Duke football offers fans 2014 preview at annual spring game
Exactly 26 weeks from today — yes, that’s half a year — Duke football will open the 2014 season at Wallace Wade Stadium.
A public step in that preparation comes today at the same facility when the Blue Devils hold their annual spring football game at noon.
The fact that so much time will have passed between those two events, Duke coach David Cutcliffe said, increases the chances for his team to have the level of success next season that it had last.
Even though Duke played the last game of its memorable 2013 season on Dec. 31 (later than any Duke team since 1994), Cutcliffe instituted Duke’s early spring practices on Feb. 7.
The idea was to extend the time in between spring practice and the start of fall practice in August so his team could be as healthy as possible as it attempts to build on last year’s record-setting 10-4 campaign.
“That’s one of our bigger gains,” Cutcliffe said. “The six-month gap is a lot of things. That gap is healing time. That gap is conditioning and strength building. It’s team building. That’s a big part of the game that you get.”
The Blue Devils finished last season ranked No. 23 in the final Associated Press poll after appearing in the ACC Championship game and the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Duke has 17 starters returning, including six players who appeared on various all-ACC teams in safety Jeremy Cash, wide receiver Jamison Crowder, tight end Braxton Deaver, offensive guard Laken Tomlinson, punter Will Monday and kicker Ross Martin.
Still, Duke has holes to fill — especially on defense — where three starters along the line (Kenny Anunike, Justin Foxx and Sydney Sarmiento) graduated along with two-time all-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell.
With spring practice winding down and the spring game set for today, here’s a quick look at Duke’s offense and defense.
Duke returns the majority of its top playmakers as well as three of the five starting offensive linemen.
On display today will be quarterbacks Anthony Boone, Brandon Connette and Thomas Sirk, a newcomer to the rotation.
Sirk has actually been on Duke’s campus for two years, but he redshirted in 2012 and missed all of last season after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon last April.
Boone returns as the incumbent starter after throwing for 2,260 yards with 13 touchdowns last season. Connette, also a redshirt senior, threw for 1,212 yards in a complimentary role. More importantly, he ran for 14 touchdowns while throwing for 13.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Parker Boehme will miss today’s spring game with a foot injury that Cutcliffe said shouldn’t be a long-term issue.
Crowder, one of the ACC’s most explosive players, leads the receiving corps. Crowder set an ACC record with 108 receptions and amassed a school-record 1,360 yards.
Cutcliffe said junior Max McCaffrey, who caught 26 passes with four touchdowns last season, has had an impressive spring so he would be a player to watch today. In addition, redshirt sophomore Anthony Nash and sophomore Ryan Smith have caught the coaches’ eyes with their work. Cutcliffe likes what sophomore Johnell Barnes has done at times, but is looking for more consistency.
At tight end, Deaver and David Reeves are back after combining for 75 receptions, 867 yards and eight touchdowns last year.
At running back, last year’s leading rusher Jela Duncan is no longer in school. So Duke will turn to senior Josh Snead and junior Shaquille Powell. Redshirt freshman Joseph Ajeigbe will get a chance to show Duke fans what he can do as well.
Along the offenisve line, Tomlinson, left tackle Takoby Cofield and center Matt Skura are the returning starters. Cofield is out with a sprained knee that Cutcliffe said will not need surgery.
The starting line fans will see today includes, from left tackle to right tackle, Casey Blaser, Lucas Patrick, Skura, Tomlinson and Tanner Stone.
Duke’s defensive front will be a good place to monitor play in the spring game today.
Experienced players Jamal Bruce (nose guard) and Jamal Wallace (defensive end) are both out with injuries and won’t play today.
That has allowed junior Carlos Wray to get extended repetitions at nose guard and Cutcliffe said he likes Wray’s production and leadership.
Defensive ends Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo and Dezmond Johnson have both played nearly 40 games each in their careers and will be looked upon for strong play.
Cutcliffe has moved former linebacker Kyler Brown to defensive end to boost depth. A.J. Wolf, Mike Ramsey, Keilin Rayner and Allen Jackson will get chances to show their abilities today.
At linebacker, Duke returns the ACC’s top two returning tacklers in David Helton and Kelby Brown. C.J. France, a redshirt senior, has missed spring practice after having Jan. 9 surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
In the secondary, Cash is back after a solid first season with Duke last season. With Cockrell gone, sophomore DeVon Edwards has learned to play both corner and safety. That’s something Cockrell was accomplished at and he gave Duke an advantage there.
After breakout seasons as freshmen, Breon Borders and Bryon Fields are top cornerbacks. Another sophomore, Deondre Singleton, proved to be a big-time ballhawk at safety last year.
Redshirt sophomore safety Corbin McCarthy’s play has been good this season as well, Cutcliffe said.