July 31, 2007
DURHAM It was no surprise that Duke was a near-unanimous pick to finish last in the Coastal Division in the media poll at the ACC Kickoff.
No, the biggest surprise was that three of the 87 voters actually picked the Blue Devils to finish fifth in their six-team division.
Duke has been picked dead-last either in its division or (before expansion) in the league as a whole in every ACC Kickoff poll since 1999, when coach Carl Franks' first team was picked seventh in the nine-team league.
That team actually finished tied for fifth, but in recent years the writers have been right about Duke much more often than they've been wrong. Duke has finished last or tied for last in every season of the 21st century except one. That one exception came in 2003, when interim coach Ted Roof beat North Carolina in the season finale to finish eighth, a game ahead of the ninth-place Tar Heels.
Roof, now starting his fourth full season as the Duke head coach with a 5-34 record (3-25 in ACC play), said he didn't expect anything but a last-place vote in this year's preseason poll.
Where else would the media pick Duke?
"We've got to play our way out of it," Roof said. "We can't politic or poll our way out of it. We've got to block and tackle our way out of it."
Despite Roof's realistic appraisal, there's a surprising amount of optimism surrounding a program that's gone 1-10 and 0-12 in the last two seasons.
"Everybody's upbeat," senior fullback Tielor Robinson said. "You wouldn't think we'd lost every game last year if you were around and saw the atmosphere. It's amazing."
There are at least a few tangible reasons to suggest that Duke might be better this season:
- The overall experience of an offense that returns 11 starters.
The downside of that is that Duke finished 11th out of 12 ACC teams in total offense last season and 12th in scoring offense. But the Blue Devils would point out that was with the ACC's youngest offense, one featuring a true freshman quarterback and the least experienced line in Division I-A football.
"You can't just throw people in, and in their first starts, and expect immediate results," Robinson said. "There's a learning curve. I feel like this year on offense, we have a lot of experience. At the end of last year, we put up some good numbers."
- The tandem of Thaddeus Lewis and Zack Asack at quarterback.
Asack, who started the second half of the 2005 season as a true freshman, missed last fall on academic probation. His absence forced true freshman Thaddeus Lewis to start 11 of 12 games.
Lewis threw for 2,134 yards, the fourth-highest total for a freshman quarterback in ACC history. Considering that two of the three freshmen with more yards were redshirts, while the third (N.C. State's Philip Rivers) enrolled a semester early and was on hand for spring practice before his first year, Lewis' achievement is even more significant.
"I think he has a chance to be a very good football player in this league," Roof said. "Obviously, we'd have liked to redshirt him, but we couldn't. But we're going to benefit this year by having him play last year."
Roof is going to benefit more at having two quarterbacks with starting experience on hand, now that Asack has returned.
- The added experience on Roof's coaching staff.
"I used to be one of the oldest coaches on the staff," Roof joked. "Now I'm one of the youngest."
That's only a slight exaggeration. His 2007 staff has 58 years more experience than his 2006 coaches. His staff includes two former head coaches, including Duke grad John Gutekunst, who has been in coaching for four decades. New offensive coordinator Peter Vaas is a former head coach in NFL Europe who spent the last two years tutoring Brady Quinn at Notre Dame.
Of course, Roof still has some very real concerns especially his inexperienced cornerbacks, his rebuilt kicking game and a schedule that demands four straight road games after the home opener against Connecticut.
That is shaping up as a vital game for a team that will enter the 2007 season with the nation's longest active losing streak.
"Certainly, getting off to a good start would set us off on a good race," Roof said. "But you don't focus on it. We've got the same record as everybody else right now. We have to believe we've made a lot of progress. We know we've made a lot of progress and believe we're close."
A year ago, Wake Forest was projected in the ACC Kickoff poll to finish sixth in the Atlantic Division. Instead, the Demon Deacons won 11 games, beat Georgia Tech in the ACC title game, and played in the Orange Bowl.
Duke's not likely to match Wake's surprising success. But the Deacons' 2006 season should serve as a warning that nothing not even something as consistent as Duke's ineptitude on the gridiron lasts forever.
BASKETBALL: ONE TOUGH SUMMER
Duke basketball, which will be seeking to rebound this season after its worst year in more than a decade, hasn't had a lot of good luck this offseason.
The Blue Devils' problems started when sophomore center Brian Zoubek the only true post player on the roster next season suffered a broken foot in a July pickup game. It's the same injury that plagued big men Elton Brand and Carlos Boozer during their time at Duke.
Zoubek, who played little as a freshman, appeared to have made himself much stronger in the four months since Duke's season ended in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He's now projected to miss eight to 10 weeks of work, which means that he should resume workouts in September and be ready to go by the start of preseason practice in October.
Zoubek's injury was followed by another broken bone, this one suffered by swingman DeMarcus Nelson, Duke's top scorer in 2006-07 and the only senior on the 2007-08 roster.
Nelson was trying out for the U.S. Pan Am team in Hartford, Conn., when he suffered his injury. The fractured scaphoid bone was repaired at Duke Medical Center. He's expected to miss six to eight weeks, meaning that he should be cleared to play at about the same time as Zoubek.
As if that wasn't enough, incoming freshman forward Kyle Singler, on campus for summer school, suffered a minor toe injury in a pickup game and was briefly on crutches. However, his problem was not serious, and he was sidelined for only a matter of days.
There was a bit of good news to offset all of the gloom. Junior point guard Greg Paulus, who underwent postseason surgery to repair a chronic foot problem (one that plagued him all last year), was cleared to play in late June and returned to pickup action with no sign of his previous injury.