Welcome to the sixth part of the Georgia Tech opponent series, available upon completion in a leatherbound volume (printing/binding not included). The analysis of Duke, Tech's opponent Oct. 11 at Bobby Dodd Stadium (Hall of Fame weekend), is provided by the News & Observer's Duke beat writer, Laura Keeley. You can read Laura's stuff here and follow her on Twitter here.
Q: If Duke is back in Charlotte in December (strange as that is to say), what will be one or two of the most significant reasons why?
A: The biggest, overarching reason would be because the team was able to pick up right where they left off last year. That's the mentality head coach David Cutcliffe wants, and that's why Duke started its spring football practice way early, on Feb. 7, just 38 days after the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The idea was to keep the momentum going. There also won't be a ton a new faces in the starting lineup: eight offensive starters return, and seven do on the defensive side of the ball (in all the major publications, you'll see that six starters return, but departed cornerback Garrett Patterson was a starter in name only: rising sophomores Breon Borders and Bryon Fields handled most of the snaps at the second corner position).
More specifically, Duke will be back in Charlotte as long as returning quarterback Anthony Boone can play at a consistently high level. Boone won't have Brandon Connette this year, who handled about 30 percent of the passing attempts last year and was a red zone running specialist, with a school-record 14 rushing TDs. Connette transferred to Fresno State to be closer to his mother, who is battling advanced brain cancer, so that leaves Boone as the only quarterback with any game experience on Duke's roster.
Boone's completion percentage took the big jump the coaching staff wanted in his first year as the starter (from .516 to .640), and this year, he needs to cut down on his major mistakes (13 touchdowns against 13 interceptions). Last year, in back-to-back weeks at Virginia Tech and versus N.C. State, Boone tossed seven interceptions, with Cutcliffe benching him against the Wolfpack in favor of Connette. There won't be an experienced backup to turn to if a similar situation arises this year.
And on the other side of the ball, the guys behind the defensive line are going to have to come up big. All-ACC first-team linebacker Kelby Brown and David Helton finished Nos. 1 and 2 in tackles per game last season. And the secondary, which featured four freshman in significant roles last season (Borders, Fields, Deondre Singleton and DeVon Edwards) , along with first team all-ACC rising junior Jeremy Cash, is going to have to be even better despite the loss of CB Ross Cockrell, a fourth-round pick by the Buffalo Bills.
Q: What’s the biggest cause for concern?
A: The defensive line. Duke will have three new starters up front in the 4-2-5 scheme. Gone are DEs Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx and DT Sydney Sarmiento, all of whom started every game last year. Guys like Dezmond Johnson, Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, Jonathan Jones (who went by Jonathan Woodruff last year) and Jamal Wallace have significant experience as backups, but a few of them will have to step into starting roles now. Last year's group wasn't elite by any means (tied for 12th in the ACC with 23 sacks), and the best of that bunch isn't around anymore.
Q: How significant do you think the loss of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will be?
A: To the casual fan, the offense will look the same. It helps tremendously that Cutcliffe's background is on the offensive side of the ball. Prior to this season, Roper was the only quarterbacks coach Cutcliffe had every employed (six years at Ole Miss and six at Duke), and Roper had been Cutcliffe's offensive coordinator (and play caller) for the past nine seasons that he was a head coach. So Roper will certainly be missed, but the system that Cutcliffe built and he helped fine-tune remains, with Scottie Montgomery assuming the title of offensive coordinator.
Montgomery, a 1999 Duke grad, was the only assistant Cutcliffe retained when he first arrived at Duke prior to the 2008 season. He returned to the staff last season after three years as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and, while it's not official, he's viewed as a likely coach-in-wainting for when Cutcliffe eventually retires. Montgomery knows the system. He'll add his own wrinkles as a play caller, but there shouldn't be any major changes.
Q: What do you think reasonable fans expect now of Duke on a season-to-season basis?
A: I think it's reasonable to expect Duke to go to a bowl game more often than not at this point. And for years like this, with a significant number of returning starters, I think it's fair for missing a bowl to be viewed as a major disappointment. Are they going to win the Coastal Division every year? No. But should they be able to compete for the division title on a consistent basis with the way the division is currently set? Yes.
Q: What kind of record can this team put together?
A: Given Duke's schedule, I think 7-5 is the realistic floor for this team (barring any major injuries or colossal meltdowns, of course). While the nonconference schedule does technically have a power conference team on tap (Kansas at home), it's light, with a trip to Troy and visits from FCS Elon and Tulane, in addition to the Jayhawks. And the Blue Devils draw Syracuse and Wake Forest as their Atlantic Division crossovers. Duke probably should go 6-0 against that group, or at least no worse than 4-2. Then you have the Coastal Division games.
The only division winner that would shock me next year is Virginia. But I think you could make a case for any of the other six. So, as crazy as it would have seemed even 12 months ago, Duke could, in fact, make back-to-back appearances in the ACC Championship game.
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