Miami (FL)
Stat to Cheer: ranked #2 in ACC in passing yardage at 272.2 yards per game
Stat to Fear: last in the ACC in turnover margin at -0.75 per game; only 12 takeaways in 2011 (116th in Nation)
Phil Steele’s Returning Starters: (Offense: 8; Defense: 9; Specialists: 0)
Key Defensive Returnees: FS Walt Canty (88 tackles), LB Kelby Brown (65 tackles), CB Ross Cockrell (56 tackles)
Key Offensive Returnees: WB Sean Renfree (14 TD, 11 INT), WR Conner Vernon (70 rec, 6 TD), OG Laken Tomlinson
CFBZ: In our Duke Exit Survey from the 2011 season, you talked about the need for Duke to get “explosive plays”. Who on the roster has the potential to step up and create some of these plays for the offense?
Blue Devil Nation: When Coach Cutcliffe arrived in Durham, Duke fans had hopes that his spread offense would result in a high-flying aerial assault. While Duke has featured one of the top passing offenses in the ACC over the past few seasons, that production has failed to translate consistently into points or wins. Despite the loss of WR Donovan Varner and TE Cooper Helfet, two of QB Sean Renfree’s top targets, there is reason to be optimistic that the Blue Devils’ offense will be more explosive in 2012. It all starts with Renfree, who has to develop better chemistry with his receivers and be more willing to throw the deep ball. The corollary to that is that Duke’s receivers have to earn their quarterback’s trust, prove capable of hauling in the 50/50 ball downfield, and find their way into the end zone. All-ACC WR Conner Vernon will be expected to continue to produce with his hard-nosed play, while also serving as a mentor to a group of talented but young receivers. Speedy Jamison Crowder and long Blair Holliday are penciled in as the starters alongside Vernon, and they will have to prove to be consistent big-play threats for the Blue Devils. They will be joined this fall by true freshmen Anthony Nash (6’4″ with a 4.3 second 40 time) and Max McCaffrey (son of former NFL WR Ed McCaffrey), who should be ready to contribute right away. Add in three pass-catching tight ends with explosive potential – Braxton Deaver, David Reeves, and Issac Blakeney – and Renfree should have the most versatile and dynamic group of receivers since Cutcliffe’s arrival.
CFBZ: The defense finished second to last in the ACC in scoring defense and total defense. Who are some players that might be able to help Duke improve on that side of the football this season?
Blue Devil Nation: If Duke has any hope of going bowling in 2012, it’s no secret that the defense has to take huge strides. The Blue Devils will have to replace All-American Matt Daniels, but do return a significant bit of talent. The first key for the 2012 defense will be to stay healthy, as injuries to DE Kenny Anunike and LB Kelby Brown minimized their impact a year ago. If those two players can contribute at a high level this season, Duke would be thrilled. The other key will be for the defensive line as a whole to take a step forward in its second year under Coach Rick Petri. An athletic group of ends, such as Dez Johnson and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, needs to be more disruptive to opposing offenses. The secondary, led by leading returning tackler Walt Canty, has to again be the strength and needs to come up with more takeaways. Overall, I don’t expect this unit to put up any shutouts, but if they are able to bring pressure and force turnovers, it should be enough to put the offense in a position to win games.
CFBZ: What are the biggest reasons to be optimistic about Duke football in 2012?
Blue Devil Nation: Seventeen returning starters and a core group of players who have bought into a hard-working and winning attitude.
More specifically, I think the Blue Devils have the potential to put together a dynamic and exciting offensive football team in 2012. I discussed the various playmakers in the passing game above, but failed to mention that Duke returns a big and experienced offensive line, along with a talented and experience stable of running backs. Senior Desmond Scott leads the charge, but will share carries with last year’s leading rusher Juwan Thompson, and speedy Josh Snead, who missed all of 2011 but showcased his explosiveness with an 80+ yard run in this year’s spring game. That trio will be pushed by two highly-recruited freshmen in Jela Duncan and Shaquille Powell, both of whom the staff expects to be ready to contribute.
This spring, the Blue Devils’ offense worked on increasing the tempo of their no-huddle offense, while also toying with creative schemes utilizing Renfree alongside dual-threat options Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette. Duke fans have been frustrated with the utilization of multiple QBs and an apparent emphasis on short passes in recent years. The pieces are in place and with an increased tempo, the hope is that this offense will consistently put up 30+ points on the board, which should make for some entertaining Saturdays in Wallace Wade Stadium.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for 2012 and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Blue Devil Nation: 5-7, through one of the toughest schedules in the ACC (Stanford, Clemson, Florida State, and Virginia Tech all on the slate). That may be an overly optimistic outlook, but at some point, Duke has to start winning close games. Looking at their schedule, the Blue Devils have to play well early. Duke cannot overlook any opponent, but they should enter conference play with a 3-1 record with wins over FIU, NC Central and Memphis. Within the conference, the Blue Devils should be able to compete with Wake Forest, Virginia, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina.
Success is obviously a relative term when it comes to Duke Football. Only the naive would argue that the Blue Devils aren’t a better football program in 2012 than they were when Coach Cutcliffe first arrived. Duke has proven it can compete, but it now has to prove it can win, and win in the ACC. From that standpoint, the Blue Devils don’t have to make a bowl in 2012, especially given the challenges on their schedule, but they have to show progress from two straight 3-win seasons.
David Cutcliffe has been at Duke for four years but has yet to take them to a bowl game. The last two years Duke has gone 3-9 and 1-7 in conference. Duke was second in the league last year in passing but dead last in rushing. That happens a lot when you are playing from behind (which you tend to do when you only win three games). On the defensive side of the football, Duke gave up the most rushing yards in the ACC and the second most passing yards. If Duke is to turn things around, it begins and ends with the defense. The Blue Devils have to get better results on that side of the football. According to Phil Steele, Duke is the seventh most experienced team in the FBS and the most experienced in the ACC. If there is a year where Duke can step up and surprise some people, this might be the year. That being said, I think you have to take a wait and see approach with Duke after their last two years. Another thing playing against Duke is their schedule and the fact that it doesn’t include Boston College and Maryland.
2012 Prediction: 3-9
Previous 2012 Previews: