August 2, 2006
DURHAM -- The summer of Duke's discontent got a little more discontented in July, after football coach Ted Roof announced the season-long suspension of starting quarterback Zack Asack and the permanent dismissals of three other players.
The developments were crushing blows to a downtrodden program that had high hopes of making progress this fall, in Roof's third full season. The temporary loss of Asack got most of the attention -- and, in the short term, it will have a more significant impact on the program -- but the exits of the three other players pointed to a growing problem with Roof's rebuilding efforts.
Let's take the Asack news first. The 6-4, 200-pound sophomore was suspended on July 19. Normally, academic penalties at Duke are private, but Asack acknowledged that he was being punished for plagiarism.
"I made a mistake and am remorseful," he said in a statement released by the school. "I take full responsibility for my actions."
Asack received the same punishment that an ordinary student would have received for plagiarism, a two-semester suspension from school. Provided he stays out of trouble, he'll be allowed to re-enroll next summer and should be available for the 2007 season.
But that leaves a huge void in 2006.
For the last decade, Duke has had a problem finding a capable, consistent QB. That's odd, because even as the program declined in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, quarterback was one of the few positions that flourished. From Mike Dunn to the record-setting Ben Bennett to Steve Slayden to Anthony Dilweg to Dave Brown to Spence Fisher, the Blue Devils always seemed well-manned behind center.
But since the graduation of Fisher after the 1995 season, Duke has been floundering to find a dependable replacement. David Green, Spencer Romine, Bobby Campbell and Mike Schneider all had moments of promise, but none was able to deliver consistently.
It would be stretching a point to suggest that Asack proved last season that he was ready to break that cycle of frustration. His play was mediocre and his success limited. He hit exactly 50 percent of his 180 pass attempts for 966 yards, five touchdowns and eight interceptions. His pass efficiency rating of 95.4 was 11th out of the 12 ACC starters, ahead of only Wake Forest's Ben Mauk.
Still, Asack was a true freshman in 2005, forced into action before he was ready and forced to play with an inept line in front of him and young receivers. It was not unreasonable for Roof and his staff to project major improvement in Asack's play this season.
In fact, his future was thought to be so bright that it helped precipitate the exodus of Duke's other QB candidates. Schneider, who lost his job to Asack halfway through the 2005 season, went ahead and graduated with his class and will take his final year of eligibility at Youngstown State. Curt Dukes, a former prep star who transferred from Nebraska but never made much of an impact at Duke, also elected to graduate. More serious was the loss of Gene Delle Donne, a highly recruited prospect who was in the same recruiting class as Asack. He was redshirted last season, then opted to transfer to Middle Tennessee State.
Those departures didn't seem too terrible as long as Asack was around. But his suspension left Roof with just two scholarship quarterbacks, sophomore Marcus Jones and incoming freshman Thaddeus Lewis.
Jones is an excellent athlete who made an immediate impact as a wide receiver last season (11 catches, 90 yards, TD). But he played little at quarterback, hitting two of seven passes for six yards. Lewis, a highly rated dual-threat QB from Miami, picked the Devils over offers from Michigan State, Pittsburgh, TCU and South Florida. Obviously, neither Jones nor Lewis appears ready to play at the ACC level. Between them, they'll have to undergo the same painful learning process that Asack endured last fall.
There is the tiniest bit of good news amidst all the gloom. Because of the departures of all the other backup quarterbacks, Jones spent all of spring working at QB, splitting the practice snaps with Asack. That should help him get ready this fall. Plus, both he and Lewis are mobile, which could come in handy behind the ACC's least experienced line.
But there's no way to sugarcoat things: The Asack situation is going to severely damage -- if not kill -- Duke's optimistic hopes of winning three or four games this season.
UNUSUAL PROBLEM: EARLY ATTRITION
Yet in the long term, Asack's suspension might not be nearly as damaging to Roof's program as the second part of the equation, the continued departures of qualified players before their eligibility is out.
As much as Duke has struggled in recent years, the retention rate for the football team has been nothing short of amazing. The Blue Devils have graduated close to 95 percent of their recruits over the last quarter-century, hitting 100 percent on a number of occasions.
Many of the defections under Roof will not impact those numbers. His most damaging losses in the offseason were fourth-year juniors who elected to graduate with their class and use their final season of eligibility somewhere else. That's not unusual at Duke, but it's a step normally taken by marginal players who don't have much to contribute on the field.
That was not the case in this offseason. Tight end Ben Patrick, one of Duke's most talented players, elected to leave the Devils and will play his final season at Delaware. Tyler Krieg and Lav Bauta, two 2005 starters whose experience would have been extremely valuable on the offensive line, also opted to leave early. Obviously, Schneider's departure left a huge gap in the depth chart at quarterback.
Last spring, Roof and several of his players addressed the defections, pointing out that the older players were recruited by former coach Carl Franks and that they didn't all buy into Roof's program.
Only it's not that simple, as the recent dismissals made clear. Two of the three players kicked off the team were Roof's recruits: Andreas Platt, a sophomore slated to start at strong safety, and Joe Suder, a 340-pound redshirt freshman trying to make the switch from defensive tackle to the offensive line. The third departure was senior Deon Adams, who was merely the team's most experienced wide receiver.
Platt is the sixth member of Roof's 24-man 2004 recruiting class to leave. That's an extraordinarily high attrition percentage at Duke. Worse, the defections include receiver Chancellor Young -- perhaps the most celebrated member of that class -- and Izzy Bauta, the younger brother of Lav and the top-rated line prospect Roof landed that year. Another serious 2004 loss was receiver Corey Thompson, who showed a lot of promise as a true freshman, with 19 catches for 202 yards and a touchdown.
The best spin to put on the heavy attrition in Roof's 2004 class is that it was a transitional recruiting year. Franks began the process, and Roof had to continue it for most of the pre-signing day period as the interim coach, before he was named the permanent coach. To his credit, his 2005 class -- Duke's best on paper in more than a decade -- remains largely intact. Delle Donne and Suder are the only departures among the 25 signees.
But that will be an important factor to watch. If Roof has any chance of reviving Duke's program, he must start retaining players at a higher rate. In the long run, the departures of prospects such as Platt and Suder -- not to mention Young, Bauta, Thompson and Delle Donne -- may prove much more damaging to the program than the one-year loss of Asack or anyone else.