Jamison Crowder has been one of the best punt returners in the the nation. Credit: CHUCK LIDDY
Six weeks into Duke’s season, the results have been largely predictable. Wins over N.C. Central and Memphis seemed near-automatic. So did a loss to Georgia Tech, with head coach David Cutcliffe and his staff’s opinions notwithstanding. The Blue Devils passed a nonconference test from Troy and dropped a game to Pitt that looked like (and was) a tossup going into it.
That’s not to say, though, that everything has gone according to plan for Duke. Far from it. No one expected quarterback Anthony Boone to break his collarbone in week two, for instance. And while the defense was always going to be questionable at best, few could have predicted Pitt’s offense would look suspiciously like Clemson’s did at Wallace Wade in 2012 (and the Panthers came back to Earth the next week with a shaky 14-point performance against Virginia).
Here’s a look at where the offense, defense and special teams units stand as the Blue Devils prepare to host Navy on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. (ACC Network). And at this point, all signs point to that game occurring as originally scheduled.
The offense: The Blue Devils ranked forth in the ACC in total offense and scoring offense, averaging 451.6 yards and 36 points per game. Both those figures rank in the top 45 nationally, too. Not bad, considering Duke is down to it’s third quarterback in Brandon Connette.
“I don’t know if I’d call it fun, but it’s been rewarding to see this team change and grow and do what it’s had to do,” Cutcliffe said after the 38-31 win over Troy. “We’re playing with a guy that we thought was going to be our third quarterback and was going to do a bunch of other stuff for us, and you’ve got Anthony out and Thomas (Sirk) out. And we’re playing offense, and we just put 514 yards up, and we did whatever we did last week (532 yards and 55 points against Pitt). That’s pretty amazing, playing with your third guy.”
If this season has proven anything, it’s that Cutcliffe’s offensive system works.
Connette has grown into his role, showing significant progress each week. He ranks sixth in the ACC in total offense, averaging 249.2 yards per game, passing and rushing. His 224 rushing yards trail just Maryland’s C.J. Brown (286) and Georgia Tech’s Vad Lee (241) among ACC quarterbacks.
Lost among more headline-grabbing developments is the fact that, for the first time in Cutcliffe’s six seasons, Duke has a viable run game. The Blue Devils rank fifth in the ACC in rushing offense, averaging 193 yards per game. The season-low was 132 yards against Georgia Tech—there were eight games last year (out of 13) where Duke posted lower totals (and four games the Blue Devils were held under 100 yards). Jela Duncan and Josh Snead lead Duke with 247 and 245 yards, respectively. And Connette, with his 224 rushing yards, play a large role in Duke’s run game, too.
It remains to be seen how much longer Connette will be the starting quarterback—Cutcliffe said they’ve began to scale back Sirk’s workload, delaying his eventual return from Achilles surgery, and the Blue Devils have been mum on when Boone, who is throwing again, will be ready. His participation in the Oct. 17 Virginia game would have game-changing potential.
The Defense: As much as the offense has been a pleasant surprise, the defense has been the opposite. The defensive line, with its four returning starters, has been inconsistent all season and completely ineffective in ACC play. When the line gets pressure on the quarterback, the defense works (see the second half vs. Troy). When the line doesn’t come close enough to sniff a passer, it’s a disaster (see the Pitt game). The Blue Devils rank 13th in the 14-team ACC with an average of 1.60 sacks per game. Duke’s total defense ranks 12th in the league, yielding an average of 400 yards per game.
By the way, Cutcliffe had this to say when asked this week about the challenges of recruiting defensive linemen.
“You're talking about really big athletes that make the best defensive linemen across the board. Those guys are the least likely to be out there in any number. There's some small, really fine athletes. There are some big guys that are pretty good athletes. But the big ones that are just outstanding athletes become a premium.”
So in absence of luring those elite athletes, you look for…
“They're different than ends and the interior people. The first thing we start with is a guy that is athletic. We know we have to get them bigger and stronger. The other part of it is a mentality. You got to be a mentally tough person to go inside and take all that banging and keep competing at a high level. The other word you would use is 'flexibility.' If they don't have flexibility, they're going to struggle in there regardless of size or strength.
“We know we're going to be developmental. We've developed some good players in that regard. We're continuing, we believe, to get better at that position.”
Perhaps most concerning for Duke’s defense, though, is the continued prevalence of explosive plays. Starting with the Georgia Tech game, Duke has given up at least 18 plays per week that have gained at least 10 yards.
There have been a few bright spots on defense. Sophomore safety Jeremy Cash has been the impact player everyone projected him to be, leading the ACC in total tackles (51) and tackles per game (10.2). And three true freshmen—corners Bryon Fields and Breon Borders and safety Deondre Singleton—have played well enough to earn significant playing time, raising the level of athleticism in the secondary.
Singleton, who made his first career start against Troy, will be suspended for the Navy game after leaving campus early for the weekend and missing two academic obligations on Friday.
Special teams: A mixed bag here. Jamison Crowder has played lights-out both as a wide receiver and a punt returner, with two returns for touchdowns and an average of 19.27 yards per return, fifth-best in the nation. Coverage-wise, the Blue Devils have yet to give up a punt return of over 20 yards or a kickoff return of over 30 yards (the smallest increments measured by cfbstats.com).
Freshman receiver Johnell Barnes has been returning kicks for Duke, but he broke his hand in a bar fight with Duke lacrosse sophomore John Shaffer on the dance floor of Shooters II after the Troy win. Barnes is out indefinitely. Redshirt freshman corner Devon Edwards will take over those duties.
Duke’s two specialists, Will Monday and Ross Martin, have struggled. Both were freshmen all-Americans last season, but those performances have not carried over. Martin is 2-for-4 on field goal attempts, and while Monday ranks third in the ACC with an average of 44.84 yards per punt, he has come up short repeatedly in critical situations for Duke.
Bowl chances? I predicted a 6-6 finish for Duke at the beginning of the season. The recipe for getting there was to go either 3-1 or 4-0 in nonconference games and, depending on that outcome, to win two or three against Pitt, Virginia, N.C. State and Wake Forest. Six weeks into the season, that latter trio of ACC teams looks just as beatable as expected. A win against Navy, though, would go a long way toward earning back-to-back bowl bids for the first time in school history.