As the ACC‘s spring practices get under way, we’ll be previewing the big storylines for each of the league’s 14 (15, in this case) teams. Check back on weekdays for what to look out for during your school’s spring practices and spring game.
Team: Duke Blue Devils
Spring Practice Start Date: March 4
Spring Game Date:
Following Duke’s bowl bid in 18 years, 2012 ended with a lot of question marks for the Blue Devils. Was this the end goal? If not, could this be sustained? And would they be able to quickly rebuild without program cornerstones Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon? Well, after one day of spring practice, it looks as if David Cutcliffe’s program may actually be just fine.
For all the naysayers regarding what this offense would be without the aforementioned Renfree and Vernon, they seemingly forgot about who’s stuck around for Duke. Former backup QB Anthony Boone is already more than capable of stepping into the role as starter, as evidenced by the limited time he spent under center last season. In the only game he started (a win over Virginia) he threw for 212 yards and four touchdowns. And yet, despite performances like that, he’s not taking his role as favorite for granted either, as evidenced by yesterday’s feature in the Durham Herald-Sun. Similarly, former second-option Jamison Crowder also has an opportunity to be one of the ACC’s standout receivers (some would say he already was last year). Both Crowder and Boone will have the advantage of dealing with an experienced offensive line (returning four of five starters), so now the big challenge revolves around the effectiveness of the new(ish) offense. If they can put in some solid work in the more sped-up, athletic attack this spring, it could be a surprising new fold against conference defenses come the fall.
The Duke defense has to make some serious strides this spring if they hope to reverse the tide of last season. While the group was part of the Blue Devils’ big first half of the year, they were also a key part of their undoing in the second. Every one of Duke’s final seven opponents scored at least 30 points against them, with four scoring in the 40s and two in the 50s. They return a sizable chunk of that defense (which finished 104th in the country against the pass) though, so now the issue is how to fix it all. Ross Cockrell improving his own play and leadership is a start, but it’s a team effort. If they hope to make the necessary strides as a program, it’ll take a more physical approach on defense (coinciding with an increase in speed and size) and a dedication to winning games on that side of the ball. It may not always be necessary, but with a defense confident in its abilities to make a difference in games, it’s already half the battle.
Expectations appear tepid around Duke football, but perhaps that’s for the best. For a program rebuild like this one, it’s a slow process and a spike in expectations can actually be a momentum killer. Plus, implementing a new offensive scheme, with new playmakers (specifically Boone) means a steeper learning curve. Though the spring won’t necessarily solve every problem, a strong few weeks of practice could certainly set everybody off in the right direction.