The big 2014 Duke football preview: The post-breakthrough stage

Joe Robbins

After four years of fielding basically the same team, Duke got younger and improved dramatically in 2013. We now live in a world in which "Can Duke reach the conference title game again?" is a legitimate question.

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1. An unexpected breakthrough

For each set of conference previews in this series, the order is set by five-year history. That Duke is already up on the ACC list -- third from the bottom ahead of only Wake Forest and Virginia -- tells you both how unexpected Duke's run to 10-4 and a division title was last fall, and how recently the Blue Devils were on shaky ground.

In 2008, David Cutcliffe took over an absolutely hopeless program; Duke had gone 10-82 in the previous eight years, and...

...actually, I'll just stop there. You know how bad Duke was. It was pretty well-established.

That Cutcliffe was able to bump the Blue Devils from the 100s in the F/+ rankings to the 70s was impressive. He established worth for a program that had very little in recent decades. But it also appeared that the program had stagnated a bit. From 2008-12, Duke ranked 78th, 68th, 78th, 75th, and 81st according to F/+. In some years, they were unlucky, and in some they were lucky. In some years, they closed out close games and finished with five or six wins, and in some they didn't and finished 3-9.

In 2012, Duke experienced a breakthrough ... sort of. With basically the same team as usual, the Blue Devils took advantage of a backloaded schedule, beat bad teams, and eked past North Carolina at home to clinch bowl eligibility for the first time since 1994. They lost the last four games of the regular season by an average of 26 points and fell to Cincinnati in an exciting Belk Bowl, and in last year's Duke preview, I kind of felt like a jerk for pointing out that the team wasn't actually very good. But they weren't!

In 2013, Duke was good. Aside from an early home performance against Georgia Tech, the Blue Devils played like a top-40 team, wearing defenses out with efficient offense and steady execution and preventing big plays well enough to force opponents to employ patience to score. I'm not going to say this was as good as a Duke can be or anything like that, but one could see Cutcliffe's complete vision for winning football games at Duke, and Duke won a lot of football games.

Now, after a real, honest-to-goodness breakthrough, Duke attempts an encore. Cutcliffe lost his offensive coordinator, two of his three running backs, two three- or four-year starters on the offensive line, two solid defensive ends, and an excellent cornerback. But he's got his quarterback, his top three receiving targets, and everybody else from a steady secondary.

With the schedule at hand -- five games against teams projected 83rd or worse, six more against teams projected no better than 30th -- it would be shocking if Duke didn't attend its third straight bowl in December. But the Blue Devils did a lot more than that last year; can they make another division title run?

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 10-4 | Adj. Record: 10-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 41
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
31-Aug N.C. Central N/A 45-0 W 27.0 - 16.2 W
7-Sep at Memphis 83 28-14 W 31.8 - 19.4 W
14-Sep Georgia Tech 34 14-38 L 17.2 - 31.5 L
21-Sep Pittsburgh 54 55-58 L 45.4 - 40.4 W
28-Sep Troy 105 38-31 W 33.9 - 23.6 W 4.8
12-Oct Navy 58 35-7 W 29.2 - 22.2 W 4.1
19-Oct at Virginia 79 35-22 W 30.9 - 29.7 W 1.8
26-Oct at Virginia Tech 27 13-10 W 22.2 - 27.1 L 3.7
9-Nov N.C. State 92 38-20 W 18.3 - 30.7 L 0.3
16-Nov Miami 36 48-30 W 43.7 - 32.5 W 0.4
23-Nov at Wake Forest 81 28-21 W 38.1 - 24.2 W 1.8
30-Nov at North Carolina 38 27-25 W 34.1 - 29.6 W 2.5
7-Dec vs. Florida State 1 7-45 L 22.9 - 28.1 L 2.4
31-Dec vs. Texas A&M 23 48-52 L 39.6 - 35.7 W 5.7
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ +7.5% 33 -0.2% 62 +1.2% 40
Points Per Game 32.8 41 26.6 64
Adj. Points Per Game 31.0 47 27.9 67

2. Handling the beatable teams

To even the playing field, David Cutcliffe uses every inch of it. He doesn't necessarily run a customary spread (though we're really just getting into semantics), but we'll call it a stretch offense. He spreads opponents as widely as possible, figures out what they're giving him, and bludgeons them with it until they adjust.

If quick horizontal passing to the perimeter works, the Blue Devils will do it ad nauseum. My favorite example: Sean Renfree going 41-for-53 for 368 yards against Boston College in 2011. Duke running backs had 17 carries while the top three receivers had 28 catches for all of 188 yards.

But if your defense is too focused on the perimeter, Duke will gash you up the middle. Against Miami last year, running backs had 33 carries for 299 yards while Duke quarterbacks passed just 24 times. There is no stubborn pride here, no variety for the sake of variety. This is direct, old-school, "We're doing this til you stop it" offense.

It also doesn't really work on top teams. If you've got the athletes to beat Duke's athletes 1-on-1, Duke probably isn't going to move the ball. This goes for all teams to some degree, obviously, but it was especially true for Duke in 2013, and on both sides of the ball.

  • Actual Points Per Game (Duke vs. F/+ top 35): Opponent 36.3, Duke 20.5 (minus-15.8) (record: 1-3)
  • Actual Points Per Game (Duke vs. No. 36-70): Duke 41.3, Opponent 30.0 (plus-11.3) (record: 3-1)
  • Actual Points Per Game (Duke vs. No. 71-105): Duke 33.4, Opponent 21.6 (plus-11.8) (record: 6-0)

Duke averaged 5.9 yards per play in 2013: 3.3 against Florida State, 3.7 against Virginia Tech, 4.1 against Georgia Tech, and 6.4 against everybody else. The defense, meanwhile, allowed 5.7 per play: 8.0 against Texas A&M, 7.6 against Florida State, 7.2 against Miami, and 5.1 against everybody else. Again, this is true to some degree for most teams -- you do better against bad units than good units. Of course. But the difference was pronounced for the Blue Devils.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.12 73 IsoPPP+ 97.8 75
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 45.2% 40 Succ. Rt. + 109.6 30
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 27.5 21 Def. FP+ 104.4 15
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.6 43 Redzone S&P+ 122.3 10
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 18.5 ACTUAL 25 +6.5
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 47 33 30 42
RUSHING 54 40 29 49
PASSING 50 30 32 40
Standard Downs 26 25 45
Passing Downs 59 54 93
Q1 Rk 56 1st Down Rk 29
Q2 Rk 25 2nd Down Rk 32
Q3 Rk 16 3rd Down Rk 60
Q4 Rk 69

3. The little things™

Kurt Roper is 38 years old but has already been a major-conference offensive coordinator for 12 years. He worked under Cutcliffe at Ole Miss (O.C. from 1999-2004), Tennessee (running backs coach when Cutcliffe was O.C. in 2006-07), and Duke (O.C. from 2008-13). He is the rare combination of up-and-comer and experienced hand, and it made perfect sense for Florida to hire him away this past offseason. He should bring to Florida a system that is both simple and effective, especially with the athletes Florida recruits.

Cutcliffe didn't look very far in an attempt to replace Roper. When searching for his first non-Roper offensive coordinator, he zeroed in on last year's Duke receivers coach, Scottie Montgomery. Obviously there could always be subtle changes when a new guy is running the show, but one has to figure that as long as Cutcliffe is the head man, Duke is going to basically do what Duke has been doing. And along with the stretch principles mentioned above, that means Duke will continue trying to do the Little Things™ very well. The Blue Devils will peck and poke and move the chains and try to do their defense as many field position favors as possible, and when they get a chance to score, they'll probably finish.

Duke was a Little Things™ master in 2013: 10th in Redzone S&P+, 15th in Def. FP+ (an opponent-adjusted look at the field position the offense created for the defense), 30th in Success Rate+ (29th rushing, 32nd passing).

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Anthony Boone 6'0, 230 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 206 322 2260 13 13 64.0% 10 3.0% 6.6
Brandon Connette 90 145 1212 13 6 62.1% 7 4.6% 7.8
Thomas Sirk 6'4, 215 So. 3 stars (5.7)
Parker Boehme 6'2, 220 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Johnathan Lloyd 6'0, 195 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)
Nicodem Pierre 6'2, 205 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)

4. All Anthony

It would make sense that Cutcliffe, the guy who coached both of the Manning brothers, helped to turn Tee Martin into National Championship Quarterback Tee Martin, and helped to turn Erik Ainge into SEC East Championship Quarterback Erik Ainge, would recruit quarterbacks relatively well. Kids aren't dummies. Duke isn't a threat to start landing blue-chippers left and right, but of the five quarterbacks listed above, all were three-star recruits, and two were high-three-star recruits.

The 2015 quarterback competition in Durham could be rather interesting, with four well-touted, diverse youngsters battling for the job. But in 2014, barring injury, the job is Anthony Boone's. Boone isn't always as good as he was in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Texas A&M (29-for-45 for 427 yards, three touchdowns, and two picks) -- if he were, he'd be a Heisman contender -- but he had quite a few strong moments in 2013.

Duke used Brandon Connette as a makeshift short-yardage quarterback in 2013, and he was very good at it (14 rushing touchdowns, among other things); he was a major reason why Duke was so good at finishing drives. He transferred to Fresno State this spring to be closer to his mother, who is battling cancer. Boone is actually a rather efficient runner himself, so it will be interesting to see if Montgomery goes with him 100 percent of the time, or whether Duke looks for another Wildcat-esque quarterback.

In 2014, Boone's biggest challenge will be making quicker repairs. One mistake tended to lead to another last fall, and there's no Connette safety net this time around. Against Virginia Tech, NC State, and Florida State, Boone completed 47 percent of his passes at 9.6 yards per completion with zero touchdowns and nine interceptions. Against everybody else: 70 percent, 11.3 yards per completion, 13 touchdowns, four picks. Sure, Virginia Tech and FSU had great pass defenses -- and as mentioned above, it's certainly possible to have better athletes in your secondary than Duke has at wideout -- but a week after performing terribly against Tech, Boone was almost equally bad against NC State and its No. 77 defense (according to Def. F/+). And at the end of the A&M game, we got a quick glimpse of how his decision-making could go south.

There's work to do here, but we've seen the upside. And despite some attrition up front, Boone should have a decent line in front of him. The offensive line was perhaps Duke's best unit in 2013; it ranked 20th in Adj. Line Yards and 12th in Adj. Sack Rate, and while quick passing and strong play-calling played into that, that's still excellent. Two longtime starters are gone, but all-conference guard Laken Tomlinson returns, and four returnees have combined for 84 career starts.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
Jela Duncan RB 113 562 3 5.0 3.6 38.9%
Josh Snead RB 5'9, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 107 651 2 6.1 6.2 43.0%
Brandon Connette QB 94 369 14 3.9 4.5 25.5%
Juwan Thompson RB 64 348 1 5.4 4.4 40.6%
Shaquille Powell RB 5'10, 205 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 62 344 2 5.5 3.9 45.2%
Anthony Boone QB 6'0, 230 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 56 275 5 4.9 3.2 44.6%
Jamison Crowder WR 5'9, 175 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 8 71 1 8.9 4.7 75.0%
Joseph Ajeigbe RB 5'9, 215 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Jamison Crowder WR 5'9, 175 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 166 108 1360 65.1% 37.6% 57.8% 8.2 59 8.5 173.9
Braxton Deaver TE 6'5, 240 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 59 46 600 78.0% 13.4% 63.0% 10.2 92 10.5 76.7
Max McCaffrey WR 6'2, 190 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 48 26 282 54.2% 10.9% 53.5% 5.9 -63 6.2 36.1
Brandon Braxton WR 46 39 361 84.8% 10.4% 76.7% 7.8 -54 6.3 46.2
Issac Blakeney WR 6'6, 235 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 31 19 244 61.3% 7.0% 83.3% 7.9 8 8.6 31.2
Johnell Barnes WR 6'0, 175 So. 3 stars (5.7) 26 15 217 57.7% 5.9% 50.0% 8.3 25 8.2 27.8
Jela Duncan RB 16 13 123 81.3% 3.6% 46.7% 7.7 -18 7.6 15.7
Shaquille Powell RB 5'10, 205 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 14 8 90 57.1% 3.2% 50.0% 6.4 -13 7.6 11.5
Josh Snead RB 5'9, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 8 6 29 75.0% 1.8% 50.0% 3.6 -38 3.8 3.7
Juwan Thompson RB 8 7 46 87.5% 1.8% 42.9% 5.8 -27 6.0 5.9
Anthony Nash WR 6'5, 200 So. 2 stars (5.4) 6 3 31 50.0% 1.4% 50.0% 5.2 -11 4.8 4.0
Brandon Connette QB 4 1 5 25.0% 0.9% 100.0% 1.3 -17 1.4 0.6
David Reeves TE 6'5, 250 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 4 3 38 75.0% 0.9% 0.0% 9.5 4 6.2 4.9
Ryan Smith WR 5'7, 165 So. 3 stars (5.5) 3 2 41 66.7% 0.7% 50.0% 13.7 17 18.4 5.2
Terrence Alls WR 6'1, 180 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Quay Chambers WR 6'3, 215 RSFr 2 stars (5.4)
Trevon Lee WR 6'1, 175 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)
Davis Koppenhaver TE 6'4, 210 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)

5. Options

In Jamison Crowder and Braxton Deaver, Duke returns one of the best wideouts and one of the best tight ends, respectively, in the ACC. But the strength of the skill positions in 2013 was the depth. Four running backs had at least 62 carries, and six players were targeted with at least 26 passes.

Of those 10 players, seven return, including probably the three most explosive options in Crowder, Josh Snead, and Johnell Barnes. Assuming, again, that replacing Roper with Montgomery doesn't result in any serious philosophical shift, Duke should have more than enough options to again stretch the defense and take advantage of whatever it chooses to give up.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 112.6 3.31 3.02 39.4% 75.9% 16.1% 166.2 2.8% 4.5%
Rank 20 15 86 67 22 19 12 20 33
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Laken Tomlinson RG 6'3, 320 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 39 2nd All-ACC
Perry Simmons RT 50
Dave Harding LG 41
Takoby Cofield LT 6'4, 305 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 30
Matt Skura C 6'4, 290 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 14
John Coleman C 9
Lucas Patrick RT 6'4, 310 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 1
Carson Ginn LT 6'6, 300 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0
Cody Robinson RG 6'3, 300 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0
Sam Marshall RT 6'7, 285 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0
Gabe Brandner OT 6'6, 255 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Austin Davis C 6'4, 290 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Trip McNeill OL 6'5, 300 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)
Zach Harmon OL 6'3, 280 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.06 28 IsoPPP+ 107.5 29
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 44.6% 92 Succ. Rt. + 96.3 70
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 29.7 75 Off. FP+ 100.5 55
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.2 65 Redzone S&P+ 91.3 85
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 24.5 ACTUAL 26.0 +1.5
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 83 64 70 64
RUSHING 76 82 94 51
PASSING 84 53 46 77
Standard Downs 83 90 34
Passing Downs 37 25 56
Q1 Rk 60 1st Down Rk 89
Q2 Rk 82 2nd Down Rk 46
Q3 Rk 85 3rd Down Rk 32
Q4 Rk 16

6. Opponents did what they wanted

Duke's secondary was athletic and deep in 2013. It was one of the ACC's best. But it was pretty frequently put in a tough spot by the defensive front. Duke was able to rush the passer pretty well in obvious passing situations, but opponents could run at will, and the secondary spent a lot of its time cleaning up messes.

The result was perhaps a rather unintentional bend-don't-break defense. A lot of teams employ that general philosophy, but Duke had no choice. Opponents could run as much as they wanted on standard downs. And even on passing downs, they didn't fear the pass rush enough to avoid it.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 89.8 3.37 3.22 44.3% 69.0% 14.5% 88.1 3.1% 7.3%
Rank 108 113 55 111 77 117 84 105 54
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Kenny Anunike DE 14 44.5 5.3% 13.5 6.0 0 2 1 0
Justin Foxx DE 14 37.5 4.5% 5.5 4.0 0 0 0 0
Carlos Wray NG 6'2, 290 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 14 23.5 2.8% 0.5 0.0 0 1 0 1
Jamal Bruce NG 6'1, 285 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 14 23.5 2.8% 2.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Kyler Brown DE 6'4, 230 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 11 16.0 1.9% 2.0 1.0 0 1 1 0
Dezmond Johnson DE 6'4, 260 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 14 15.0 1.8% 2.5 1.0 0 1 0 2
Jonathan Woodruff DE 12 13.0 1.5% 4.0 3.0 0 1 0 0
Sydney Sarmiento DT 14 13.0 1.5% 2.0 0.0 0 3 1 0
Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo DE 6'4, 240 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 10 7.5 0.9% 2.5 2.0 0 0 0 0
A.J. Wolf DT 6'4, 270 So. 2 stars (5.3) 10 7.0 0.8% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jamal Wallace DE 6'4, 275 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 5 3.0 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Keilin Rayner NG 6'3, 270 So. 3 stars (5.7)
Mike Ramsay DT 6'2, 280 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3)

7. The line was the major issue

Linebacker Kelby Brown made 10 non-sack tackles for loss last fall, but Duke still managed to rank 117th in Stuff Rate (run stops behind the line). If he or end Kenny Anunike didn't make a stop for a loss, the play was probably gaining quite a few yards.

The linebacking corps returns intact, but end Anunike and Justin Foxx (a decent pass-rush specialist) are gone. Three of the four primary defensive tackles are back, but they weren't very effective. Barring a star turn by Carlos Wray, Jamal Bruce, or a young player like Keilin Rayner, it's hard to imagine Duke's line being too much better against the run. And without Anunike and Foxx, the pass rush might be worse.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
David Helton WLB 6'4, 235 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 14 89.5 10.6% 4.0 1.0 0 2 0 0
Kelby Brown MLB 6'2, 230 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 13 85.5 10.2% 11.0 1.0 2 2 2 0
C.J. France WLB 6'0, 230 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 12 14.0 1.7% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Deion Williams MLB 6'0, 230 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 11.0 1.3% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Nick Hill LB 6'2, 220 Jr. 2 stars (5.4)
Chris Holmes LB 6'2, 200 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Dominic McDonald LB 6'2, 240 RSFr. NR

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Jeremy Cash S 6'2, 210 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 14 92.5 11.0% 9.5 0 4 4 2 0
Deondre Singleton S 5'11, 175 So. 2 stars (5.4) 12 51.0 6.1% 3 0 1 4 1 0
DeVon Edwards S 5'9, 185 So. 2 stars (5.4) 14 50.5 6.0% 0.5 0 3 6 0 0
Ross Cockrell CB 13 40.5 4.8% 2 1 3 12 1 0
Dwayne Norman S 6'1, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 10 37.0 4.4% 1 0 0 0 1 0
Bryon Fields CB 5'11, 185 So. 3 stars (5.5) 14 34.5 4.1% 1 1 0 6 0 0
Anthony Young-Wiseman S 10 23.5 2.8% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Garett Patterson CB 14 21.0 2.5% 0 0 1 3 0 1
Breon Borders CB 6'0, 175 So. 2 stars (5.4) 14 20.0 2.4% 0 0 4 8 0 0
Corbin McCarthy S 5'10, 200 So. 2 stars (5.4) 13 19.0 2.3% 1 1 0 0 0 0
Garrett Rider S 10 5.0 0.6% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Christian Conway S 5'10, 200 Jr. NR 14 2.0 0.2% 1 0 0 0 0 0
Evrett Edwards CB 5'11, 175 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Phillip Carter S 6'1, 200 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3)
Quay Mann S 5'9, 195 RSFr. NR
Alonzo Saxton II DB 5'11, 170 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)
Zach Muniz DB 5'11, 170 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)

8. Thriving with freshmen

If Duke wasn't already working with Jim Knowles' variation of a 4-2-5 defense, depth in the defensive backfield would have forced Knowles to consider moving to that structure regardless. Safeties Jeremy Cash (one of the best safeties in the east), Deondre Singleton, and DeVon Edwards -- a sophomore and two freshmen last fall -- combined for 13 tackels for loss, eight picks, 14 break-ups, and three forced fumbles, and corner Ross Cockrell played at an all-conference level.

Cockrell was a senior, but this was still an incredibly young unit overall, especially considering how injuries and shuffling led to 10 players receiving pretty extensive playing time throughout the course of the season. Five of the 10 were freshmen, and two were sophomores, and Duke still improved from 113th in Passing S&P+ to 53rd. That's remarkable. And now Duke enters 2014 with an experienced, proven, and deep defensive backfield. It probably isn't going to get any more help from its line than it did last year, but it could do well regardless.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Will Monday 6'4, 210 Jr. 69 42.7 6 11 21 46.4%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Ross Martin 5'9, 185 Jr. 70 61.8 20 2 28.6%
Jack Willoughby 6'2, 195 Sr. 11 62.6 3 1 27.3%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Ross Martin 5'9, 185 Jr. 58-58 10-12 83.3% 3-7 42.9%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
DeVon Edwards KR 5'9, 185 So. 19 30.2 2
Johnell Barnes KR 6'0, 175 So. 10 20.4 0
Jamison Crowder PR 5'9, 175 Sr. 25 16.0 2
Max McCaffrey PR 6'2, 190 Jr. 3 2.3 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 40
Field Goal Efficiency 54
Punt Return Efficiency 42
Kick Return Efficiency 24
Punt Efficiency 107
Kickoff Efficiency 27
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 12

9. Clean up punt coverage

Duke returned four kicks for touchdowns last season, place-kicker Ross Martin was reliable under 40 yards, and kickoff coverage was damn strong -- Duke ranked 27th in kickoff efficiency despite few touchbacks. But despite punter Will Monday's strong leg, opponents averaged 10.9 yards per punt return with two scores (neither of which came from North Carolina's Ryan Switzer). All the legs and return men are back in 2014, and if Duke can clean up the punt coverage, this could be a top-25 unit.

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
30-Aug Elon NR
6-Sep at Troy 100
13-Sep Kansas 104
20-Sep Tulane 91
27-Sep at Miami 30
11-Oct at Georgia Tech 44
18-Oct Virginia 62
1-Nov at Pittsburgh 39
8-Nov at Syracuse 67
15-Nov Virginia Tech 19
20-Nov North Carolina 35
29-Nov Wake Forest 83
Five-Year F/+ Rk -4.2% (70)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 62
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 1 / 5.9
TO Luck/Game -1.8
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (7, 8)

10. A rough conference road slate

After ranking between 68th and 81st for four consecutive years, Duke improved by 40 spots in the F/+ rankings last year. That makes for a fantastic story, and it's difficult to maintain. Typically there is a bit of regression afterward, especially if there's no specific reason for the team's success (new coaching hire, dramatic recruiting improvement, etc.).

But in this year's Duke roster, it's easy to see a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses of last year's Duke roster. The defensive line probably isn't going to be better, but the secondary, the quarterback, and the skill positions probably aren't going to be worse. If there's no drop-off on the offensive line or in the offensive coordinator position, one can certainly conceive of a similar Duke ranking this time around. Thanks to the (completely justifiable) use of five-year history and recruiting rankings in our projections, the numbers don't necessarily see it that way, but there's a chance.

With the aforementioned five games against teams projected 83rd or worse, Duke should easily find enough wins to go bowling for the third straight year. But can the Blue Devils repeat as division champions? The schedule is going to make that difficult. They must play at Miami, Georgia Tech, and Pittsburgh, which might force them to go undefeated at home and/or pull a road upset to make a serious run.

After last season, anything is possible, but it's probably not going to happen. Then again, I ended last year's preview with "They're probably not taking another step up any time soon." What the hell do I know?

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