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Few Early Surprises, Either Good Or Bad

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

September 8, 2003 DURHAM — The fruits of Carl Franks' recruiting labors were evident in the Blue Devils' 29-3 victory against Western Carolina, a game that showed Duke is getting some decent depth at several key positions, most notably quarterback, running back and linebacker. Granted, the victory was against a Division I-AA team that isn't expected to contend for that level's national title. But it was a victory, and a dominating one at that, and Duke hasn't had many of those under Franks' watch. The only other, in fact, came last season when the Blue Devils trounced Navy 43-14 on the road. The coach's other four career victories — against Virginia (1999), Maryland (1999), Wake Forest (1999) and East Carolina (2002) — have come by an average of about a touchdown. With the win against WCU, Franks pushed his career record to 6-41, ending an eight-game losing streak although he, and the team, still nurse a record 26-game ACC skid thanks to their predictable season-opening 27-0 loss at Virginia. As bad as Duke looked against Virginia, that's how good the Blue Devils looked against Western Carolina. Duke is supposed to look great against a Division I-AA team? True. The fact that Duke did look great? For Franks, that's progress. “I'm proud of the whole team, the way they practiced all week and came out and played hard,” Franks said. “They played really hard. They played the way they expected to play and the way I expected them to play.” And the depth showed.

Hope At QB, Tailback, Linebacker At quarterback, redshirt freshman Mike Schneider got his first career start against Western Carolina, a not-so-big surprise Franks tried to keep from the media (and WCU) by fibbing all week and saying the job was up for grabs. Not so. After the game, deposed starter Adam Smith told reporters he had known about his demotion since Sunday, six days before kickoff. Anyway ... Schneider again looked good, showing not only the quick feet and strong arm he displayed against Virginia, but also looking almost Philip Rivers-like with his improvisational skills, at one point pushing a wobbly, option-style pass downfield to avoid a sack. But Schneider left with a concussion after a five-for-nine, 61-yard start, and Smith also looked good. The latter represented a pleasant reversal for Franks, who had to wonder which player had stolen his 2002 starting quarterback's uniform and played so horribly against Virginia (six-for-20, 47 yards). Smith played more like his 2002 self against Western Carolina, which doesn't mean he won the game by himself, but he was solid, leaving Franks with two decent quarterbacks for the first time in his five seasons. “Adam got his chance, and he made the most of it,” Franks said. “I'm proud of him, the way he handled the situation all week in practice, knowing he wasn't going to start. He was very professional.” At running back, Chris Douglas confirmed he is back to his 2001 form after suffering through an injury-plagued 2002 season. Two games into the season, he was averaging 97.5 rushing yards per game, allowing Alex Wade to rest a nagging hamstring injury that has bothered him since early August. Wade had 16 yards on nine carries in two games, but Duke and the rest of the ACC discovered what kind of back he is last season, when he nearly produced Duke's fifth 1,000-yard season. At linebacker, sophomore Malcolm Ruff got his first start of the season against Western Carolina, after backing up leading tackler Ryan Fowler through the preseason and the Virginia game. The addition of Ruff, a former running back, gives the Blue Devils four superb athletes (along with Fowler, Brendan Dewan and DeAndre White) for their three linebacker spots, plus decent backups in Giuseppe Aguanno and J.T. Cape.

Front Seven: Better Than NCSU? That's what Western Carolina coach Kent Briggs, a former N.C. State assistant, said about Duke's defensive front in comparison to the Wolfpack's front four. It actually was a statement of the obvious, though most Pack fans probably would disagree and even Duke fans might find it hard to believe. But the truth is, defensive coordinator Ted Roof has put together a defensive front that ranks in the middle of the ACC, which is a significant step up for the Blue Devils. “I thought Duke's front played better than N.C. State's,” said Briggs, whose team lost 59-20 the week before to the Wolfpack. “They attacked the line of scrimmage. They are tall, strong, and they are seniors.” They're not all seniors. Senior Matt Zielinski is an NFL candidate at nose guard, but he's the only senior of note in the front four. Ends Phillip Alexander and Micah Harris, who dominated the Catamounts to the tune of two sacks, a forced fumble at the Western Carolina one-yard line and constant harassment, are juniors. So is 6-7, 285-pound Orrin Thompson, while 6-7, 275-pound Demetrius Warrick is a sophomore. They might be the tallest pair of interior defensive linemen in the country. Combine that duo with the brute power of Zielinski and the speed of Alexander and Harris (both converted linebackers), and that's an effective front that just needs a bit more depth, despite its ugly debut at Virginia.

Did He Just Say Overconfident? After the opening disaster at Virginia, Franks — a smart guy with a Duke degree — floated the most ridiculous theory you're apt to hear: His team may have been overconfident against the Cavaliers. Coming into the game, Virginia was a preseason media darling, a top-20 team on the rise, while Duke was riding a 25-game ACC losing streak. The Blue Devils, as usual, were the preseason pick to finish last in the conference. Some picked the Cavaliers first. Nevertheless, after the game Franks suggested that his team was too cocky from reading kind things about itself in the preseason — the nicest thing Sports Journal writers saw in various media reports was that Duke might, if absolutely everything went right, go 6-6 this season — and may have taken the Cavaliers lightly. If that's what truly happened, then Duke's players aren't as smart as they're supposed to be. But it was as good an explanation as anything for one of the more dismal performances by one of Franks' teams. That's a big statement but also a true one, especially considering that Virginia lost ACC player of the year Matt Schaub in the first quarter and played the rest of the way with redshirt freshman Anthony Martinez at quarterback. That game was in August, of course, and August was forgotten by the Blue Devils when they beat up on Western Carolina one week later. “This game is really what we needed,” Duke senior receiver Reggie Love said, after catching two touchdown passes against Western Carolina. “We're excited to get the taste out of our mouths from last week. September is a new month, and we were looking to be 1-0.”