Blue Devils set to close workouts with spring game
Spring football practice proved productive, even under difficult circumstances, at Duke this year.
Despite a host of projected starters or valued reserves not available because of injuries, the Blue Devils end their spring workouts with the spring game today at Wallace Wade Stadium (4:05 p.m., ESPN3).
Admission is free, as Blue Devils fans will get a limited look at the team that Duke will field in August when the school looks to make a bowl game for the second year in a row.
The look will be limited by the personnel who won’t be participating. On defense, Duke has worked this spring without players such as cornerback Ross Cockrell, linebacker Kelby Brown, defensive lineman Justin Foxx and defensive end Kenny Anunike.
On offense, reserve quarterbacks Brandon Connette and Parker Boehme have been unavailable. Those also missing spring practices include wide receiver Brandon Braxton, left tackle Takoby Cofield and left guard Dave Harding.
None of those players are expected to miss time from the regular season. But that’s not true for redshirt freshman quarterback Thomas Sirk, who suffered a ruptured Achilles’ tendon in practice on Wednesday.
Sitting at No. 2 on the depth chart, Sirk had surgery a few hours after his injury and is not expected to be available this season.
Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said Friday that Connette will be No. 2 behind Anthony Boone in light of Sirk’s injury. During the 2012 season, Connette was used at several different positions, from tight end to running back to wide receiver, in specialized offensive sets.
Those sets won’t be tossed out completely, but their use will be modified, Roper said.
“We’re still going to be aggressive with our thought process,” Roper said. “Brandon is the backup quarterback now. We will still be aggressive with Brandon but intelligent at the same time. We are going to be who we are.”
One of the positive areas from spring practice on offense has been the development of the offensive line. Even with returning starters Harding and Cofield unavailable this spring, Roper said he feels better about the depth and talent on the line than ever.
Redshirt freshman Tanner Stone has been impressive at left tackle in place of Cofield and will be a solid No. 2 there. Redshirt sophomore Lucas Patrick helped fill in for Harding on the interior line.
Roper likes what he’s seen from center Matt Skura, who will replace Brian Moore as Duke’s starting center. Redshirt senior John Coleman is his backup.
On the right side, returning starters Laken Tomlinson (guard) and Perry Simmons (tackle) are solid.
Roper said Duke’s goal, since head coach David Cutcliffe arrived for the 2008 season, was to have eight offensive linemen — three tackles, three guards and two centers — capable of playing at all times.
“We’ve never been there since we’ve been here,” Roper said. “Now we are. I think we’re pretty close to that.”
On defense, Duke has spent the spring working on a major philosophical change thanks to improved depth and talent with its front seven.
In years past, Duke counted on its safeties providing support in run defense. Oftentimes, it came with a price as teams threw over the top and picked on exposed defensive backs for long pass plays.
Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said Friday that the Blue Devils are better up front, so those players must be able to handle more responsibility in run defense.
“On the front, we think we’re strong with a lot of depth, guys who have played a lot,” Knowles said. “So we worked on putting more responsibility on them to make tackles. The last two years, our leading tacklers were safeties. We want to turn that to where our linebackers are our leading tacklers.”
Returning experienced players such as Anunike, Foxx, Jamal Bruce and Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo up front with linebackers C.J. France, Helton and brothers Kelby and Kyler Brown will be counted on to make more plays.
In the secondary, All-ACC cornerback Cockrell is the most experienced player. Knowles said true freshman Evrett Edwards and Quay Mann have gained invaluable experience this spring.
“Those are guys who may have to play for us this year,” Knowles said.
Safety Jeremy Cash, a transfer from Ohio State who sat out the 2012 season per NCAA rules, also has shown strong play.
“Jeremy Cash, we think, is going to bring a lot of excitement,” Knowles said.
Duke still is using the 4-2-5 defensive alignment, but Knowles said it will be closer to 4-3 in concept this season.
That’s because once all the injured players who missed spring ball are available in August, Duke plans on being more sound in coverage schemes.
“Hopefully, we’ve reached that point where we don’t have to take as many risks with our coverages,” Knowles said. “It worked for us half the time. Half the time it worked and the other half we gave up too many deep balls. When you face the better teams, you’d better be able to make more tackles with the down linemen.”