May 1, 2007
DURHAM Thaddeus Lewis had been on the Duke campus for about a month when he trotted onto the field at Wallace Wade Stadium at quarterback in the Blue Devils' 2006 season opener.
He wasn't ready.
"When I came out (for the first time) in the Richmond game," Lewis said, "I forgot the play."
It was worse than that. The freshman quarterback was playing behind the least experienced line in Division I-A football. In those first four or five games, the guys up front almost got Lewis killed literally.
The offensive inexperience of the Blue Devils last season went a long way toward explaining the team's 0-12 finish. For the second year in a row, Duke coach Ted Roof had to go with a true freshman at quarterback. Forcing him to play behind such an inexperienced line bordered on criminal negligence.
Yet Lewis wasn't killed and, aside from a late and brutal hit delivered by Virginia Tech's Aaron Rouse, he wasn't even seriously injured. Lewis emerged from 2006 with some of the best passing stats ever recorded by an ACC freshman 2,134 yards, a 52.9 percent completion rate, and 11 touchdowns.
While Lewis didn't post a victory in his 11 starts, he put the Devils in position to win a number of games.
"I think Thaddeus did a great job of coming in and playing as a freshman," veteran linebacker Michael Tauiliili said. "Being a freshman in the ACC and having to be the leader of the offense he's taken it in stride."
Tauiliili, who earned freshman All-America honors as a starter in 2005, understands just how hard it is to play as a first-year player, and how much easier the game becomes with experience.
"As a freshman, I was just out there playing on raw ability. Get in there and throw my body around," Tauiliili said. "But now that I've been able to run around and get some experience on the field, it makes a big difference. Everybody starts to slow down, so you can play the game."
Duke is hoping that the same process will make Lewis and the players around him that much better in 2007. Good enough, in fact, to win games.
"Now I come out here and understand the game," Lewis said. "I'm able to run the operation and feel comfortable and play without thinking. It's totally different."
Lewis was Duke's only quarterback during spring practice. Zack Asack, who started as a true freshman in 2005 but was suspended last season for academic issues, will be back on the roster this fall. But Roof didn't hesitate to designate Lewis as his No. 1 quarterback in April.
The coaches were not as quick to name starters at other positions, even though they return 11 offensive starters and five defensive starters. In fact, Roof avoided constructing a depth chart, preferring to let his players fight for spots.
"Competition brings out the best in everybody," Roof said. "That's when you know you're starting to build something, when you start seeing those competitions for jobs and playing time."
Roof would like to think he's building something, even though his record doesn't show it. Indeed, he was 2-3 after replacing Carl Franks midway through the 2003 season. Now he's gone 2-9, 1-10 and 0-12 in successive years as the head coach. Duke will enter the 2007 season with a 20-game losing streak and a 17-game losing streak against ACC opponents.
That record has generated frustration among the small pocket of Duke fans who still care about football. In an effort to squelch the discontent, the school held a "Football Summit" earlier this spring. During the course of the private meeting, Roof promised that Duke would be bowl-eligible by 2008.
There is at least a sliver of a rationale behind Roof's optimism. The argument goes that Roof recruited well in 2004 and 2005. Many of the kids in those classes had to play before they were ready, but in the next two years, those promising prospects will start to come into their own.
Roof can see that on the defensive front, where third-year players Vince Oghobaase, Ayanga Okpokowuruk and Clifford Respress will represent the strength of his 2007 defense. He hopes to see it on the offensive line, where last year's starters, who showed real progress after that awful start, are being pushed by second-year players such as Jarrod Holt, Marcus Lind and Jeffrey Cowart.
"You really start to find out about your recruiting class the third year in the program," Roof said. "Ayanga and Clifford have both made big strides. That will pay dividends. (On the o-line) some of those guys are still developing. There's definitely going to be competition with some of those young guys. You see them make big jumps throughout the spring."
While Duke is still light-years away from excellence on the gridiron, the Blue Devils might not be as far from respectability as the team's dismal record would suggest. For instance, last year the winless Devils led Wake Forest, the eventual ACC champ, 10-0 at the half; out-gained the Deacons by a significant margin and had a chip-shot field goal on the game's final play for the win. That was one of three conference games that went down to the final snap.
Two of those close losses were the direct result of breakdowns in the kicking game. Problems with punt coverage and field goal conversion played a significant role in several other games.
"In the offseason, we've put a huge amount of emphasis on special teams," Roof said. "During spring break, (kicker) Joe Surgan went to a kicking camp on his own."
Surgan has a strong leg (he's five-of-eight beyond 40 yards in his career), but he missed three of 12 extra points last season and four of five field goals inside 30 yards. He had three field goal attempts blocked. Maybe that's why Roof was so excited to see his rising junior kicker convert two short field goals and an extra point in the spring scrimmage without a miscue.
"Yeah, it matters," Roof said, when asked about the significance of the kicks. "He kicked them all clean. He's got a lot of pride, and he's got a big leg. He's going to be fine. He's going to be a good kicker for us."
There's that optimism again. But if Surgan could overcome his problems, Duke would be a lot closer to success. Lewis' hard-won maturity at quarterback, the growing experience of Roof's recruits on both lines, and the ability of playmakers such as Ronnie Drummer, Eron Riley and Jomar Wright give the coach reasonable hope of being better in 2007 and of keeping that promise to be bowl-eligible by 2008.
There will be hope as long as the players buy into Roof and his program. So far, there's no indication that the losing has cost him the support of the team.
Tauiliili also believes Duke is ready to start winning.
"It's right around the corner," he said. "Within our team, we see all the good things that are about to come. Once we know how to win, there's just going to be a domino effect from there."
Spring 2007 Overview
Everyone agrees that Ted Roof injected more excitement and energy into this lowly program with his 2005 and 2006 recruiting classes (and boundless optimism) than overmatched predecessor Carl Franks generated in his four-plus seasons. Unfortunately for Duke, most also agree that the Blue Devils face at least one more year of an uphill battle in the new-and-improved ACC. During the offseason, Roof privately promised a group of ex-players a bowl game by 2008. He'd better be right, because nobody tolerates losing forever. Not even Duke.
Possible 2007 Starters
Pos. Name Ht./Wt. Class
QB Thaddeus Lewis^ 6-2/190 So.
RB Justin Boyle^ 6-1/215 Sr.
HB Ronnie Drummer 5-9/185 Sr.
FB Tielor Robinson^ 5-11/245 *Sr.
WR Eron Riley^ 6-3/200 Jr.
WR Jomar Wright^ 6-1/200 Sr.
LT Cameron Goldberg^ 6-6/280 *Jr.
LG Zach Maurides^ 6-6/290 *Sr.
OC Matt Rumsey^ 6-4/285 Sr.
RG Rob Schirmann^ 6-5/285 *Jr.
RT Fred Roland^ 6-8/310 *Jr.
PK Joe Surgan^ 6-4/210 Jr.
DE Ayanga Okpokowuruk 6-4/255 *So.
NG Clifford Respress 6-4/275 Jr.
DT Vince Oghobaase^ 6-6/310 *So.
DE Patrick Bailey^ 6-4/235 Sr.
LB Vincent Rey 6-0/255 So.
LB Michael Tauiliili^ 5-11/235 Jr.
LB Tim Ball 6-1/225 *Jr.
SS Adrian Aye-Darko^ 6-2/210 *Jr.
FS Chris Davis^ 6-0/205 Sr.
CB Leon Wright 5-9/165 So.
CB Jabari Marshall 5-11/200 *Jr.
P Kevin Jones 6-3/185 *Fr.
- redshirted ^ six/more 2006 start+
injured/missed spring drills
Coming On Strong
Tauiliili has All-ACC ability and was outstanding in April. Also: Drummer, Robinson, Riley, J. Wright, Goldberg, Oghobaase, Bailey, Davis, RB Re'quan Boyette, WR Ryan Wood, improving depth at several positions.
Cause For Concern?
Duke still has significantly less talent than most BCS programs, and no schemes can overcome that disadvantage on a consistent basis. Also: o-line, linebacker, cornerback, kicker, punter, depth at most positions, staff turnover.
Date Opponent 2006 Record
Sept. 1 Connecticut 4-8 (1-6)
Sept. 8 at Virginia 5-7 (4-4)
Sept. 15 Northwestern 4-8 (2-6)
Sept. 22 at Navy 9-4
Sept. 29 at Miami 7-6 (3-5)
Oct. 6 Wake Forest 11-3 (6-2)
Oct. 13 Virginia Tech 10-3 (6-2)
Oct. 20 OPEN
Oct. 27 at Florida State 7-6 (3-5)
Nov. 3 Clemson 8-5 (5-3)
Nov. 10 Georgia Tech 9-5 (7-1)
Nov. 17 at Notre Dame 10-3
Nov. 24 at North Carolina 3-9 (2-6)
The following scholarship athletes left the program in the last 12-24 months with eligibility remaining but were not listed as departures in our previous (annual) reviews: WR Deon Adams (dismissed/Howard), TE William Ball, DB Abraham Dukuly, PK Alex Feinberg (chose to graduate), TE John Lubischer (transfer), DE Christopher Moore (chose to graduate), DB Andreas Platt (dismissed/Elon), LB Zach Smith (chose to graduate/California), OL Joe Suder (dismissed), LB Brandon Tapps (chose to graduate).
Chart By David Glenn