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O'brien Gets Next Chance To Revive Team's Dormant Offense

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

August 27, 2005

The Big Picture
Duke Insider: Updates / Analysis

DURHAM — It has been a long time since Duke's offense scared anybody.

You have to go back to coach Fred Goldsmith's first season in Durham, in 1994, when running back Robert Baldwin trampled ACC defenses for an eight-win team. A few years before that, coach Steve Spurrier's passing game terrorized the league, but as long as you're wandering that far down memory lane, you might as well go all the way back to the Wallace Wade era and recall the glory days of George McAfee or Ace Parker.

That was then. This is now.

Duke owned the ACC's worst offense last season, ranking dead last in almost every important category. Bill O'Brien, who assumed the Blue Devils' offensive coordinator job last winter, has inherited a lineup with almost no proven players beyond a pair of excellent tight ends. The offensive line, in particular, appears to be an absolute mess.

O'Brien is Duke's eighth different offensive boss in the last dozen years, and the only reason that number isn't higher is because former head coach Carl Franks served as his own coordinator for four seasons. How's that for continuity?

"That's got to be hard for the kids," O'Brien said. "I think Mike has played for three different coordinators."

Mike is redshirt junior quarterback Mike Schneider, who actually has played for four offensive coordinators in Durham, if you count his sit-out year under Franks in 2002. He started eight games in 2003 when Jim Pry was running the offense, then started 10 of 11 games last season when Marty Galbraith was in control.

In that time, Duke's offense mostly has piddled along — running a little, throwing a little, and scoring very, very little. The Blue Devils simply lack an offensive identity.

That's what third-year head coach Ted Roof is hoping O'Brien can provide. The two men go back a long way, to when both were serving on George O'Leary's staff at Georgia Tech. In those days, Roof handled the linebackers under O'Leary, one of the most respected defensive coaches in the business, while O'Brien tutored the running backs under brilliant offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen.

"Ted and I would talk a lot about situations and things that happened in games," O'Brien said. "We always worked together and scripted practices. We just worked really well together."

Roof and O'Brien once were scheduled to join O'Leary at Notre Dame, but the latter's resume scandal broke and spoiled that opportunity. Roof moved on to Duke, first as the defensive coordinator under Franks, then as the head coach midway through the 2003 season. O'Brien served two years as the offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech before he followed Friedgen to Maryland.

Now Roof almost seems to be rebuilding his old Georgia Tech staff in Durham. In addition to O'Brien, he's hired former Yellow Jackets wide receivers coach David Kelly and former defensive line coach Glenn Spencer. Kelly handles the receivers and serves as the associate head coach at Duke. Spencer, who works with the defensive backs, holds the additional titles of associate head coach and recruiting coordinator for the Blue Devils.

"We were successful there," O'Brien said of all the Georgia Tech associations. "We won a lot of games there. I think both Ted and I learned from (O'Leary and Friedgen). We were comfortable with each other. I think it's a recipe for success."

Can the same formula be successful at Duke? O'Brien is bringing to Durham much of the scheme he learned under Friedgen, but he plans to add his own personal touches as well.

"It will be more similar to what we did at Georgia Tech," O'Brien said. "There will be some carryover, but I've always tried to take the thoughts from the guys I'm working with. We have a really good staff that has come from a lot of different backgrounds. We've incorporated some of their ideas. That'll be different. I've always tried to put my own touch. I like moving people around a lot. I like the quarterback to make a lot of decisions."

That's a lot to ask of Schneider, now learning his third offensive system in three years.

"I thought it was going to be a lot more frustrating, because finally at the end of last year I started understanding (Galbraith's) offense a lot more," Schneider said. "But when Coach O'Brien came in and I talked to him for the first time, I just knew it was going to be OK. He's the best teacher I've ever been around. He just knows so much football. I just sat in there like a sponge and tried to absorb everything. I knew he was going to teach me the best."

The 6-2, 215-pound Schneider, a product of Sharon, Pa., was the picture of mediocrity in his first two seasons as Duke's starter. Last year, he ranked seventh in ACC passing efficiency and threw for fewer yards than any of the ACC's other 10 full-time quarterbacks.

But Schneider has shown the capacity for growth. He improved his completion percentage from 46.6 percent to 57.3 between his freshman and sophomore seasons. He improved his touchdown/interception ratio from 4/6 to 8/7.

With similar jumps this year, O'Brien might have a quarterback capable of doing for him at Duke what George Godsey once did for him in Atlanta.

"Mike's put a lot of time in this thing," O'Brien said. "Mike just has to stay poised and continue to study the game. Mike deserves to have a good year, because he has worked at the game this offseason. He's practiced well. And with knowledge comes leadership. I think he's there."

Schneider suggested that the next stage of his evolution is mental.

"In this offseason, I didn't focus that much on the physical," Schneider said. "I really wanted to get in the playbook. I wanted to not only know what I was supposed to do on every play, but what the offensive line was supposed to do … and the wide receivers and the tight ends. I want to be an extension of the coaches out on the field. I felt that would help my leadership role, too."

O'Brien believes that Schneider is surrounded by more talent than last year's statistics might indicate. For instance, the numbers don't make veteran wide receivers Ronnie Elliott, Jomar Wright and Deon Adams look very good.

"I've been impressed with our veteran wide receivers," O'Brien said. "They would have played anywhere I've been."

Duke's new offensive guru also loves what he's seen from true freshman wideouts Eron Riley and Raphael Chestnut.

"We've been around some good receivers — Kelly Campbell, Kerry Watkins," O'Brien said, ticking off a couple of his All-ACC players at Georgia Tech. "These guys aren't there yet, but they have that potential."

O'Brien also raves about freshman running backs Re'quan Boyette and Clifford Harris.

"They both remind me a little bit of Joe Burns," O'Brien said, recalling the All-ACC tailback he mentored at Georgia Tech. "Now, they're not Joe Burns yet, but they remind me of him."

O'Brien vowed to shape the offense to take advantage of Duke's one clear strong point — tight end, where Andy Roland and especially Ben Patrick represent one of the strongest duos in the ACC.

"Ben Patrick is one of the better players I've ever been around — no matter where I've been," O'Brien said. "We've got four tight ends from our system playing in the NFL, so that's saying a lot. I know Maryland has got Vernon Davis. … Ben is in that class."

Both tight ends made offseason adjustments in their bodies that should help them be even more effective in 2005. Patrick, bothered by cramps in a number of games last season, reduced his body fat and slimmed his 270-pound frame to improve his stamina. Roland, the team's most reliable pass catcher, added 12 pounds of muscle to help his blocking.

"You'll see a lot of tight ends in the passing game," O'Brien said. "You'll see running plays that are pretty basic from week to week, but from a lot of different formations and shifts and motions. We're going to find ways to run the ball, however we do that. The option? Isolation? Zone plays? I think you've got to find ways to do that to help your passing game."

O'Brien still has a lot of problems to address. His offensive line is a work in progress — there are plenty of other, less pleasant-sounding, ways to describe it — and most of his depth at the skill positions will come from true freshmen.

Even if O'Brien does somehow work miracles on the offensive side, that's only part of the puzzle that Roof must assemble to produce a winner. There are still enough questions about defense and the kicking game to make Duke the biggest longshot in the ACC.

Still, offense has been the ticket to whatever success Duke has enjoyed in the last two decades. The Blue Devils' 1989 ACC co-champs were one of the most explosive passing teams in the nation, with Billy Ray and Dave Brown throwing to Clarkston Hines and many others. And it was coordinator Mike Heimer-dinger's innovative one-back offense that unleashed Baldwin and fueled Duke's last bowl season, in 1994.

If the Blue Devils are to escape their well-established residence in the ACC cellar, O'Brien will have to find his own offensive identity. He and the other assistants also will have to help Roof find the players to make it work, in a league that's far deeper and stronger than the one Spurrier faced in the late 1980s or even that Goldsmith confronted in the mid-1990s.

"Ted's trying to find the right formula, and I think he's got it now," O'Brien said. "Our young talent is really good. I think we've got a chance."

That may not sound like much, but it's more than the Duke football program has had in a long, long time.

The Big Picture

Duke has endured 10 straight losing seasons, finishing last in the ACC four times in the last five years. But coach Ted Roof, starting his second full schedule since succeeding Carl Franks midway through the 2003 campaign, has brought life to this once-moribund program. He's won three of 12 ACC games in his brief tenure; considering that he inherited a 29-game conference losing streak, that's progress. He's also recruited better than Duke has done since the late 1980s, and he has put together a strong staff. This team finally appears headed in the right direction, although probably not quickly enough to be more than a spoiler this season.

The PooP
Roof used 14 true freshmen last season, and he might use nearly as many this fall. Defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase, Duke's highest-rated recruit in more than a decade, is just one of perhaps four defensive line recruits who will play this season. Throw in at least two running backs, three wide receivers and probably a kicker. Finally, look for at least one of Duke's three quarterback recruits to see some action, perhaps 6-3 Georgia product Marcus Jones, a superb athlete who was recruited as a wide receiver by a number of top programs.

Done For Me Lately
Year ACC Overall Postseason

1995 1-7 (8) 3-8 None

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

ACC: 9-71 (.113)
Overall: 20-92 (.179)

Building Blocks
Duke often has had a terrible time developing a productive defensive line, but some believe that could become a position of strength this fall. The return of senior end Phillip Alexander, an all-star candidate who missed nine games with a leg injury last year, should provide an anchor for a unit that has decent depth and – by Duke standards, at least – some quality talent. One key will be how quickly Roof can work in promising newcomers such as Oghobaase, end Ayanga Okpokoworuk and perhaps 340-pound tackle Joe Suder.

Coming On Strong
Roof believes that cornerback John Talley was short-changed last season, when he was voted "only" second-team All-ACC. With Talley joining three-year starter Brian Greene, freshman All-American safety Chris Davis and veteran Deonto McCormick, the secondary could be a real strength this fall. Jabari Marshall, one of the team's few freshmen who redshirted last year, brings great speed to the mix.

Cause For Concern?
Duke picked up its only ACC victory last season when walk-on kicker Matt Brooks booted a 53-yard field goal on the last play of the 16-13 victory over Clemson. But Brooks has graduated, leaving Roof searching for a new specialist. Highly touted prospect Alex Feinberg won the job in the spring, but he decided just before the opening of August practice to sit out the 2005 season for personal reasons. That left the job wide open for true freshman Joe Surgan, rated the nation's No. 4 kicking prospect by one recruiting service, or for walk-ons Randy DeSmyter and Greg Meyers. Either way, Duke is going to open the season with someone who has never kicked in a college game.

The Whole Truth
"The first time (new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien) and I talked, something clicked. We both want to win. We're not here to build for the future. We want to win now. We talked about it and he said, ‘I don't like to lose.' And I told him, ‘I'm sick of losing.'"

-- Duke quarterback Mike Schneider



Good news/bad news scenarios followed Duke's shaky offensive line in August. The worst was the announcement that junior Bob Benion, slated to start at left guard, would miss 2005 with a shoulder injury, the same problem that forced him to miss eight games in 2003. The best was the surprising performance of converted defensive lineman Demetrius Warrick, who played his way into a starting job at tackle. The 300-pound fifth-year senior had missed spring practice while recovering from the knee injury that sidelined him for the last seven games of 2004.

What do you do when your two best offensive players play the same position? If you are Duke coordinator Bill O'Brien, you figure out a lot of ways to use two tight ends at once. Not only will senior Andy Roland (20-257-3) and junior Ben Patrick (team-high 32 catches, 311 yards) see a lot of action in the traditional two-tight end set that most teams use for short yardage, but one or the other also will line up at times at split receiver, H-back or even fullback.

Recruiting is always chancy, but as coach Ted Roof continues to pile up early commitments for next year's class, it's hard to miss the bloodlines. Matt Pridemore, a speedy defensive back from Georgia, is the son of former Atlanta Falcons standout Tim Pridemore. Andrew Holoman, a linebacker from Virginia, is the son of former UVa player Bryan Holoman. Jarrod Holt, a 300-pound lineman from Florida, is the younger brother of ACC blockers Jon Holt (N.C. State) and Joe Holt (Virginia).

Duke still is negotiating with Alabama for a two-game series. The hangup is that the Crimson Tide wants a game in 2007, but the Blue Devils' schedule for that year is full. (Duke is trying to fill an opening for 2006.) The two programs have a lot of ancient history between them. The Devils hired coach Wallace Wade away from Alabama after the 1930 season and beat the Tide in the 1945 Sugar Bowl. The only other meeting was a lopsided Alabama win in 1972 in Birmingham. If the series resumes, don't expect to see the Tide in Durham. One game will be in Tuscaloosa, with the other likely in Charlotte or Atlanta.

Three freshman quarterbacks are vying for a chance to see action this year. While it's likely that two will be redshirted (depending on the health of starter Mike Schneider), at least one should contribute this season. After a slow start in preseason practice, all three had their moments, and all three have their own styles.

"Gene (Delle Donne) is a classic dropback guy," O'Brien said. "Marcus Jones is a really good athlete. Zack (Asack) is kind of a hybrid; he can do a little of both."

Of course, there's no sign of the top-rated QB in this Duke freshman class. Prep All-American Greg Paulus, a consensus top-10 prospect, is concentrating strictly on basketball at the moment. He's not being counted on as even a long-term prospect for the football team.

One of the more interesting shifts of the offseason was the move of Malcolm Ruff from linebacker, where he played 22 games (starting nine) in 2003 and 2004, back to fullback. He started his Duke career by rushing 17 times for 70 yards as a true freshman in 2002, and the 255-pound senior looked to be an impressive lead blocker in August.