April 19, 2006
DURHAM -- Is there really such a thing as addition by subtraction?
At least one Duke football player believes that's the case, after the premature departure of four 2005 starters and seven other players who might have helped the Blue Devils climb out of their hole at the bottom of the ACC.
"I feel like we kind of weeded out the guys who didn't want to be here," linebacker Michael Tauiliili said. "I think that was one of the coaches' goals. Now there's a clear picture of who's on our squad."
Tauiliili is a new name on the Duke roster, but not a new player. Last season, he earned freshman All-American honors as Michael Brown. He started 10 games and led the Blue Devils with 92 tackles, including 10 for loss. The Houston native decided to change his name in the offseason, adopting the Samoan name of his mother's family.
Whether you call him Brown or Tauiliili, the rising sophomore is the kind of player coach Ted Roof needs to restore respectability to the Duke program. The young linebacker pointed out that the great majority of the players who left early were brought in by former coach Carl Franks.
"That's what a lot of people fail to realize," Tauiliili said. "A lot of the guys who left weren't even recruited here by Coach Roof. Coach Roof looks for a particular type of player -- not just athletic ability, although that's a big part of it. He also looks for complete players -- academics, coachability, how do they interact with their family ... because that's what Duke is, a family."
Roof's first two full recruiting classes certainly have been ranked higher than those brought in by Franks (or by Fred Goldsmith before him). But that doesn't mean Roof welcomed the departures of so many players who might have helped fill gaps while his recruits learn the game and grow up a little bit.
"Right now, 12 of our starters are freshmen or sophomores and (so are) seven of our backups," Roof said. "We've played more true freshmen the last two years than any team in the country, and that's a trend I'm hoping will end after this recruiting class. Two years ago, we played 17 (true) freshmen. We played 14 this year. I'm afraid we're going to play a bunch next year, but that's a trend that I hope is going to end next year."
The worst news is that several of those freshmen who will be forced to play next season are on the offensive line, probably the toughest place for a newcomer to make an impact. But Roof has little choice after 2005 starters Lavdrim Bauta and Tyler Krieg elected to graduate with their class rather than return for a fifth year of eligibility.
That's a common practice at Duke, a negative byproduct of the school's astronomical graduation rate. The football coaches tend to get caught in a numbers crunch, with more than 90 percent of the players who enter remaining to graduate.
Without significant attrition, it's impossible to maintain five full recruiting classes -- they typically consist of 18-25 players per class -- and stay under the NCAA's 85-scholarship limit. Since Duke can't run off marginal players, the practice has developed where fourth-year juniors with marginal skills go ahead and graduate without using their final year of eligibility.
CONCERNS: QB, BLOCKERS, PATRICK
The departures of Bauta and Krieg, coupled with injuries that ended the career of 2004 offensive guard starter Bob Benion, left a huge void on the offensive line.
Junior center Matt Rumsey is the only returning starter. Rising sophomore Cameron Goldberg, who earned ACC all-freshman honors last season in a backup role, is probably the second-most experienced player on the unit. The spring backups include converted defensive linemen Christopher Moore and Joe Suder. By fall, several true freshmen will be on the depth chart.
"That's a position where freshmen are going to have to figure in depth at least, because we don't have enough linemen at this point," Roof said. "We addressed it in this year's recruiting. We signed six, but we're going to have to sign four or five more next year. The good news is, we've got some guys I think are going to be good players at the position. But offensive line is the hardest position to play as a young player."
Quarterback is another position that was hurt by early departures.
Zack Asack, who won the job as a true freshman, appears to have made major strides in the offseason and is solidly entrenched as the starter at that position. But Roof had hoped that redshirt freshman Gene Delle Donne, one of the top recruits in last year's recruiting class, would be on hand to battle Asack for the job.
Delle Donne's transfer -- the one key departure involving a Roof recruit -- hurt. So did the decisions by 2004 starter Mike Schneider, who lost his job to Asack last year, and little-used Nebraska transfer Curt Dukes, to graduate with their class. Neither was going to beat out Asack, but Roof would have liked to have at least one of the two experienced quarterbacks back as a safety net.
Instead, Asack and rising sophomore Marcus Jones are the only two scholarship quarterbacks on the spring roster. Need has forced the versatile Jones -- maybe the best all-around athlete on the team -- to concentrate on playing quarterback, despite showing considerable potential as a wide receiver last season. And it might force incoming freshman Thaddeus Lewis to play this fall before he's ready.
"It's a situation where we've got those two guys and then we've got an incoming freshman that's going to have to pick things up pretty quickly as well," Roof said. "We'd like to get back to the point where we start signing one (quarterback) a year. We just need to get some balance in our recruiting."
Remember, it's not that Krieg or Bauta or Schneider or Dukes were all that good; if they were, Duke wouldn't have gone 3-20 over the last two seasons. They are being replaced by potentially much better players. At least that's the presumption Roof has to make as he tries to rebuild the downtrodden program he inherited midway through the 2003 season.
But a team with as small a margin for error as Duke has to be hurt by the departure of as many potential contributors as the Devils lost after last season. The consequence of those losses is to force young players to see action before they're ready.
And not all of the early departures were mediocre players. The most disappointing decision came from tight end Ben Patrick, who was one of the few Duke talents who matched up with the best in the ACC. The 6-4, 270-pound Georgian led Duke with 30 catches last season and had 79 catches for 881 yards in three seasons.
Patrick and All-ACC cornerback John Talley are probably the only two Duke upperclassmen who could find playing time on one of the ACC's better teams. Patrick's decision to graduate (and finish out his college career at a Division I-AA school) left a talent void that won't be easy to replace.
To fill that gap, Roof has to hope that Tauiliili is right about weeding out the players who haven't bought into his vision for Duke football. Thanks to the early departures, the Blue Devils again will be very, very young next season, but at least the youngsters on the field will be Roof's guys -- body and soul.
"I didn't come here to lose," Asack said. "All the players in my class feel that way. We all have the mindset, we all want to win and turn things around and fill the stadium. We'll do whatever it takes."