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Duke’s 2014 Big Man Quest Continues

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 7:18am
  • Kevon Looney (ACCSports.com/Michael Ingalls)
     Kevon Looney (ACCSports.com/Michael Ingalls)
  • Jahlil Okafor (USA Basketball)
     Jahlil Okafor (USA Basketball)
By: Duke Insider

DURHAM – For all of Mike Krzyzewski’s recruiting success in recent years, he’s had a curiously spotty record when it comes to landing post players.

The Duke coach is involved with a number of prominent big men in the Class of 2014.

One of his key targets – 6-8 Kevon Looney of Milwaukee – made his official visit the weekend of Sept. 7 while the football team was on the road at Memphis. Looney, ESPN’s No. 9 prospect, is a slender but aggressive power forward who is also considering Florida, Michigan State, UCLA and Wisconsin.

Krzyzewski would like to bring in at least two big men in this class … maybe three.

Obviously, the top target would be 6-10 Jahlil Okafor of Chicago, who is not only the No. 1 overall prospect in the class but is also part of a widely publicized package deal along with Tyus Jones, the top point guard in the class.

In an ideal world, Krzyzewski could add Okafor, Looney and Jones to already committed wing guard Grayson Allen (No. 27 on the ESPN list) and maybe wing forward Justise Winslow (ESPN’s No. 15 prospect).

But Krzyzewski has been around long enough to understand that it’s not an ideal world, so he’s also pursuing Boston’s 6-9 Goodluck Okonoboh (No. 19 according to ESPN) and he recently offered 6-8, 240-pound Reid Travis of Minnesota (No. 40 on the ESPN list). Duke is also one of the finalists for fast-rising Texas center Myles Turner (ESPN’s No. 10 prospect), but is regarded as a long-shot in that race.

There is also an intriguing report earlier in the week that Krzyzewski was meeting with 6-9 Chris Egi, a Canadian who recently reclassified from the Class of 2015 to 2014. Egi, who is playing this season at the Montverde Academy in Florida, not long ago called Duke his “dream school.” But there were also (unconfirmed) reports that Egi eliminated Duke from his recruiting list.

Stay turned on that one.

Blue Devils Turn To Connette

A year ago, Duke football coach David Cutcliffe watched as his defense was decimated by injuries, leading to a late-season collapse that saw the Devils surrender at least 42 points in each of the final five games.

Early this season, the Duke defense remained relatively healthy and surprisingly effective, but before halftime of the season’s second game, the Blue Devil coach was down to his third-string quarterback – and last player on the roster with any real experience at that position.

Fortunately, for Duke, redshirt junior Brandon Connette – whose primary experience has been as a Wildcat quarterback – stepped in for injured starter Anthony Boone and rallied the Devils to a 28-14 victory at Memphis.

“We’re very fortunate to have a young man like Brandon Connette,” Cutcliffe said. “There are a lot of programs that, when you lose your starter in the first half of the second game, people struggle getting signals and operating their offense, having delay of games. Brandon is a pretty special young man, and he went in there and did a tremendous job running our offense.”

Duke’s quarterback depth took a big hit late in spring practice when Thomas Sirk – a redshirt freshman with a world of potential – blew out his Achilles tendon. Sirk, who was running second-team to the veteran Boone – has still not been cleared to practice and will be lucky to return to action late in the season.

That was just a minor concern with Boone holding the starting job. The redshirt junior got off to a brilliant start in the opening game rout of N.C. Central, hitting 16 of 20 passes (with two blatant drops).

Boone was less effective in the first half against Memphis, although he did run 23 yards for Duke’s first score. But he also made a bad throw that led to a 75-yard interception return for a touchdown. And late in the second quarter, he took a hit that forced him to the locker room.

Boone emerged for the second half with his right (throwing) arm in a sling. Cutcliffe later revealed that his starting quarterback had suffered a broken collarbone and would be out indefinitely.

Connette had to take over with the game tied 7-7 at the half.

A career 47 percent passer (for a career total of 253 yards), the bulky Californian hit 14 of 21 attempts against Memphis for 198 passing yards and two second-half touchdowns. He directed three scoring drives in all.

That was enough offense, thanks to a revitalized defense that dominated the Tigers, limiting the home team to 89 rushing yards and just 148 in the air. More impressively, a Duke defense that couldn’t get off the field a year ago limited Memphis to 2-of-13 on third-down plays and 0-of-4 on fourth down.

In two games, the Duke defense has recorded its first shutout in 24 seasons (against NCCU) and surrendered just one defensive touchdown overall. The defense is giving up 7.0 points a game, 210.5 yards and allowing just 50 percent of competitions.

Of course, that’s against two weak opponents, but against the same two opponents a year ago, Duke allowed 15.5 points a game, 244.5 yards and a 60.4 percent completion rate.

“This is what we want to be – cogs in a machine,” senior cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “It’s good to win one this way – there have been plenty of times in the past where the defense played poorly and the offense carried us.”

Cutcliffe would like to view the manner of the victory as evidence that his program is maturing.

“This was a program win,” he said after that game.

He argued that Duke is better than last year’s six-win team.

“I see us every day in practice, I know who we recruited,” he said. “We’ve continued to get better each year we’ve been here. Sometimes, you’re not fortunate with a ball bounce or injury, et cetera. There’s no question we’ve gone a lot of levels, we’ve taken a lot of steps. Obviously, now at this point, there’s some that we talk about that are important to us.

“This is a better football team than we were a year ago – at this moment.”

Duke is 2-0 for the first time in this century. Obviously, the schedule had a lot to do with that. And the injury situation at quarterback is scary – if Connette goes down, true freshman Parker Boehme is next in line.

But Cutcliffe has more overall talent, more depth and more experience than a year ago. He just needs to avoid another injury nightmare.