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Featherston: Duke Football 2013-14 - A Bowl Team?

Duke has never been to bowl games in back-to-back seasons.

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Of course, while true, that's a misleading statement. Duke's program was great in an era when there were few bowls. Duke had plenty of seasons that would qualify for bowls today - between 1932 and 1941, Duke won seven games every season (in a nine or 10-game schedule); between 1952 and 1962, Bill Murray's Duke teams won seven conference championships and All those titles produces just two bowl trips … actually, the Devils went to a third bowl in that period, earning a trip to the 1957 Orange Bowl with a 6-2-2 record and a second-place ACC finish.

The lack of back-to-back bowls is also a function of the school's football arrogance - through the mid-1960s, Duke refused to consider "secondary" bowls. The proud school was only open to the big four New Year's Day bowls. As late as 1962, Duke turned down a bid to the Gator Bowl, which was clearly the fifth best bowl in that era.

Still, if Duke does make it to a second straight bowl after last year's trip to the Belk Bowl, it will be a significant achievement for a program which has had just two previous bowl opportunities in the last half-century. I'm just saying, keep it in perspective.

This season ought to provide an interesting gauge as to how much momentum David Cutcliffe's program still has in the wake of Duke's 6-7 Belk Bowl season in 2012. That was a big step forward. But can Duke take another step this year or will the Devils take a step backwards as the program did in the wake of 1989 and 1994 bowl trips?

On one hand, Cutcliffe has to replace some key players - wide receiver Connor Vernon is the leading receiver in school history and quarterback Sean Renfree ranks as one of the best passers Duke has ever had. On the other hand, this is the most talented team Cutcliffe has had - that Duke has had in decades - and with a little good luck, the Devils ought to be able to be able to build on last year's success.

Look closely at last season. Usually when the Blue Devils exceed expectations as they did in 2012, a lot of things go right. It all falls into place.

But 2012 wasn't like that. It was one of the most unlucky seasons that Duke or any team has ever had.

Take injuries …

Both the 1989 and 1994 teams - Duke's last two bowl teams - were remarkably healthy, losing few snaps by key players to injuries. In contrast, the 2013 bowl team was one of the most injury plagued teams in college football.

Phil Steele, who puts out a well-respected preseason magazine, ranked Duke No. 7 nationally in starts lost to injury with 36 lost starts. But Steele greatly underestimates the injury problem. He doesn't count the starts lost by post-spring starters LB Kelby Brown, WR Blair Holiday, TE Braxton Deaver or DT Jamal Bruce - all lost before the season.

Actually, I can't figure out Steele's numbers - I count 76 missed starts:

  • 13 LB Kelby Brown
  • 13 TE Braxton Deaver
  • 13 WR Blair Holiday
  • 12 DT Jamal Bruce (he returned to start the Belk Bowl)
  • 6 DE Justin Foxx
  • 5 S Brandon Braxton
  • 4 CB Lee Butler
  • 3 S Jordan Byas
  • 3 DE/DT Jamal Wallace
  • 2 DE Kenny Anunike
  • 1 RB Juwan Thompson
  • 1 QB Sean Renfree

THAT is an astonishingly high number and - by far - the most starts lost to injury in college football last season (Steele credits that to Colorado State, which lost 53 starts to injury and to two season-long suspensions).

Even that doesn't give the full extent of Duke's problems. The injuries to the players listed above could have given starts to backups S Taylor Sowell, CB Jared Boyd and/or S Anthony Young-Wiseman, who were all hurt instead. DE Dez Johnson, a preseason sub who started four games when Foxx and/or Anunike were hurt, missed a game with an injury. DE Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, in much the same position (a backup DE forced into the starting lineup), also missed a game. OG Lucas Patrick, a redshirt freshman who was pushing for a starting role before he broke his hand, didn't return until the last five games of the season.

And that's just the injuries. It doesn't include the bad luck of S Jeremy Cash losing his appeal to play right away after transferring from Ohio State. It doesn't include the 11 starts lost when starting safety August Campbell quit football after two games to concentrate on his academics. It doesn't count the preseason dismissal of redshirt freshman CB Tim Burton, a terrific prospect, who seemed primed to be a major contributor. It doesn't include Chris Taveras, a promising safety, who quit football (I think to pursue his acting career).

You'll notice how many of those losses came on the defensive side - especially in the secondary. It's a wonder that Duke could put a defense on the field … and not a wonder that the defense collapsed at midseason - the team's last six opponents all scored at least 48 points against the crippled Devils.

Steele did have a stat that was extremely interesting. His studies show that teams that lost at least 32 starts to injury, either had the same or better record the next season 78 percent of the time.

Of course, no one can guarantee that Duke won't have another rash of injuries. The 2013 Blue Devils have already lost two backup offensive linemen and a very promising backup quarterback, plus a veteran defensive end is out for the opener. But the odds are good that whatever injury problems Duke has in 2013 will be significantly less than what plagued the 2012 team.

Injuries weren't the only problem last season.

Duke also had to deal with an extremely difficult schedule - much tougher than the Devils face in 2013.

A year ago, Duke faced three teams that wound up in the Coaches' top 10 - No. 6 Stanford, No. 8 Florida State and No. 9 Clemson.

Those three juggernauts beat Duke by a combined 154-40 (an average score of 51-13). Take them out of the equation and Duke outscored its 2012 opponents 370-314 (an average score of 37-31).

This year, Duke DOES take that trio out of the equation, replacing a trip to Stanford with a home game with Navy and within the ACC, replacing Clemson and FSU with home games against N.C. State and Pitt.

Now, none of the three newcomers are pushovers. And nobody is suggesting that the teams Duke beat a year ago - UNC, Virginia and Wake Forest, especially - are certain wins this season. But after playing three top 10 teams in 2012, Duke does not have a single team on its schedule this year that was included in the preseason top 25. And in replacing three teams that were a combined 34-6 with three teams that were a combined 21-18 has to present a more reasonable chance for success.

More health … an easier schedule.

Looking at the team, Duke has its best offensive line - in terms of talent, experience and depth - that it has had in decades. There are four quality running backs. There is plenty of experience and even more talent at wide receiver and there are a variety of options at tight end. The defensive front is as deep as it has been in the Cutcliffe era. Duke may have the best pair of kickers in college football.

Those are tangible reasons to be optimistic going into the 2013 season.

***

Are there tangible reasons to be pessimistic? I can suggest a few:

-- The transition from Renfree to Boone at quarterback.

There's no question that Sean Renfree is one of the best passers in Duke history. A three-year starter, Renfree finished as the most accurate passer in school history (64.7 percent) and with the third-most career yardage (9,465).

Boone, a former two-star recruit, has completed exactly 53.4 percent of his 148 pass attempts in two seasons and he has exactly one career start to his credit.

But …

Take a close look at that start. Boone had to fill in for an injury Renfree against Virginia a year ago. His overall passing numbers were good, but not spectacular 18-of-31 for 212 yards. However, he threw four touchdown passes (and no interceptions) in a 42-17 victory over the Cavaliers.

In addition to that performance, a week earlier, Boone was thrust into action at the start of the fourth quarter against Wake Forest with the score tied 20-20. Boone hit 8-of-11 passes for 54 yards and directed two touchdown drives - running four yards to score the first of those. He provided the margin of victory in a 34-27 win.

Boone is a very different quarterback than Renfree. He's built like a linebacker (6-0, 230) and while he has a strong arm, he's not as accurate as his predecessor. But he's a powerful runner with a scrambling ability that Renfree lacked.

Cutcliffe will put Boone's strengths to use by changing his offense. Duke will join the parade of teams using a read option - a very popular scheme these days that combines a shotgun passing attack with an option running game.

Duke, which boasts a strong, experienced offensive line and a stable of powerful running backs, is going to use the ground game more than ever before under Cutcliffe.

"Usually, we've been probably 70-30 pass to run," Boone said last month. "I think this year you'll see 60-40, leaning more toward 50-50. We have four great running backs. They're going to punch guys."

Duke provided a preview of its new running look in the Belk Bowl, rushing for 200 yards against a Cincinnati defense that had been 24th nationally against the run. The Devils ran a faux read option against the Bearcats - Renfree would pretend to read the defense, but his handoffs to Jela Duncan, Josh Snead and company were all scripted. He was not going to keep the ball.

Boone might - that's the new dimension he brings to the table.

I've written this before, but the whole Renfree-to-Boone changeover reminds me of the QB changeover Cutcliffle oversaw at Tennessee in 1997-98. After the 1997 season, Cutcliffe had to replace Peyton Manning, a pro-style quarterback and the best passer in school history, with Tee Martin, a 6-2, 225 redshirt junior who was (to that point) a career 50 percent passer.

Now, Martin didn't match Manning's passing stats. He did complete a career high 58 percent of his passes for 2,100 yards, but that was well below the career 62-plus percentage that Manning maintained and the 3,800 yards he threw for in 1997.

Yet, in Manning's four seasons as a starter, Tennessee didn't win an SEC title. In Martin's first season, the Vols won the SEC and the national championship. In his second season, Tennessee won a second straight SEC title.

It wasn't that Martin was better than Manning - he wasn't. But Tennessee ran the ball better and played better defense in his two seasons. That's got to be the formula for Duke.

-- The youth of the secondary.

Overall, this is an extremely experienced Duke team. Officially, Duke returns 17 starters from last season (for 24 positions … the kickers are included), but actually the Devils return 32 players with starting experience.

There are some veterans in the secondary. Cornerback Ross Cockrell is a fifth-year senior who will be starting for the fourth straight season. He's the best corner in the ACC - and according to the coaches who made him the leading CB vote-getter on their All-ACC team - he was the best last year.

It's possible that Duke will start two more fifth-year seniors in the secondary, but neither is especially experienced. Safety Anthony Young-Wiseman has been hobbled with injuries throughout his career and while he has played in 29 games, he's started just one (in 2011). Garrett Patterson has spent most of his years at Duke as a special team ace. He's never before started at cornerback, although he did see a bit of action last year as he stayed healthy while so many others in the secondary went down.

Then there is sophomore Dwayne Norman, forced into action last year as a true freshman, he started five games. The staff believes that Norman has the potential to be an outstanding player. They feel the same about safety Jeremy Cash, the Ohio State transfer who saw brief action in five games for the Buckeyes as a true freshman in 2011.

That's the starting five and technically, the experience isn't bad - three fifth-year seniors, a sophomore returning starter and a third-year sophomore starting for the first time.

But the reality is much different. Both Patterson and Young-Wiseman have to prove they can play at a high level, while Norman and Cash are still learning. And behind the front five is a sea of youth.

Cutcliffe, knowing that he faced a major turnover in the secondary after last season, has been recruiting defensive backs hard in the last two seasons. He used his first preseason scrimmage of this season to look at his kids. There is redshirt freshman corner DeVon Edwards and semi-redshirt freshmen (they enrolled early and went through spring practice) Evrett Edwards at corner and Quay Mann at safety. There is redshirt freshman cornerback Michael Westray and true freshman Byron Fields, also at cornerback. There is freshman corner Breon Borders and freshman safety Chris Holmes. There are freshman safeties Philip Carter and Jake Kite and freshman corner Deandre Singleton.

That's 10 freshmen or redshirt freshmen who will be vying for playing time - or even pushing for a starting job. To my untrained eye, it's an extremely talented group. In another two or three years, when they grow up, Duke is going to be loaded in the secondary.

But what about this year? Cockrell represents a cautionary warning to those who would expect big things from a freshman defensive back. He might be the best corner in the ACC today, but when he started as a true freshman in 2010, he took his lumps.

Duke is going to have to play some kids in the defensive backfield this season. How will they hold up?

-- Does Duke have the linebackers to be effective defensively?

The Blue Devils run a 4-2-5 defensive scheme that requires just two linebackers at a time. But those two linebackers are extremely important in that scheme.

The sad truth is that Duke has not had an outstanding linebacker since the graduation of second-team All-ACC Vinnie Rey after the 2009 season. Kelby Brown showed a lot of promise as a true freshman in 2010, when he finished third in the ACC's Defensive Rookie of the Year vote. And he was the best of a mediocre lot in 2011 even after he was hobbled by injuries - injuries that led to surgery and forced him to miss the entire 2012 season.

In Brown's absence, several youngsters got a lot of work, including Brown's kid brother, Kyler Brown. David Helton started five games last season as a true sophomore. C.J. France started nine games as a redshirt frosh. Deion Williams saw time on special teams last season as a true freshman.

That's a young group - especially with true freshman Dominic McDonald also in the mix. McDonald actually enrolled last spring, but he missed spring practice with a knee injury.

In truth, none of the returning linebackers from last season played that well. Is youth a fair excuse? How much better will France, Helton, Kyler Brown and Williams be this year with another year of experience under their belts? Can Kelby Brown step back on the field after a year's absence and play at a high level? Can he stay healthy?

I can't answer those questions and to my mind, the linebacker position is the source of my biggest doubts about this year. I'd like to believe that Kelby Brown returns as the stud he was on the verge of becoming before his injuries and that Helton, France, Kyler Brown and Williams all take a step up and provide a solid rotation at the position.

But even if that doesn't happen, you know what? Duke's linebacking was subpar a year ago and Duke still won six games and earned a bowl trip. Against a softer schedule and with better health this year, I don't see why the Blue Devils can't do that (or more) this year - whether the linebacking improves or not.

I know it's tough to be optimistic about Duke football after almost a half-century of disappointment, but I urge you to base your expectations on the trajectory of Cutcliffe's tenure. That's when the modern era of Duke football started.

A second straight bowl is definitely a viable goal. But in my mind, a repeat of last year's accomplishment (6-7 with a bowl loss) would be a disappointment. This team can do better.

Al Featherston