Watch out, Tobacco Road, Duke football is back on the field
With the glow from Duke’s stellar football season still bright in the minds of Blue Devil fans, serious work toward keeping the success going begins today.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe will oversee the team’s first spring practice session Friday, a mere five weeks after the Blue Devils played Texas A&M in a memorable Chick-fil-A Bowl game on Dec. 31 in Atlanta.
The Blue Devils start spring practice earlier than most BCS teams. Rival North Carolina, for example, starts their spring drills on March 5 — four days after Duke holds its March 1 spring game at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“I think our squad is loving it,” Cutcliffe said. “It allows us to finish before spring break. If, God forbid, we had an injury we have a better opportunity to get a player back for August or September.”
Duke went 10-4 last season, setting a school record for wins in a season while winning the school’s first ACC Coastal Division championship and playing in bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time.
The Blue Devils lost the ACC championship game 45-7 to eventual BCS national champion Florida State and lost 52-48 to Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, but those losses did little to halt the program’s momentum. Cutcliffe said holding spring practice so close to the end of the season ensures that.
“Our players are excited,” Cutcliffe said. “So all of those guys that redshirted, they’re coming out of that really quality bowl practice and they are in good football shape and we are going to go right back at it.”
Starting quarterback Anthony Boone is back, as is his oft-used backup and some-time starter Brandon Connette. Also returning is Duke go-to receiver, all-ACC pick Jamison Crowder.
For all the joy from last season, Duke does have some serious questions to answer this spring. The Blue Devils must replace both starting cornerbacks, including two-time all-ACC pick Ross Cockrell.
The defensive front lost starters Kenny Anunkie, Justin Foxx and Sydney Sarmiento.
On offense, two starters from the stellar offensive line are gone as is leading rusher Jela Duncan, who was suspended from school until spring 2015 at the earliest.
Cutcliffe and his staff will use the next four weeks to sort those situations out.
“I like the momentum of this squad,” Cutcliffe said. “I like our returning squad. I want to see our young people in an environment where we’re not putting a lot of things in. We are going to think players, not plays. I want to see our young people compete. I want to see them compete with the other guys who are older.”
Here’s a quick look at four areas where Duke needs positive answers if it is to post another winning season this fall:
Duke had the same starting lineup along the offensive line for its first 13 games last season. Right tackle Perry Simmons missed the bowl game after suffering a knee injury.
That gave the Blue Devils an early look at how this season will be. Simmons and left guard Dave Harding completed their eligibility.
Duke returns left tackle Takoby Cofield, center Matt Skura and right guard Laken Tomlinson.
Redshirt junior Lucas Patrick, who filled in for Simmons in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, is in good position to land a starting job. But it could be at left guard.
Redshirt sophomore Tanner Stone missed last season with an ankle injury suffered last August. But he is a serious candidate to earn playing time at right tackle along with Casey Blaser and Carson Ginn.
Duncan had more rushing yards than any other Duke player over the last two seasons combined, but he is no longer enrolled at Duke. Juwan Thompson completed his eligibility.
That leaves redshirt senior Josh Snead and junior Shaquille Powell as the experienced backs returning. They combined for 998 yards last season. Redshirt freshman Joseph Ajeigbe will get plenty of work this spring to show his talents.
Nose guard Jamal Bruce is the lone returning starter as Foxx, Anunike and Sarmiento saw their careers end. But there are plenty of experienced players ready to step in.
Redshirt senior defensive end Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo has played in 32 career games. Redshirt junior Dezmond Johnson played in all 14 games and leads Duke’s returning defensive lineman with 65 tackles.
Junior nose guard Carlos Wray also played in all 14 games while senior defensive end Jonathan Jones (formerly Woodruff) had three sacks in 12 games last season.
Cockrell is preparing for the NFL Draft after intercepting 12 passes in his Duke career. But sophomores Breon Borders and Bryon Fields are ready to step into more playing time replacing Cockrell and Garett Patterson.
Borders intercepted four passes as a freshman, while Fields had 42 tackles while also playing in all 14 games.
At safety, redshirt junior Jeremy Cash was second in the ACC in tackles (121) during his first season with Duke last fall. Redshirt sophomore DeVon Edwards started eight games, garnering 64 tackles and three interceptions.
Sophomore Deondre Singleton returns after starting nine games and recording 63 tackles.
Redshirt sophomore safety Corbin McCarthy and junior Dwayne Norman will push them for playing time.