Experienced offensive line gives Duke hope
The foundation on which Duke’s hopes for another bowl trip rest upon appear strong as can be as the new season approaches.
With improved athleticism at quarterback and running back, Duke plans to institute more rushing in their offense this season.
With four of the five starting offensive linemen having been starters at their same position last season, the prospects for success have a good place to start.
“There is an excitement along the offensive line with what we think we can pull off this year,” Duke left guard Dave Harding said. “We have guys that are extremely talented and are battle-tested and ready to go.”
Not only does Duke have Harding returning at his position, but the Blue Devils will also have left tackle Tacoby Cofield, right guard Laken Tomlinson and right tackle Perry Simmons right where they were last season.
Simmons, an honorable mention all-ACC selection last season, and Harding are both redshirt seniors. Simmons has started every Duke game over the last three seasons. Harding has started 23 games over the last two seasons.
A redshirt junior, Tomlinson has started every game — 25 — over the last two seasons. Also a redshirt junior, Cofield, started twice in 2011 before starting all 13 games last season.
They were part of an offensive line that allowed only 19 sacks last season. With the opponent garnering just one sack for every 29 pass attempts, Duke had the 20th best attempt-to-sack ratio in the country and the second best in the ACC.
This year, while still aiming to protect new starting quarterback Anthony Boone in the pocket, that line will also look to pile-drive defenders to spark an improved rushing attack.
“We want to play with a nasty streak and finish people,” Harding said.
Duke, perennially the ACC’s worst rushing offense previously, moved up to No. 8 last season with 125.2 yards per game.
This season, combined with the strength along the offensive line, Duke has four running backs which the coaching staff feels can gain necessary yardage. Senior Juwan Thompson, junior Josh Snead and sophomores Jela Duncan and Shaq Powell will get the bulk of the carries.
Boone and backup quarterback Brandon Connette (who had eight TD runs last season) also figure to benefit.
“It means a great deal to have a very experienced offensive line,” said Duncan, who led Duke with 553 yards last season. “We have trust in them to get it done. It add to your comfort level as a running back when you have the utmost confidence in the guys up front to open up the lanes.”
The lone newcomer to the group up front is Matt Skura, who will replace Brian Moore as Duke’s starting center. But even Skura, a redshirt sophomore, has playing experience. He played in 10 games last season, mostly at guard.
Harding is quick to say that new doesn’t mean weak when it comes to Skura.
“Over the past summer we saw what Matt Skura was capable of,” Harding said. “He is going to be a great offensive lineman for us. I’m excited to see him mature and grow as the season goes along and as camp progresses.”
Skura said the fact that he and Boone are entering the starting lineup at the same time is fortunate. Skura was the center for Duke’s second team in practices last year when Boone was Sean Renfree’s backup at quarterback.
“Anthony and I have gotten really comfortable,” Skura said. “It hasn’t been too much of a struggle to switch. We have a lot of snaps together. At this point, he and I know each other like the back of our hands.”
Duke coach David Cutcliffe calls the interior of the offensive line among the team’s strongest positions. Lucas Patrick, John Coleman, Cody Robinson and Marcus Aprahamian provide the depth.
“With Matt Skura at center, I feel good,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s very athletic. He’s played enough football. He’s smart. I like that his spring he got a ton of reps. I like the rotation. I think we’ve really strengthened ourselves far beyond anything we’ve ever been at those three positions on the interior.”