DURHAM NC - SEPTEMBER 25: Head coach David Cutcliffe of the Duke Blue Devils cheers on his team the Army Black Knights at Wallace Wade Stadium on September 25 2010 in Durham North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Coming into the year, there was a lot more optimism surrounding the Duke program, but the Blue Devils' schedule was considerably tougher. What were your expectations for the year and has the slow start altered how you feel about the direction David Cutcliffe has the team going?
With 4 wins in 2008 and 5 in 2009, most outsiders and bandwagon Duke football fans may have felt that the next logical step would be a 6 win season and a bowl game in 2010. To those close to the program, 2010 is clearly a transition year, where Duke has to replace a record-setting QB in Thad Lewis and all of their leaders on defense (Oghobaase, Okpokoworuk, Rey, and Wright). With the key losses on defense, including our defensive coordinator, Mike MacIntyre (now HC at San Jose State), we knew that there would be some growing pains on that side of the ball.
Most of us at Blue Devil Nation expected a 4-5 win season, which, even with a 1-5 start, is still within reach for this team, albeit a stretch. Even with a first-year starter at QB, we thought the offense would be able to come close to its 2008 and 2009 success. At times, the offense has been very good, and the defense has improved tremendously. The overall talent level that Duke is putting on the field is higher than it has been in years. Unfortunately, much of it is young, which has led to a lot of inconsistency. The staff has done a nice job in making adjustments and growing the defense. Matt Daniels has stepped up as a leader and Kelby Brown has played exceptional for a true freshman linebacker. In fact, the defense probably has played well enough to win the past three games against Army, Maryland, and Miami. Unfortunately, Duke has turned the ball over 14 times in those 3 games, and has forced only 2 turnovers of their own. No team can succeed with those kind of numbers. If Duke can turn those numbers around in the second half of their season, they can sneak up on some teams.
QB Sean Renfree has struggled lately and we saw Brandon Connette at the end of the Miami game. What are the chances we see more of Connette this weekend?
Despite his struggles, Renfree has 3 years in the Duke system, while Connette has just 9 months. At this point, Renfree also has the more accurate arm, though Connette is definitely the better rusher. It's no secret that Coach Cutcliffe and the Coach Roper like to throw the ball, so with that strategy, Renfree is still the better option. Renfree will be the starter, and Connette will continue to be used in short yardage and goal-line situations. If Renfree struggles again with turnovers early, he may be on a shorter leash than he was earlier in the season.
I'm a big fan of Desmond Scott and in the spring it looked like the Blue Devils were going to have some semblance of a run game this year. What has accounted for your struggles on the ground?
Actually, Duke has run the ball well this year, especially considering they were dead last in the the FBS in 2009. The top two rushers, Desmond Scott and Josh Snead, are both averaging over 5 yards per carry and have done a good job of taking care of the football. The statistics do not jump out from either a team or an individual standpoint for two reasons. First, Duke has spent much of the season playing from behind, which has limited their ability to commit to the run. Second, Duke has consistently rotated 4 backs - Scott, Snead, Juwan Thompson, and Jay Hollingworth. Thompson and Snead are true freshmen, and you'll see them as kick returners as well. Personally, I'd like to see Duke run the ball a little more in the second half of the season; I think there's talent and depth there, and it would take some pressure of Renfree while he regains his confidence.
The last two Duke-Virginia Tech games have much more competitive than years prior. What gives you hope that the Devils will again be able to put a scare into the Hokies or even pull off the upset?
Duke has played better than their record might indicate. It's been really fun to watch the youth on this team develop, but at the same time very frustrating to watch the turnovers put the games out of reach. If Duke turns the ball over, they won't beat anyone, as their record so far indicates. But I get the sense that they're getting closer to putting it all together, and when that happens, they can compete with almost anyone. I would definitely add that I also think Virginia Tech is a better team than their record and ranking indicate. If Virginia Tech plays to their potential and don't beat themselves, Duke would have to play a flawless game to beat them, which would be asking a lot.
If you could draft any player from the Hokies' roster to play for Duke in this game, who would you pick and why?
Tyrod Taylor. Both for what he's capable of and because it would fill Duke's biggest need right now. If Duke had a QB that had a 12/3 TD/INT ratio, they might be 5-1. Tyrod would be my choice for ACC POY at this point in the season, and he's one of the best dual-threat QBs I've seen in college football. Duke's offense needs a dynamic leader under center right now, and Tyrod would fit the bill. Instead, Duke fans will just have to be patient as our young QBs develop and hope that they eventually can approach Taylor's success.