By John Watson
April 11, 2005 DURHAM Coming off a season that yielded a 2-9 record, there certainly was no shortage of motivation as Duke coach Ted Roof led his team into Spring Ball 2005. Players? Well, that proved to be another matter altogether.
Though they fell nine times in 11 games a season ago, the Blue Devils found themselves only a few possessions away from challenging for a near-.500 record. However, a lack of depth and a rash of injuries once again doomed them to finish at the bottom of the ACC standings.
After spring camp ended in early April, there was reason for cautious optimism among fans, but the program again ran into a numbers problem. With only 44 returning lettermen, and at times a dozen players on the sidelines with injuries, Roof decided against having a traditional spring game.
"We just couldn't afford to get anyone else injured," Roof said. "The good news is, a lot of young players got a lot of experience (this spring) they might not have gotten if everyone was healthy. That should help our depth, which was one of our biggest problems last year. That's the silver lining."
Among the most pressing concerns for Roof and his staff was the need for increased production from the offense, which ranked at the bottom of the league a season ago. While quarterback Mike Schneider was among the most accurate passers in the ACC, the rising junior took a beating behind an inexperienced line, which featured four new starters.
A year later, the Blue Devils once again must replace four of the five starting linemen, as only right guard Tyler Krieg returns. Despite a number of bumps and bruises sustained by several blockers in the early going, the Devils hoped to break spring camp with five players who not only understood the finer points of their positions but also the ability to improve as 2005 goes along.
"I'm very pleased with the development of the offensive line," Roof said. "The technique all around has really improved, and the work in the weight room is paying off. There's an old saying that the closer you play to the ball, the harder it is. That's certainly proving true with us. Are we where we need to be at this point? No. But we are getting closer to what we need, and it's up to us to work hard and get there. I think we're moving in that direction."
Along with Krieg's veteran spring performance, Roof took notice of a trio of prospective starters who separated themselves early.
"Bob Benion and Demetrius Warrick have both looked really good out there," Roof said. "Both are a bit banged-up right now, but it's nothing that will prevent them from being ready to go in the fall. I really think Benion looks like he has found a home on the football field. Also, Lavdrim Bauta has really improved and is coming on strong. I think he's ready to take the next step and develop into a solid contributor for us."
Should the offensive line continue to mature, it'll be up to Schneider to continue to improve individually while helping his team elevate an offense that ranked last in total offense and rushing and next-to-last in passing offense in the conference last fall.
In order to improve those ratings, Roof hired former Maryland assistant Bill O'Brien, an old friend from their time together as Georgia Tech assistants, as the new coordinator. The move meant Schneider and backup Curt Dukes will be learning their third offense in the last three seasons, something Roof believes will not be a problem.
"Mike Schneider has really improved, and has made an effort to learn all the ins and outs of the new system," Roof said. "He's also accepted the challenge of stepping up and becoming this team's leader. As the quarterback, he's at the top of the team's depth chart, and he's got to lead us. He's getting better each day."
Dukes, who transferred from Nebraska as a sophomore, also figures into O'Brien's new scheme, though in any number of roles.
"Curt has improved his accuracy throwing the ball this offseason and is just a great football player," Roof said. "He's so talented that there is a place in this offense for him. He can play a number of different positions for us."
Playing a number of roles wasn't unique to Dukes this spring. After a series of offseason roster moves by the coaching staff, several Blue Devils will line up in new positions when they travel to East Carolina for their 2005 opener in early September.
Perhaps the most noticeable change in March was the evolution of Malcolm Ruff, who took his 255-pound frame from middle linebacker and migrated to the offensive backfield, where he'll be Duke's featured fullback. The change has gone relatively smoothly for the rising senior, who was a running back in high school.
"Malcolm has looked great so far," Roof said. "He's going to be a great lead blocker, and can really be a power runner. That's something we've desperately needed over the last few seasons. I've also been impressed with how quickly he's picked up the concept of protection in the passing game."
With Ruff leaving the linebacker corps, Duke needed more bodies and found them in Alfred Williams and Patrick Bailey. Both young players caught their coach's eye with their play during spring drills, Bailey after an offseason move from end.
"Those two are going to give us good size at linebacker," Roof said. "Patrick and Al are great football players, and both have picked up the position and its finer points very quickly. They just always seem to know what's going on."
Expecting a big season from his experienced upperclassmen is one thing, but
Roof knows that for Duke to take the next step he also will have to get contributions
from his heralded recruiting class. While most of those prospects won't arrive
until August, the staff
already has its crown jewel on campus and competing.
"Vince Oghobaase is the real deal," Roof said. "Sometimes in recruiting a kid may not live up to the hype, but that is not happening with Vince. He's been all that we expected and much more."
Oghobaase, a 6-6, 325-pound defensive tackle, missed most of spring drills with a leg injury that required surgery, but he showed the talent to be an immediate-impact player. He represents the new look of Duke football that Roof is trying to create, as several young and talented players will be given opportunities to earn playing time.
"Several redshirt freshmen looked solid this spring," Roof said. "A number of players in that group have a chance to play this fall, and we're really happy with their progress here."
Among the more notable developments was the emergence of cornerback Jabari Marshall, tailback Ronnie Drummer, safeties Chris Davis and Andreas Platt, and linemen Fred Roland and Rob Schirmann.
With so much young talent and the momentum of a strong recruiting class backing them, the Blue Devils have a chance to make progress in 2005. With a couple of good breaks on the field, and an avoidance of the injury bug, Roof may have the tools in place to vault Duke up from the cellar and back toward respectability.
Spring 2005 Overview
Everyone agrees that Ted Roof has injected more excitement into this lowly program in the past 19 months than overmatched predecessor Carl Franks generated in four-plus seasons. Unfortunately, most also agree that Roof will be facing an uphill battle for the foreseeable future in the new-and-improved ACC. Simply put, the Blue Devils have far less talent than almost anyone else in the league. Complicating matters further, their low numbers (44 returning lettermen) and numerous injuries were so bad that the team didn't even hold a traditional spring game. The bottom line: This rebuilding job probably will take a while.
Probable 2005 Starters
redshirted ^ six/more 2004 starts
injured/missed spring drills
Coming On Strong
Tight end and defensive end are examples of what Roof wants the rest of the team to look like eventually. At tight end, Patrick and senior Andy Roland are superb. At defensive end, veterans Alexander (2003 star back from injury), Nichols and Justin Kitchen all have starting experience, so the coaches were able to move promising sophomore Patrick Bailey into a void at linebacker. Rock-solid returning starters: DE Phillip Alexander, DE Eli Nichols, FS Brian Greene, CB John Talley. Also looking good: RB Ronnie Drummer, WR Ronnie Elliott, DE Justin Kitchen, LB Codey Lowe, TE Ben Patrick, FB Malcolm Ruff, WR Jomar Wright.
Cause For Concern?
Duke again lost four starters on the offensive line, and most of those who will be forced to play in their place can be fairly described as career reserves, unknown commodities or walking wounded. This could be a very, very big problem. Also: new offensive system, multiple coaching changes, so-so skill players, extreme lack of depth.
On The Sidelines
The following players missed all or most of spring drills: DE Phillip Alexander, RB Tim Ball, RB Justin Boyle, DT Casey Camero, LB Brendan Dewan, LB Jeramy Edwards, CB Rodney Ezzard, OL Cameron Goldberg, DT Vince Oghobasse, TE Andy Roland, OL Jonathan Terry, OL Demetrius Warrick, LB Alex Williams.
The following scholarship athletes left the program in the last 12 months with eligibility remaining: OL Izzy Bauta, OL Chris Best (chose to graduate), CB Daniel Charbonnet, RB Aaron Fryer, WR Lance Johnson (dismissed/Gardner-Webb), RB John-Paul Kimbrough (chose to graduate), WR Ben Kittleson (chose to graduate), DE David Martin (chose to graduate), CB Cedric Mason, OL Jim Moravchik (chose to graduate), WR Jamin Pastore (chose to graduate), LB Corey Sobel, WR Corey Thompson, WR Mark Wigal (chose to graduate), DT Kevin Wilson.