Duke Football From VT's Vantage: A 2014 Spring Practice Preview

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Duke exploded out of the ACC basement to win the Coastal Division title in 2013—are they here to stay?

We continue our "Behind Enemy Lines" series by taking a look at our tenth opponent-and sixth ACC opponent-for 2014: the Duke Blue Devils.

From the "What Had Happened Was" File:

Overview Duke finished the 2013 season at 10-4 with a 6-2 ACC mark. They were the ACC Coastal Division champions, besting the Hokies by one game.

vs. the Hokies The usually-stout LPD held Duke quarterback Anthony Boone to  7-25 for 107 yards, 0 TD's and 4 INT of his own (Kendall Fuller: 3, Dadi Nicolas: 1), but struggled containing Boone's scrambling in critical situations, allowing the Duke signal-caller to extend stalling drives multiple times using his legs around the edges. But, yet again, the Hokie offense couldn't get out of its own way. Case in point: Logan Thomas threw an apparent TD to DJ Coles; but, after it was called back due to illegal motion, he threw an interception in the end zone on the very next play. LT3 finished the day 21-31 for 214 yards, 0 TD's, and 4 INT, but rushed for 101 yards and a TD on 24 carries. Everyone's favorite knothead kicker, Cody Journell, again missed a very makeable field goal-this one from 40 yards.

Losses Georgia Tech (38-14), Pitt (58-55), Florida State (45-7), Texas A&M (52-48)

Signature Win Their 13-10 win at Lane Stadium was Duke's signature win in 2013. It marked the Blue Devils' first victory over VT since 1981, ending a 12-game Hokie winning streak.

Postseason The Blue Devils were steamrolled by FSU (45-7) on their way to a national title appearance, and nearly dumped cold water on Johnny Manziel's Texas A&M farewell, ultimately falling to the Aggies 52-48 in the Chick-fil-a Bowl.

From the "Does He Know Something I Don't?" File

Duke's spring practices weren't really spring practices, as they began workouts on February 7th. Why? Coach Cutcliffe wants his team to be as healthy as possible for the official start of the 2014 season.  As he told Steve Wiseman of the Durham Herald Sun in this nifty article,

"That's one of our bigger gains," Cutcliffe said. "The six-month gap is a lot of things. That gap is healing time. That gap is conditioning and strength building. It's team building. That's a big part of the game that you get."

Point blank, I think that's a mistake by Coach Cut. It's true that by starting spring ball early, Duke gets an early leg up on installing offensive tweaks, etc. and definitely finishes with ample time for players to heal; however, part of the draw of spring practices in late March/early April is that it breaks up the monotony of S&C (strength and conditioning). With "appropriately timed" spring practices, players grind along for 2 ½ months, then comes spring ball, then there's another 2 ½ month block of S&C. By then, it's late June/early July and you have the incoming class joining you and injecting fresh enthusiasm, then you get another month or so to bring them along before the actual season and live practices open. The Spring Game should be a kind of "halftime" of the offseason, not the end of the first quarter. Six months is a loooooooooooong time to blindly grind along in the weight room, on agility ladders, and going through the passing tree on air.

For perspective's sake: Duke's spring game was on March 1st. Virginia Tech began spring practice on March 27th.

From the "Fortifying the Ranks" File:

Duke was dealt a major blow when returning r-Sr. quarterback Brandon Connette announced his intention to transfer on April 9. Unlike most malcontented transfers, though, Connette has a somber, very valid reason. As Laura Keeley of the Raleigh News Obsever explains in this nifty piece:

"Connette's desire to transfer stems from wanting to be closer to his family. His mother, Nancy Connette, had emergency brain surgery on Dec. 12 to remove a tumor and continues to fight what the family has said is stage 4 malignant cancer.

----

Connette was granted a leave of absence from the team during practice leading up to the Dec. 31st Chick-fil-A bowl vs. Texas A&M. He rejoined the team in Atlanta on Christmas night and considered a transfer in January, a source said on Wednesday. Connette has graduated, so he would be eligible to play at any school next season.

"Surely Duke won't miss a timeshare quarterback that much," you may say. Connette was FAR more than a clipboard holder for the Blue Devils. As Keeley continues:

"Connette and fellow redshirt senior quarterback Anthony Boone led Duke to a 10-4 record last season and a Coastal Division championship. When Boone broke his collarbone in the second game against Memphis, Connette took over the starting role for three games. After Boone returned for the game against Navy, the two shared quarterback duties.

Connette directed game-winning drives in the fourth quarter against Memphis, Virginia and N.C. State. He finished the year with a 62.1 completion percentage (90-of-145) with 1,212 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also rushed for 337 yards on 101 carries, with 14 touchdowns - second to only Boston College's Andre Williams in the ACC."

Despite the loss of Connette, Duke does return most of its skill position playmakers on offense, including redshirt quarterbacks quarterback Anthony Boone (6-0, 230), all-ACC senior WR Jamison Crowder (5-9, 175), all-ACC redshirt senior TE Braxton Deaver, and second-leading rusher, redshirt senior RB Josh Snead (5-9, 190). Boone will now be the unquestionable starter in Durham. If he goes down and has to miss a stretch of games again this season, the Devils will likely look to r-Fr. Parker Boehme (6-2, 220), out of Jacksonville, FL (Sandalwood).

The Devils do have one major question to answer on offense: leading rusher RB Jela Duncan has been suspended for the entire 2014 season due to an unspecified violation of the university's academic policy. He will likely redshirt during his suspension; but his production obviously must be replaced in his absence. The most likely candidate is Jr. Shaquille Powell (5-10, 205), who starred in the Devils' spring game, rushing for 75 yards and a TD on 8 carries.

Two Biggest Question Marks for 2014

Replacing Kurt Roper

After  having a heavy hand in turning around a perennial bottom-dweller to a division champion, Blue Devils' offensive coordinator Kurt Roper springboarded to the SEC, taking a lateral move to coordinate the Gators' offense at the University of Florida. His vacancy in Durham was filled by an internal replacement: wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Scottie Montgomery.

A Duke alum, Montgomery played 3 NFL seasons for the Denver Broncos before returning to Durham as an assistant coach from 2006-2009. He then returned to the pro ranks, serving as wide receivers coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2010-2012s part of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians's staff. He returned to Durham to coach receivers when Arians "retired".

Way Too Early Prediction:

Though it made for news headlines when it was happening, this is pretty much a non-issue. Montgomery is loyal to Duke and certainly has familiarity with the style of offense Roper ran if he'd like to continue that sort of system. Whenever you have the ultimate quarterbacks coach wearing the big headset in Coach Cutcliffe, whoever calls the plays will always be under the thumb of Cutcliffe to a certain extent. Nothing to see here.

Can Cutcliffe & Co. Keep the Ball Rolling Forward?

2012 saw the Blue Devils earn their first bowl berth since 1994. In 2013, Duke won 10 games for the first time in the history of their program; this when just recently, VT fans were clamoring that Frank Beamer's beloved streak of eight consecutive 10-win seasons wasn't good enough. Is this merely a fluke or a case of cyclic role-reversal?

Cutcliffe is a top-notch coach whose resume has been recited countless times after his famous off-season stealth workouts with an on-the-mend Peyton Manning. He has certainly brought the Duke football program from being a perennial joke and regular Homecoming opponent up to a level of respectability never-before reached in Durham. There is absolutely zero doubt that his ACC, Maxwell, Walter Camp, Bobby Dodd, The Sporting News, and AFCA National Coach of the Year awards were very much deserved. Moving into 2014, he does have a lot of key pieces returning, including a quarterback he trusts.

Way Too Early Prediction:

In one short word: no. Duke put together a solid season in 2013, but it wasn't Earth-shattering. Bluntly, there's no way they should have beaten the Hokies; rather, it was one of those games where both sides made multiple critical errors. The difference to me is that VT was ill-advisedly playing through the sluggish and half-motivated lens of "This is just Duke," whereas the Blue Devils were playing in their Super Bowl. Duke won many games last season because other teams fell into the same trap, basically considering them a glorified FCS opponent in their preparation that week. This season, they won't be able to sneak up on anyone and all the teams they shouldn't have beaten in 2013 will be gunning for them. There is absolutely 0.0% chance that Duke beats Virginia Tech in 2014, even if Grant Noel comes back to quarterback the Hokies. The team will definitely be on full alert and Bud will have his LPD looking for the potential scrambling of Boone.

The (Long) Final Word-Fun Fact Edition

Duke had the ACC's #11 ranked recruiting class (#70 overall) in 2013. (12. Syracuse, 13. Georgia Tech, 14. Boston College) As you would expect, this wasn't unusual, as they had finished 12th or 13th in ACC recruiting rankings each year since 2010. After capturing the ACC Coastal Division title, playing in the ACC Championship Game, and nearly upending Johnny Manziel in the most watched non-BCS bowl game in ESPN history, it's reasonable to expect that the Blue Devils would rise in recruiting rankings. At the very least, you'd expect them to bring in a better haul than abysmal in-state foes Wake Forest, who finished 4-8 (2-6 ACC) or NC State (3-9), who along with Mike London's Virginia Cavaliers went completely 0'fer in conference in 2013.

Duke signed 18 prospects in 2014 and did hop over Wake; however, that's the only school they finished ahead of in ACC recruiting rankings. Duke finished #13, good enough for #50 overall. NC State was a surprising #7, finishing just behind UVA. Comparatively, Virginia Tech signed 27 and had the #4 ACC class (#27 overall)., behind #1 Florida State, #2 Miami, and #3 Clemson.

So much for spring-boarding that ACC Coastal Division title into immediate recruiting success...

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