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Eager Blue Devils Don't Want To Wait Until Next Year

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff



By Bryan Strickland
Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun

August 30, 2007

DURHAM – Many of the 200 former Duke football players who attended an unprecedented summit in January came to voice their displeasure with the direction of the program and because they were fed up.

Many left the forum eating it up.

Shortly after the weekend-long gathering ended, word spread like wildfire that Duke coach Ted Roof, his Blue Devils mired in a 20-game losing streak, told the long-departed lettermen that their alma mater would be eligible for a bowl game in 2008.

"That's quite a plank to walk," former Duke defensive end Darryl Brunson said. "It was amazing the confidence that Ted put forth after an 0-12 season. I can see why his players follow him. He won the whole room over."

Roof appreciated the newfound support but, being a football coach, he didn't exactly appreciate that his bold proclamation got out. Roof's resistance, however, didn't come from fear that with his words now a matter of public record, his failure to meet such a lofty goal would seal the 2008 season as his last. Rather, Roof didn't want anyone — especially his players — to forget that the 2007 season comes first.

"I'm not thinking about 2008; I'm thinking about 2007 and I'm thinking about Connecticut," said Roof, whose Blue Devils open with the Huskies on Sept. 1 at Wallace Wade Stadium. "We've got a lot of guys that this is their last year playing football.

"To look past this year or to look past the first game would be a huge mistake, and we're not going to do that."

Roof certainly hasn't given up on this season before it starts — if nothing else, the momentum needed for the 2008 push must start this season — but he had his reasons for skipping any crystal-ball offerings for the 2007 season.

Roof has increased the depth of talent in Duke's recruiting classes since taking over midway through the 2003 season for Carl Franks, and he has been able to slowly but surely increase the program's ability to redshirt more members of those classes with each passing fall.

But while the Blue Devils return all 11 starters on offense from last season, including a quarterback (actually two quarterbacks) with some college experience for the first time since 2004, most of the key players in Roof's long-term plan are still short on snaps. In addition, the defense still has some serious holes, and the special teams units are starting from scratch following a disastrous 2006 season.

But you certainly wouldn't know it talking to Duke's players, a gutsy group that enters the season stuck in the nation's longest losing streak but sounds like a group intent on starting a winning streak.

"We feel like right now the only way we can be beat is to beat ourselves," starting quarterback Thaddeus Lewis said. "A lot of people are worried about our defense, but watch us right now: Vince Oghobaase can't be blocked, Pat Bailey is coming around the end every time and Chris Davis is making a big impact in the secondary.

"The confidence level of the team is very high."

If Lewis believes in Duke's defense — which has been re-energized by Roof reassuming the role of coordinator — then his faith in the offense is assumed. His confidence is not without cause.

When quarterback Zack Asack, who showed promise as a true freshman in 2005, was suspended from school for a year last summer for an academic violation, the Blue Devils had to turn first to converted wide receiver Marcus Jones and then to new arrival Lewis at quarterback.

The early results, behind an offensive line that claimed 12 starts among them entering the season, were worse than could have been imagined: Duke scored 13 points in a heartbreaking loss at Wake Forest but nary a point in its other three games over the first month of the season.

But over the final two-thirds of the season, thanks to the development of the line, Lewis and a solid group of receivers and running backs, Duke averaged nearly 21 points a game — nothing spectacular, but nothing to sneeze at from a still-young group that now returns everybody, including Asack. Plus, they'll be led by first-year offensive coordinator Peter Vaas, who was coaching quarterback Brady Quinn at Notre Dame this time last year.

"I expect our offense to be very potent and high-powered. I expect our offense to score every time we touch the ball, every drive," said wide receiver Jomar Wright, Duke's leading pass catcher a year ago. "Having 11 starters back, we're going to be able to go out there and just execute what the coaches are calling and not have to think about our jobs.

"Everyone is going to know what to expect."

The expectations aren't as clear on the defensive side.

A unit that ranked last in the ACC in total defense and scoring defense won't have a returning starter at linebacker for the opener — though leading tackler Michael Tauiliili will return from a one-game suspension the next week — and must do without career interception leader John Talley to anchor the secondary. The young defensive backs will be led by an old name, 40-year coaching veteran and former Duke player John Gutekunst.

Roof's decision to end the co-defensive coordinator approach with Scott Brown (still on the staff) and Jerry Azzinaro (no longer on the staff) and re-take the reins himself brings some hope. The two times Duke has finished in the top 65 nationally in total defense this century were the two years that Roof was coordinator.

The Blue Devils also have to hope a coaching change can jumpstart the special teams units, as well. In Duke's 45-44 loss to North Carolina to end last season, UNC assistant Danny Pearman watched as the Blue Devils gave up touchdowns via punt return and kickoff return and had two PATs blocked. Neither kick even came off the foot of returning kicker Joe Surgan, who was benched for the season finale after a 3-for-10 season on field goal attempts.

Now Pearman is coordinating special teams for the Blue Devils, the job he held at Alabama from 1991-98 and a duty he learned more about while observing Virginia Tech's vaunted units while coaching offensive linemen for the Hokies for eight years.

In terms of personnel, planning and pure passion to make it work, the Blue Devils appear to be in better shape to put up a fight, but the calendar will conspire against them — both in terms of a schedule stacked with four consecutive road games and because not enough weeks and months have passed for Duke to have enough collective experience on its side.

Of course, that's not what those who can't wait until 2008 want to hear.

"I came here to go to a bowl game," senior running back Justin Boyle said. "That was my mission when I first came to this school, and I'd love to leave that as a part of my legacy.

"This year is huge."

DUKE INSIDER: UPDATES/ANALYSIS

  • Ted Roof has had to shuffle his linebacker corps because of the suspension of two-year starter Michael Tauiliili for the first two weeks of practice, plus the opening game.

Sophomore Vincent Rey, who played in all 12 games as a true freshman last season, has moved into the starting job in the middle that was vacated by Tauiliili. Rey came out of spring contending with converted running back Tim Ball for a job at weakside linebacker. Now Ball, who had 18 tackles last season in a reserve role, is the clear-cut starter at that spot with Rey in the middle.

The strongside LB position belongs to junior Charles Robinson, a little-used sub and special teams player in his first two years at Duke. He's being pushed hard by junior Marcus Jones, a converted quarterback/wide receiver. Jones missed a week of preseason work with a minor injury, and even though he's back full speed, it appears that his absence has allowed Robinson to lock up the starting job.

Roof has avoided the temptation to shore up his inexperienced linebacker corps by shifting senior Patrick Bailey, who started eight games at OLB in 2005, back to that position. Bailey is a returning starter at defensive end (termed "rush end" in Duke's system). Bailey, Duke's top returning tackler, will remain at that position.

Interesting question: What's going to happen after Tauiliili's suspension is over and he returns to action for the Virginia game on Sept. 8?

Rey has established himself in preseason practice as Duke's top linebacker — or at the very least as the team's second-best LB after Tauiliili. Does Rey move back outside after Tauiliili's return? Can he make that switch easily after playing inside all preseason? Or will Roof allow his two best linebackers to share the middle linebacker spot?

  • One of the most significant moves Roof has made in preseason has been shifting projected defensive end starter Ayanga Okpokowuruk back to nose guard.

Okpokowuruk, who started five games at nose guard last season before moving to end last spring, was probably the second highest-rated recruit in Roof's stellar 2005 recruiting class — behind Texas DT Vince Oghobaase. Both players were hurt before the 2005 season and forced to redshirt. Now both are starting together as redshirt sophomores along Duke's 2007 defensive front.

"Ayanga is having a good camp," Roof said. "He's gained about 10 or 12 pounds in the offseason and he's doing a good job pushing the pocket and holding the point — all the things you want from your inside folks."

Okpokowuruk's end spot now belongs to Ryan Radloff, another touted member of that 2005 recruiting class, who also missed the 2005 season with an injury and is listed as a redshirt sophomore.

  • One of the two vacant cornerback spots on the team's preseason roster will be filled by sophomore Leon Wright. The other vacant position remains up for grabs. New secondary coach John Gutekunst has been trying to find replacements for last year's starting cornerbacks — including first-team All-ACC corner John Talley, the school's career interception leader. But also missing is two-year starter Deonto McCormick, who is on hand as a graduate assistant to try and find his replacement.

Wright, who had an interception and 17 tackles last season in a reserve role as a true freshman, impressed Gutekunst — himself a former standout defensive back for Duke in the Bill Murray era — before he was hurt and missed the last half of spring practice. But the 5-9 St. Petersburg, Fla., product has been a consistently solid performer in preseason drills and came up with two interceptions in the team's last preseason scrimmage.

The other cornerback spot appears to be a battle between converted strong safety Glenn Williams and converted wide receiver Jabari Marshall.

Williams, a senior from Baltimore, has played cornerback before. Marshall, a junior from Atlanta, has bounced around the depth chart for two years looking for a position. Although he's perhaps the fastest player on the Duke roster, Marshall's only real contribution at Duke so far has been as a kick returner — his 25.1 yards per return average was 22nd nationally last season.

Senior Rodney Ezzard is a long shot to watch at corner. Although the Atlanta product played in just one game last year, he impressed Gutekunst during spring drills. In fact, the former Lou Holtz assistant said he saw many of the same qualities in the unheralded Ezzard that he once saw in South Carolina All-American Sheldon Brown.

  • Duke boasts the return of 11 offensive starters, but two 2006 offensive line starters were unable to go in the first two weeks of preseason practice. Junior tackle Fred Roland, who started all 12 games a season ago, and senior guard Zach Maurides, who also started all 12 games last season, are both coming back slowly from offseason surgery.

Maurides returned to action Aug. 19 and ought to be ready to start against UConn. That's very good news for the Duke coach.

Roland, whose surgery was later, is still sidelined and probably won't be back in the lineup until the second or third week of the season.

In the absence of the two starters, a number of young players are contending for at least a temporary starting job. Redshirt freshman Marcus Lind, a Swedish native who prepped in Florida before signing with the Blue Devils, has come on strong and is likely to get substantial playing time even after Roland returns. In addition, sophomore Jarrod Holt, who played 148 snaps last season as a true freshman, is likely to be in the regular rotation. Holt is a younger brother of two former ACC offensive line starters — Virginia's Joe Holt and N.C. State's Jon Holt.

  • Roof has been very happy with the preseason performance of junior kicker Joe Surgan, who endured a miserable sophomore season. The Blue Devil coach is less happy with the preseason performance of punting candidates Kevin Jones and Nick Maggio.

Both boast strong prep credentials, but Jones, expected to step in as Duke's punter last season, couldn't beat out Alex Feinberg or Randy DeSmyter, two seniors who averaged a mediocre 36.5 yards a kick. It's significant that Roof used a scholarship on a punter for the second straight year — bringing in Maggio, the all-state kicker from Kansas.

Unfortunately, neither Jones nor Maggio has been able to seize the job, leaving new special teams coordinator Danny Pearman facing a major headache heading into the season.

The Big Picture

Sooner or later, Ted Roof is going to have to win some football games. Those around the program rave about the progress he's made in upgrading Duke's talent base since taking over for Carl Franks, and how his players still buy into Roof's vision of future success. The Blue Devils were among the least experienced teams in college football over the last two seasons – starting a true freshman QB both years didn't help – but now Roof's promising kids are becoming veterans. There's no longer any excuse for Duke to be noncompetitive.

The PooP

With 11 starters back on offense, and two quarterbacks with starting experience, the Blue Devils have reasonable hopes of success on that side of the ball. A lot depends on new coordinator Peter Vaas, Brady Quinn's tutor at Notre Dame, who will try to mold sophomore Thaddeus Lewis into a star. Defensively, Duke has a lot more question marks, especially after the suspension of productive middle linebacker Michael Tauiliili. Roof, once a star linebacker at Georgia Tech, serves as his own de facto defensive coordinator. It's too bad he can't insert his younger self into the lineup.

Done For Me Lately

Year ACC Overall Postseason
1997 0-8 (9) 2-9 None
1998 2-6 (6) 4-7 None
1999 3-5 (5) 3-8 None
2000 0-8 (9) 0-11 None
2001 0-8 (9) 0-11 None
2002 0-8 (9) 2-10 None
2003 2-6 (8) 4-8 None
2004 1-7 (10) 2-9 None
2005 0-8 (6C) 1-10 None
2006 0-8 (6C) 0-12 None

ACC: 8-72 (.100)
Overall: 18-95 (.159)

Building Blocks

Duke's talent can't match its ACC rivals in a lot of areas, but at one position the Blue Devils stack up well. The wide receiving corps boasts three veterans who combined for 111 catches and 1,575 yards last season. Eron Riley led the league in yards per reception, while Jomar Wright and Raphael Chestnut rank among the conference's top 10 returnees in receptions. Throw in potential game-breaker Ronnie Drummer – he sometimes lines up at running back, sometimes at receiver – plus promising youngsters Sheldon Bell and Jeremy Ringfield, and Roof has a group of wideouts who could play for anybody.

Coming On Strong

Roof's 2005 recruiting class was rated Duke's best in more than a decade, largely because of an impressive crop of defensive line prospects. Injuries have slowed the development of a couple of the key recruits, but now tackle Vince Oghobaase, end Ayanga Okpokowuruk and tackle Clifford Respress appear ready to come into their own. That would give Duke its best chance to excel on the defensive front in this century.

Cause For Concern?

Between the improving young defensive front and a trio of veteran safeties is a great defensive void that will be filled by untested young players. Beyond Tauiliili, who will miss at least the opener (and perhaps more games) with a suspension, there's not an experienced linebacker or cornerback on the roster. While some of the candidates are promising prospects, Duke has learned to its sorrow the cost of turning that promise into real production.

The Whole Truth

"We have a good football team. We know we do. We just have to exploit it and show it. Since we know it, all we have to do is show it to the rest of the world."

– Duke wide receiver Raphael Chestnut

Chart By: The Duke Insider