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: Defensive Line

Senior James Gayle Leads the Hokies' Top-Ranked Defensive Line in 2013

Senior Defensive End James Gayle Leads the Hokies’ Top-Ranked Defensive Line in 2013

A little over 40 days from the start of the 2013 college football season! And it is indeed 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 until 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 defensive lines (check out previous rankings of ACC quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers/tight ends, offensive line). For several teams that have been churning out elite defenders for years, this is simply another group of stud performers. For others, this is a sign of some serous rebuilding. The ACC has plenty of stars on the defensive line this season, but there’s also plenty of question marks too. We’ll get to both. though as you’d expect, the questions increase as we head further down the list.

Keep in mind that these are full unit rankings — not just one player — so just because one individual end or tackle is better than another, it doesn’t necessarily mean the team’s entire crop of defensive linemen is (though it certainly does help). Also note: Louisville (as has been the case since November) is included here, despite playing in the American this season. Additionally, since these are completely subjective rankings, the difference between one number to the following one is almost entirely negligible. Still, disagree with any of these picks? Share your own selections below.

ACC Positional Rankings 2013: Defensive Line

1. Virginia Tech Hokies: Looking for experience? The Hokies have plenty, as they bring back all four starters from last season and are chock full of juniors and seniors on the depth chart. As a whole, Tech’s defense recorded 35 sacks last season (16th in the FBS), most of which is attributable to this group. With another year of playing together under their belt, the unit — led by senior defensive end James Gayle — could be in for a monster season as the motor that drives Virginia Tech’s success.

2. Clemson Tigers: You might be surprised to see Clemson here, but that only means you haven’t been paying attention. The young Tigers that watched the 2012 Orange Bowl debacle are all grown up and have become a pretty frightening foursome (34 sacks last year; 20th in the FBS). Yes, they did lose Malliciah Goodman and his seven sacks, but considering who’s replacing him at defensive end (Vic Beasley), there’s very little to worry about in terms of a drop-off in production. Expect Brent Venables’ men to be even more aggressive getting after the passer this season.

3. Florida State Seminoles: FSU replaces every starter from last year’s potent pass-rush, but all is not lost in Tallahassee. Last year’s deep group received plenty of reps as the line was ravaged by injury, so this still ends up being a pretty veteran defensive line. Tackles Timmy Jernigan and Demonte McAllister will anchor them from the tackle positions, but they’ll also rely on Mario Edwards to take a leap as a sophomore and become the threat he was projected to be as a recruit.

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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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