October 11, 2005
DURHAM - Hidden by the disaster that was Duke's 52-7 loss at Miami was one significant play for the Blue Devils. Early in the third quarter, sophomore tailback Ronnie Drummer sliced through the UM defense for an 81-yard touchdown run.
It was significant because it revealed a previously unseen big-play capability - a capability Duke's offense must nourish if the Devils have any hope of finding success this season.
Entering the Miami game, Duke was averaging an ACC-worst 3.7 yards per play. Even that number was skewered because of a strong showing (over 5.0 yards a play) against Division I-AA lightweight VMI. Against Virginia Tech, Duke ran 77 plays and gained 35 net yards. Against Miami, Duke's 52 plays netted 128 yards. And even in winnable games against East Carolina and Navy, the Blue Devils averaged barely 4.3 yards a play, a figure that still would rank dead-last among the 12 ACC teams.
Take a moment and look at Duke's scoring plays. Before Drummer's 81-yard burst, the Blue Devils had converted eight running touchdowns - one from 10 yards out, one from six yards, and six from four yards or closer. One of the team's two TD passes was a six-yard toss to freshman Marcus Jones. Only a 30-yard strike from freshman Zack Asack to sophomore Jomar Wright against Virginia qualified as a big play.
Unfortunately, Wright - who was averaging a healthy 19.5 yards on his eight receptions - suffered a knee injury against Navy and will miss the rest of the season. So much for the Blue Devils' deep threat.
Duke's lack of big-play potential has allowed opponents routinely to stack eight and even nine defenders in the box, denying the Devils a chance to generate any kind of ground game. The tight secondary coverage has taken away the short passing game that coordinator Bill O'Brien would like to use to protect his freshman QB. It has allowed the safeties to come up to jam the middle and the short wings, where tight ends Ben Patrick and Andy Roland - probably Duke's best offensive players - can't find the short and intermediate holes that are usually available.
O'Brien is battling a vicious circle. It's tough for Duke to attack opposing defenses deep because (1) the shaky line can't protect long enough for deep passes to develop; (2) Asack is a freshman who hasn't demonstrated the ability to go deep (veterans Mike Schneider and Curt Dukes have demonstrated that they can't); and (3) none of the receivers has demonstrated the speed to stretch defenses.
When coach Ted Roof was asked about the lack of a deep threat on his roster, he brought up Jabari Marshall, a redshirt freshman speedster from Atlanta. Marshall was, in Roof's words, "one of the fastest kids in the country coming out of high school."
Two problems: Marshall is ineligible to play this fall (he's expected back in January), and he was projected to play cornerback anyway.
Roof also mentioned true freshman Eron Riley as a potential deep threat, although his resume currently contains just two catches, one for a two-point conversion against Navy and one for a two-yard loss against Miami. Roof didn't mention him, but freshman Marcus Jones has been a target on several deep routes so far this season, although none connected.
It's possible that Duke's deep threat is still to be recruited.
"That's certainly an element we need to add," Roof said. "We need to bring in more speed on offense."
Drummer offers at least a chance of filling Duke's void. His big burst against Miami was not a total fluke. Once he got into the secondary, he out-ran three UM defensive backs who were right on his heels for the last 40 yards, which has to rank as a pretty good testament to his speed. He also had a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown in the opener at East Carolina, and he has averaged 6.0 yards on 44 career carries.
But he's never been an every-down back. He's played as much receiver as running back, and before the Miami game many of his runs came on reverses from the slotback position. He became a regular tailback against the Hurricanes only because injuries sidelined Duke's top three tailbacks, Cedric Dargan, Justin Boyle and freshman Re'quan Boyette.
That could turn out to be a long-term break for the Devils. Drummer is obviously a player with big-play potential, and that's something Duke's woeful offense needs desperately.
RANDOLPH MAY HAVE LAST LAUGH
Almost everybody who follows ACC basketball was skeptical when Shavlik Randolph turned pro after a mediocre junior season at Duke. Few were surprised when the 6-10 Raleigh native went undrafted.
But Randolph very well could have the last laugh on his critics. He returned to the Duke campus in early October to participate in preseason drills with the Philadelphia 76ers, and he appears to be in position to make the NBA team.
"From what he's done this summer," Philadelphia general manager Billy King told reporters, "it's his roster spot to lose."
King, of course, played for coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and was suspected of signing Randolph to a non-guaranteed free agent contract as a favor to his mentor. But King is not likely to throw away a precious NBA roster spot.
Philadelphia coach Maurice Cheeks, who has no Duke ties, sounded as if he was just as interested in Randolph's potential.
"He's an intriguing player," Cheeks said. "He's kind of an old-school power forward down on the block, and he can step outside and shoot a jump shot. He's shown a lot."
Randolph sounded like a guy getting the last laugh on his critics.
"Of course people are going to doubt me and find it hard to believe what I'm doing," he said. "People can say what they want, but I'm doing it."
Details of Randolph's contract with the 76ers remain secret, but King acknowledged that if the former Duke player makes the roster, he'll have to make at least the NBA minimum of $398,000 a year.
STONES HAVE SYMPATHY FOR DEVILS
Duke, which averaged fewer than 17,000 fans for its first three home games (and it was only that large thanks to the Virginia Tech fans who showed up on Sept. 10), packed Wallace Wade Stadium on Oct. 8.
Unfortunately, the Blue Devils were playing in Miami's Orange Bowl that afternoon. The 40,000-plus turnout at Wade Stadium that night was for the Rolling Stones and their "Bigger Bang Tour."
The Stones' massive stage has done serious damage to other venues, but Duke officials were confident that the rock event would not damage the turf at Wade Stadium. Very little of the stage was actually on the field anyway. Most of it was beyond the end zone, just in front of the scoreboard.