By Al Featherston
May 2, 2006
DURHAM -- Is it possible that the sun that shined on Duke's spring football game was an omen?
The downtrodden program has endured an amazing string of bad luck since Ted Roof inherited the job from Carl Franks. There has been everything from the offseason traffic accident that killed one of his best players, to the bad back that ended the career of one of his top offensive linemen, to a frustrating string of injuries. The latter category sidelined his three top defensive line recruits last fall, players rated the jewels of his 2005 class.
The Duke spring game appeared to be just another minor bit of misfortune. After almost two months of drought conditions in the Durham area, the Saturday of the scrimmage opened with rain pouring down and lightning streaks in the sky. Roof, who was hoping to use the scrimmage to showcase his team to nearly two dozen prospects and 10 of his latest signees, thought he was going to have to cancel the game.
Then his luck turned.
"It wasn't very promising there for a while, but the clouds parted and we actually got a little sunshine," Roof said. "And we didn't get anybody hurt, so that's better. A bunch of good things come out of a day like today."
Roof needs some good things to happen to a program that's fallen far behind its ACC competitors. Rebuilding the mess he inherited from Franks wasn't going to be easy in any case, but for all of his impressive work recruiting and putting together a quality staff, Roof could use a little good luck, or at least a little less bad luck.
Roof would like to think that Duke's successful spring -- one that featured few injuries and almost no problems with the weather -- will help his team begin to show progress on the field.
"We're a lot further ahead than we were at the start of the spring," he said after the April 22 spring game. "We've made some big strides. But those big strides have been a bunch of little steps. We've got to keep taking little steps and making gains."
Duke appears to have made significant gains in two major problem areas: quarterback and defensive line.
Zack Asack inherited the starting QB job midway through his freshman season, and while he showed flashes of talent (328 passing yards at Clemson), he clearly wasn't ready to be a winning quarterback in the ACC. But after an offseason of film study and a spring of field work, the youngster has made big strides.
"I've really been impressed with the development of Zack in the offseason," Roof said. "From a mental standpoint, his is so far ahead of where he was at the end of the season. It shows during practice, in the confidence of his reads. He did a good job in the huddle last season, but that's a lot to ask of a true freshman, to play quarterback in this league."
"During the offseason, every day the quarterbacks would meet with (offensive coordinator Bill) O'Brien, watching film and becoming real masterminds of the offense," Asack said. "From a knowledge standpoint, (sophomore Marcus Jones) and I are definitely ahead of last season. My knowledge has just grown. I'm a lot more confident."
Roof also is more confident about his defensive front. He had expected last year's team to be bolstered by 310-pound tackle Vince Oghobaase, a Houston prep prospect who picked Duke over Miami and Oklahoma. Ends Ayanga Okpokowuruk, a Tennessee target, and Ryan Radloff, offered by UNC and West Virginia, also were expected to transform the Blue Devils into a much stronger team up front.
Instead, all three missed last season with injuries, and Duke ended up last in the ACC in rushing defense.
"We've got to do a better job of stopping the run," Roof said, "and being a more physical football team."
He pointed to veterans Eli Nichols at end and Casey Camero at tackle as leaders, but admitted that the real transformation will come when the highly touted youngsters hit their strides. All three, along with redshirt freshman Kinney Rucker and sophomore Clifford Respress, showed their talent during spring drills.
"It's fun to watch them perform," Roof said. "You've got to understand, because they didn't play last year, they're still making the transition to college football. You see them do better things every day. It's fun to see that growth."
He'd like to see the same growth up front on offense, where the career-ending injury to Bob Benion and the early departures of two fourth-year junior starters left the Blue Devils extremely young and inexperienced.
"The good news is, we've got some guys I think are going to be good players at the position," Roof said. "But offensive line is the hardest position to play as a young player. Number one is that the guys haven't usually developed their strength at that point yet, and number two is their reaction time. They're so close to the line and things happen so quick, as opposed to being a receiver or a defensive back, where you have some space."
That's why Roof ordered a lot of contact work during spring drills.
"It's one thing to step and punch bags and things of that nature, but we've got to get them as many reps (in 11-on-11 situations) as possible," Roof said. "There's a fine line between practicing football and going after each other and being smart. I think we got a lot of good contact work, physical work, because we've got to get more physical as a football team."
And the result?
"We got better there," Roof said. "Is it still a concern? Yes. But we made some strides. We've got to keep going. This is a working process, and we've got to stay the course. They're going to be good players. Hopefully, they'll be good sooner rather than later."
One of the few spring casualties was Army transfer Tielor Robinson, who is slated to start at fullback. He'll be ready when preseason drills open. All-ACC cornerback John Talley, perhaps the team's best player, sat out the spring with a minor injury. Two of the most significant offseason position moves were the shifts of defensive tackles Joe Suder and Christopher Moore to the offensive line. The other was the move of veteran linebacker Patrick Bailey to defensive end.
One of Roof's problems at Duke has been his reliance on young players. He played 17 true freshmen in 2004 and 14 in 2005 -- the most (combined) in college football. More newcomers will play this fall. It's a practice Roof would like to limit, but for now he must fill in the gaps on his roster with true freshmen.
"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 time."
How much time will depend on how quickly his young players grow up. But the Duke kids share Roof's belief that the program has gotten better.
"Right now, to get the program jump-started, Coach Roof has needed to play some true freshmen," said linebacker Michael Tauiliili (previously known as Michael Brown), who earned freshman All-American honors last season. "Once we get older and people start tasting that success, it's going to be addictive."
Spring 2006 Overview
Everyone agrees that Ted Roof has injected more excitement and optimism into this lowly program in the last two years than overmatched predecessor Carl Franks generated in four-plus seasons. Unfortunately, most also agree that Roof will be facing an uphill battle for the foreseeable future in the new-and-improved ACC. Simply put, the Blue Devils have far less talent than almost anyone else in the league. Complicating matters further, their low numbers (only 40 returning lettermen!) and extraordinary reliance on freshmen don't bode well for 2006. The bottom line: Roof has one of the toughest jobs in the nation, and this rebuilding project probably will take a while.
Probable 2006 Starters
- redshirted ^ - six/more 2005 starts
- redshirted ^ - six/more 2005 starts
- injured/missed spring drills
Coming On Strong
The defensive line has a chance to be pretty good, with three returning starters and a handful of promising youngsters, as long as everyone stays healthy. Rock-solid returning starters: DE Eli Nichols, LB Michael Tauiliili, CB John Talley. Also looking good: FB Tielor Robinson (pre-injury), WR Jomar Wright, NG Vince Oghobaase.
Cause For Concern?
For the third straight year, the Blue Devils' offensive line is a very serious potential trouble area. Depth is simply nonexistent, and even the starting five includes only one returning starter and way too many unknown commodities. This area, perhaps the most questionable single unit in the entire ACC, continues to be a drag on the rest of the program. Also: undesirable coaching turnover, premature departures (see below) of key players, tight end, kicker, linebacker, punter, extreme youth, depth at almost every position.
On The Sidelines
The following players missed all or most of spring drills: RB Justin Boyle (shoulder), DE Eli Nichols (hip), FB Tielor Robinson (foot), CB John Talley (shoulder), LB Paul Thornton (Achilles), WR Jomar Wright (knee).
The following scholarship athletes left the program in the last 12 months with eligibility remaining: OL Lavdrim Bauta (transfer/Villanova), OL Bob Benion (medical/shoulder), DE Derek Bryant (left team 2005), OL Paul Campitelli (chose to graduate), QB Gene Delle Donne (transfer/Middle Tennessee State), FB Mike Dowling (chose to graduate), QB Curt Dukes (chose to graduate), DT Joel East (chose to graduate), LB Kendral Felder (transfer/N.C. Central), OL Tyler Krieg (transfer/California), TE Ben Patrick (transfer/Delaware), DT Brian Sallee (chose to graduate), QB Mike Schneider (transfer/Youngs-town State), OL Jonathan Terry, WR Chancellor Young (transfer/Washington).
Chart By: David Glenn