By Al Featherston
August 30, 2006
DURHAM - Phil Asack was a sophomore fullback at Duke in the summer of 1968, when the Blue Devils learned that starting quarterback Al Woodall had been declared academically ineligible for the coming season.
The future NFL quarterback (he'd back up Joe Namath for five seasons) was replaced by an unheralded sophomore, a skinny kid from Kinston, N.C., who had been listed as Duke's sixth-string quarterback just a few months earlier.
Leo Hart made his collegiate debut with a surprising performance at South Carolina, leading Duke to an unlikely 14-7 victory. He threw for an ACC-record 2,238 yards that season, significantly more than future NFL stars Roman Gabriel, Sonny Jurgensen or Norm Sloan managed in their best ACC seasons.
Flash forward to the summer of 2006.
Asack's son Zack was slated to be the starting quarterback for a downtrodden Duke program, one that was determined to take at least a small step toward respectability in coach Ted Roof's third full season at the helm. The younger Asack wasn't as polished as Woodall in 1968, but he had demonstrated enough skills as a true freshman starter to make Roof think he could be a cornerstone for the team's rebuilding efforts.
But just before the start of practice, Roof learned that Asack would be academically ineligible to play this fall, after plagiarizing a paper during a summer school class. His departure left the Blue Devils with an untested sophomore quarterback and the desperate hope that Marcus Jones can deliver in much the same manner as Hart did 38 years ago.
"Thank goodness we made the decision to move (Jones) to quarterback at the end of last season," Roof said. "He got a lot of plays in spring practice. I can't imagine where we'd be if we hadn't done that."
Jones was hardly an unknown recruit after a stellar prep career at Southeast Whitfield High in Ringgold, Ga. He was recruited by such powerhouse programs as Tennessee, Texas A&M and Virginia Tech. But the big boys wanted the 6-3, 210-pounder as an athlete - maybe a wide receiver, maybe a safety. Duke offered the chance to play quarterback.
Jones' chances of emerging as the Blue Devils' starter didn't look good when he made his college decision. Duke got commitments from five quarterbacks in the fall and winter of 2005, and four of them were nationally prominent recruits. But Charlotte's Joe Cox reneged on his Duke commitment and signed with Georgia. Prep All-American Greg Paulus signed with the Devils, but as a basketball player. Jones went from the fifth-rated QB in his class to No. 3 before he ever set foot on campus.
Yet Jones still didn't figure into Duke's quarterback plans last fall, when Roof had juniors Mike Schneider and Curt Dukes, along with higher-rated freshmen Zack Asack and Gene Delle Donne. That's why when receivers Jomar Wright and Ronnie Elliott went down with injuries, Roof went to Jones and asked him to move to wide receiver - temporarily.
Jones got a few snaps behind center last fall, but he saw most of his action at receiver, where he caught 11 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown.
"We needed him at receiver last year," Roof said. "It's just so hard to play a true freshman at one spot, much less two. We moved him in the spring in order to be fair to him and give him a chance to compete for the quarterback job. We told him we'd give him that chance when we recruited him, and we stuck with it."
It helped Jones' QB chances when Schneider and Dukes graduated early, while Delle Donne elected to transfer to Middle Tennessee State. Suddenly, Asack, who started six games last season, was the only QB ahead of Jones on the depth chart. And both Jones and Roof insist that there was a real competition between the two sophomores this spring.
"I felt like I had a really good chance of winning the job," Jones said. "As soon as the (2005) season was over, I started working for it. I felt it was going to come down to actually showing it in a game. Playing against each other in practice - Duke versus Duke - I don't know if you can really show what you've got. In a game-type situation, you can put it all out there."
But the issue was settled long before Duke's opener. Jones got the news in early August, just as he was preparing for the opening of preseason practice.
"I got several phone calls from my teammates - hectic, panicking - they wanted to know if I knew what happened," Jones said. "It shocked me, so I kind of left it alone for a minute. I was bothered by it. I did want to be the starter, but this is not exactly the way I wanted to become the starter."
Although Roof repeated the cliché that quarterbacks get too much credit and too much blame, it's still true that very few college teams can succeed without a solid signal caller. For better or worse, Jones is the centerpiece of the 2006 Duke football team.
The question is whether he can do the job. He doesn't have to be as good as Hart was in 1968, but if Duke is going to be competitive this season, Jones likely will have to be better than Asack was in his first season under center.
"He's got a very good understanding of what we're doing offensively," Roof said. "We talked last year about putting just 40 percent of our offense in after deciding to go with Zack. We're not back to that point. We're not back to square one by any manner."
The Duke coach thinks the Blue Devils can take advantage of Jones' athleticism.
"I think he creates on the run well," Roof said. "He has escapability, so that when things break down like they do in every offense in America, he has the ability to side-step the first guy and still deliver the ball or maybe make a play with his legs. But I don't want to put this perception of Marcus out there that he's this raw athlete that's not a quarterback."
Jones, whose only backup is true freshman Thaddeus Lewis, will have to be very good indeed for a young Duke team coming off a 1-10 season. The Blue Devils, 3-45 in the ACC since 2000, were almost a unanimous pick to finish last in the league this season even before the Asack news.
Roof's hope is that the youngsters he's recruited over the last three years will be able to break that cycle of futility. He's brought in ACC-quality players such as receivers Ronnie Drummer (who averaged more than 10 yards on each of his 56 touches as a runner, receiver and kick returner in 2005), Jomar Wright and Eron Riley; running backs Re'quan Boyette and Justin Boyle (nine rushing TDs last season); and freshman All-American linebacker Michael Tauiliili.
Duke also plans to unleash its heralded 2005 defensive line recruits this fall - tackle Vince Oghobaase, who picked Duke over Miami and Oklahoma, end Ayanga Okpo-kowuruk, who picked Duke over Tennessee and Notre Dame, and end Ryan Radloff, who also had offers from North Carolina and West Virginia.
All three were hurt last season, which Roof acknowledged could turn out to be a long-term help to a program that doesn't have the luxury of redshirting its top-shelf talent.
"Last season, about October, we weren't thinking that," Roof said. "But when you look long-term, it could be a real good thing. Because when you look across America, guys are usually better football players when they're 23 than when they're 18."
Duke doesn't have many quality 23-year-old football players. Oh, senior John Talley might be the best cover corner in the ACC, and senior defensive end Eli Nichols would start for a majority of ACC teams. But Duke's next-best seniors would be backups at almost all of the other league schools.
No, Roof's program is going to rise or fall with the kids. He's played more true freshmen in the last two seasons than any Division I-A team, and he'll play a bunch more first-year kids this season, including several on the offensive line, which is truly scary.
"Overall, I wish we were further ahead," Roof said. "I wish we were done. But it's not. It's a work in progress. I know we are making progress, and I know we're headed in the right direction. There's no doubt in my mind that we're going to get there. It's just a matter of when."
Roof is convinced that his kids are still buying into his vision. He points to this year's preseason conditioning drill and the fact that every upperclassman passed the test.
"That's a good win for our football team," the Duke coach said. "If you're trying to measure buy-in and where attitude is, that's a pretty good indicator to my mind."
At some point, of course, good attitude is not enough. The Blue Devils have to prove they have the talent to compete with their ACC rivals. And that's not going to happen this season unless Jones can play quarterback at a higher level than anyone outside the Duke program expects.
"I smile when I hear (the doubters)," Jones said. "It gives me a lot of motivation. For others to doubt our team and my ability to lead this team is even more motivation."
The Duke football team has plenty of motivation. Will that be enough when the Devils face off against teams with far more experience? Can motivation close the talent gap that still separates Duke from the rest of the ACC?
If the Blue Devils are going to make any significant progress this season, then Jones had better be awfully good - good enough, perhaps, that Duke fans still will be bringing his name up 38 years from now.
DUKE INSIDER: UPDATES/ANALYSIS
- Duke had five scholarship quarterbacks last season, and none of them was a senior. This year, there are only two scholarship QBs on the roster. What?!
Fourth-year juniors Mike Schneider (now playing at Division I-AA Youngstown State) and Curt Dukes (gave up football) elected to graduate and move on, redshirt freshman Gene Delle Donne transferred to Middle Tennessee State after running into some off-the-field problems in Durham, and returning starter Zack Asack (plagiarism) was suspended for the season.
Ted Roof was left with just two scholarship quarterbacks -- sophomore Marcus Jones and true freshman Thaddeus Lewis. If injuries require a third QB, Roof said backup tailback Clifford Harris, a sophomore who directed an option attack in high school, would be the guy.
Duke also has two veteran walk-on QBs, and one them -- junior Steve Lattanzio -- actually received some Division I-A offers after throwing for 1,700 yards as a prep senior in Florida. Michigan reportedly wanted Lattanzio to enroll at Ann Arbor as a recruited walk-on.
- It didn't take true freshman Jarrod Holt much time to move up the depth chart at offensive tackle. The younger brother of N.C. State's senior starting OT Jon Holt and of former Virginia lineman Joe Holt, Jarrod actually lined up with the starters in Duke's second preseason scrimmage.
Jarrod Holt is not a real starter yet; he was running with the first team only because starting center Matt Rumsey was out with a minor injury, and line coach John Strollo temporarily shuffled his lineup. Still, Holt is sure to see considerable action in his first college season and should be a full-time starter before long.
Does Duke play the nation's toughest schedule? Well, maybe not, but Duke's 12 opponents this fall combined to go 94-52 in 2005, and that 64.4 winning percentage is the best of any Division I-A team's opponents. In the ACC, the Blue Devils are the only team that plays Miami, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Boston College and Georgia Tech -- the five ACC teams to finish with a winning record in league play last season.
Duke averaged an ACC-low 17,486 fans for home games last season. The six games at Wallace Wade Stadium were the six lowest-attendance games in the ACC. Duke's best of 25,014 (thanks to a large contingent of visiting Virginia Tech fans) was 369 lower than the ACC's next-smallest (Wake Forest's 25,383 for Vanderbilt) crowd. In an effort to improve those numbers, Duke gave away thousands of free tickets to its 2006 opener against Richmond. Vouchers were sent to all of the school's alums in North Carolina and neighboring states, and hundreds more were given away through the Durham Chamber of Commerce.
Roof lost two members of his 2006 recruiting class before the start of August practice, both on the defensive line. Swedish tackle Pontus Bondeson and Charlotte's Ifreke Okpokowuruk both underwent surgery to correct pre-existing conditions. They will miss the entire season.
Those were not big blows; under ideal circumstances, both would have redshirted anyway. Okpokowuruk's older brother Ayanga -- a more celebrated recruit at defensive end -- missed his rookie season with an injury, too. He's now running with the second team (behind Eli Nichols) as a redshirt freshman.
- The Blue Devils have been one of the weakest programs in Division I-A in recent years, but they do feature one of the league's best players.
Senior John Talley was named a preseason first-team All-American cornerback by The Sporting News and was voted first-team All-ACC as a junior for a team that was 0-8 in the league. The 5-11, 180-pound South Carolina native entered the season with 11 career interceptions, tied with Utah's Eric Weddle as the NCAA's active leader. His 25 career pass breakups are sixth in Duke history, and he needs just eight this season to become the school's all-time leader.
THE BIG PICTURE
Duke football has been declining steadily since the 1950s, a decade when the Blue Devils posted the best league record in the ACC. Those days are long gone, but even in the mediocre 1980s and dismal 1990s, Duke was never this bad. The Devils have won three ACC games in the 21st century, with a 3-45 league record since 2000. Ted Roof, trying to dig out of the deep hole he inherited from the inept Carl Franks, has used more true freshmen the last two seasons than any other Division I-A coach. Roof is going to have to continue that trend this season. The talent may be getting a bit better, but not so much better that the Devils can compete with first- and second-year players.
The PooP Offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien reportedly turned down an offseason chance to rejoin his old mentor Ralph Friedgen at Maryland. The well-regarded O'Brien was hamstrung last season by Duke's weak line and the necessity of breaking in true freshman QB Zack Asack. All offseason, Roof and O'Brien bragged about how they would be able to open up the offense this season with the now-experienced Asack at the controls. Then came the shattering news in early August that Asack would be suspended for the season. That left O'Brien trying to re-shape his complicated system for Marcus Jones, a wonderful athlete most recruiting rivals saw as a wide receiver or safety. Adding to O'Brien's woes, the line has to be totally rebuilt after the departure of four 2005 starters.
Done For Me Lately
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1996 0-8 (9) 0-11 None
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 (12) 1-10 None
ACC: 8-72 (.100)
Overall: 18-94 (.161)
Building Blocks Two years ago, one recruiting service rated Roof's crop of defensive line signees among the five best in the country. Unfortunately for the short term, injuries forced Roof's three top DL signees to redshirt in 2005. Now Vince Oghobaase, Ayanga Okpokowuruk and Ryan Radloff are ready to make their debuts, and their play in preseason practice had the staff excited. They could be the core of a formidable front that Roof hopes will anchor the defense for the next four seasons.
Coming On Strong Early last year, reporters wondered if Duke had any big-play performers on an offense that showed few signs of life. That was before first-year RB Re'quan Boyette broke off a 78-yard TD run against Florida State and first-year WR Eron Riley caught four passes for 130 yards against Clemson. Multi-positional Ronnie Drummer averaged more than 10 yards per carry, including an 81-yard TD jaunt at Miami. That's three pretty promising home run hitters.
Cause For Concern? Where to start? Duke has the least experienced offensive line in Division I-A football; the holdovers have just 12 career starts between them. (Florida is the second-least experienced, with 19 OL starts.) The starting QB is a converted receiver who attempted seven passes last season. No one on the team has ever punted in a college game. The defense has more experienced starters, but they were on the ACC's worst defense - by far - in 2005. The talent gap between Duke and even its middle-echelon ACC opponents is still a wide one.
The Whole Truth "I don't think that just because things have gone badly for two years that you throw in the towel. We knew what we were getting ourselves into, and we relished that role. I think the way we've worked during this entire offseason proved that nobody's ready to give up."
- Center Matt Rumsey Chart By: The Duke Insider