ACC Football 2013 Season Preview: Duke Blue Devils

Duke's Now Established They Can Make the Postseason; But Can They Stay There?

Duke’s Now Established They Can Make the Postseason; But Can They Get Back There?

Team: Duke Blue Devils

2012 W-L: 6-7 (3-5)

Head Coach: David Cutcliffe (21-40; sixth season)

Returning Starters: 11 (6 Offense, 5 Defense)

The monkey’s off their back, so to speak. Finally, after 18 seasons, the Duke Blue Devils returned to the postseason. And they could’ve had a winning season too, if not for some poor luck at the end of the Belk Bowl. But now the real work begins. It’s not all that difficult to win six games at the FBS level if you know how to schedule correctly. Doing so consistently, however, is the bigger challenge. David Cutcliffe has done a great job managing one of the toughest BCS jobs there is, and now he’s tasked with continuing that trend.

Of course, it would be easier to do so if he still had a couple of his program’s most important players: QB Sean Renfree and the ACC’s all-time leading receiver, Conner Vernon. Both graduated after last year, which means all new blood on the offensive end for a team that’s actually become quite proficient at picking up yardage through the air, finishing 31st in the country with over 289 yards per game. And surprisingly, that may not be a bad thing. In limited action last year, newly-minted starter Anthony Boone threw for 531 yards and five scores on 95 attempts, while adding two rushing touchdowns as well. While Renfree may have had the stronger arm of the two last year, Boone’s much more mobile and just may be able to take a bit more punishment than his predecessor could. Given the offensive line’s overall lack of size, it’s an essential trait for any Duke quarterback, but especially Boone, who’s just 6’0″.

At the skill positions, Boone will have additional help, but one less elite target to go to. Jamison Crowder nearly matched Vernon’s productivity last year, so there’s little concern about what he can do in the open field. But beyond him, there’s uncertainty. Isaac Blakeney and David Reeves both showed some glimmers of big-play ability last year, and will now have to step into much more prominent roles with Vernon and Desmond Scott now departed. Even if the passing game picks up where it left off though, there’s still the question of the running game. Last year’s was among the worst in the country, ranking 100th overall while completely vanishing from view for weeks on end. And yet, everybody’s back. So can we expect improvement? I actually think so. Jela Duncan, Josh Snead and Juwan Thompson failed to receive enough carries to truly establish success last year. That’s likely to change with a more green quarterback at the helm, especially one who’s more prone to carry the football himself. They won’t be stars, but there’s no reason to believe Duke can’t figure out a way to move the ball more effectively than last year’s effort. Even if it’s just by adding 5-10 carries per game.

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ACC Football Positional Rankings 2013: Running Backs

Devonta Freeman and Florida State Headline the ACC's Running Backs for the 2013 Season

Devonta Freeman and Florida State Headline the ACC’s Running Backs for the 2013 Season

While we’re still over two months away from the season, it does indeed seem to be that time of year — when college football blogs like this one and so many others start churning out season preview materials. We’ll be holding off till July and August for the team-by-team season previews, but in the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with taking a look at each position on the field and evaluating ACC squads’ respective strengths and weaknesses.

This week, we’re on to the running backs (you can check out last week’s feature on quarterbacks, too). Though there’s not a whole lot of experience at the position — just one returning back (Syracuse’s Jerome Smith) rushed for 1,000 yards last year — this group makes up for a lot of that in potential. Many of the most talented runners this year will be sophomores or juniors, so that aforementioned experience will come with time. As for those who are seniors, many possess a significant leg-up, which you’ll find reflected here as well.

Keep in mind that these are full unit rankings — not just one player — so just because one individual quarterback is better than another, it doesn’t necessarily mean the team’s entire crop of passers is. Still, disagree with any of these picks? Share your own selections below.

ACC Positional Rankings 2013: Running Backs

1. Florida State Seminoles: Injuries ravaged the Florida State backfield in 2012. But because of that, the team’s top two returning rushers, Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., actually have quite a bit of experience under their respective belts (221 carries between them last year). They’re both vertical runners for the most part, doing most of their work in the middle of the line, but Wilder, in particular, also has some pass-catching ability out of the backfield (19 catches for 136 yards and two scores last year). Expect that role to expand this year, while also incorporating Mario Pender, who’s the quickest back on the roster and anxious to contribute after red-shirting last season.

2. Miami Hurricanes: Miami’s ranking here is purely on the strength of sophomore Duke Johnson, and his success is likely to decide how far the ‘Canes go this season. Despite splitting carries with Mike James last year, Johnson still ran for 947 yards and 10 scores, while tacking on another 1,133 yards from receiving and kick returns. With that on his resume in just one season, he’s now being listed among the most dynamic players in the country and will be the focal point of every gameplan against Miami. He won’t be acting alone in the backfield, but there’s no telling what to expect from backups Dallas Crawford or Eduardo Clements either.

3. Syracuse Orange: SU’s offense was largely seen as a pass-first attack in 2012, but its success in the season’s second half was heavily reliant on the running game. The Orange bring back everybody this year, and arguably have one of the deepest backfields in the country. The group will be guided by Jerome Smith (1,171 yards last year), but this will be a multi-back, run-first system. Expect Prince-Tyson Gulley to approach the 200-carry mark as well, while the team gets additional contributions from short-yardage specialist Adonis Ameen-Moore and jack-of-all-trades Ashton Broyld in hybrid WR/RB slot role.

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ACC 2012 Season Preview: Duke Blue Devils

Duke QB Sean Renfree is a Huge Part of the Team’s Success in 2012, So Long As Coaches Give Him the Proper Chance to Lead

Team: Duke Blue Devils

2011 W-L: 3-9 (1-7)

Head Coach: David Cutcliffe (15-33; four seasons)

Returning Starters: 13 (7 Offense, 6 Defense)

Another year of “we’re almost there” from Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, and yet another year without a bowl game. Lack of postseason games aside, however, it’s hard to argue Cutcliffe hasn’t at least improved the Blue Devils back to a respectable program. They no longer go 0-12 and 1-11, Duke now manages to win conference games. Beyond a blowout here and there, the team actually found itself with a chance to win the large majority of games in 2011, and could have easily lucked into a 5-7 record instead of the 3-9 they finished with instead. So how much rope does Cutcliffe get? His job appears safe, but when does the standard for success at Duke begin to change? As his recruiting classes begin to creep up into the top 60 or so, we at least start to find the answer for this year and beyond.

Returning eight starters from last year’s group, Duke’s offense promises to once again be effective. But it needs some sort of running game in order to truly take that next step. While the team was 28th in passing yardage in all of FBS, they were 115th in yards on the ground. They were also woeful in the redzone, converting just 72 percent of the time, from inside in the 20-yard line. This is where QB Sean Renfree can begin to provide more leadership most of all — punching the ball into the endzone. Despite a promised rotation with fellow QBs Brandon Connette and Anthony Boone, Renfree ultimately controls how much his counterparts are used and needed. Should be settle into a groove and show he’s effective at delivering the ball to Conner Vernon in the endzone, Perhaps he ends up giving both Boone and Connette a little more time on the bench this season.
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