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2012 Duke Football Preview: When Capable Isn't Enough

It's easy to root for Duke head coach David Cutcliffe and a perpetual underdog football team to succeed. But it's awfully hard to predict it. Related: Duke's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore. For more on the Blue Devils, visit Duke Baskeball Report.

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Thanks in part to a future Heisman winner at quarterback, Art Briles went 8-16 in his first two years at Baylor, then won seven games in Year Three.

Gary Barnett struggled through three seasons at Northwestern, going 8-24-1, before shocking the world with a Rose Bowl run in Year Four.

Al Golden inherited a terrible Temple program, won just 10 games in three years (the Owls had won just three in the three years before he arrived), then surged for nine wins and an EagleBank Bowl bid in Year Four.

Bill Snyder went 1-10 in his first season at Kansas State and 18-26 in his first four. His Wildcats broke through with a bowl bid (their first of 11 in a row) in Year Five.

Jim Grobe built a consistently mediocre program at Wake Forest; he averaged 5.2 wins per season through five years (with a surprising bowl bid in Year Two) before an incredible Orange Bowl bid in Year Six.

Bobby Johnson struggled through six tough seasons (three terrible, three below average) and went 20-50 before leading Vanderbilt to an exciting bowl bid in Year Seven.

If nothing else, David Cutcliffe has established a higher baseline for the Duke Blue Devils in his four seasons in Durham. Duke ranked, on average, 106th in the three years before Cutliffe took over; the Blue Devils have averaged 76th since. Worse teams than that have reached bowls while riding a streak of close wins, but that hasn't happened yet.

And with just five opponents projected worse than 36th in the Football Outsiders 2012, it probably won't happen in 2012, either. But Duke still has a young team -- a vast majority of last year's two-deep returns, and aside from quarterback and the defensive backfield, that could be the case in 2013 as well -- and if recent college football history has taught us anything, it's that breakthroughs are possible at programs known as perennial losers, and that they can happen at any time.

Duke has waited quite awhile; it can probably afford to wait one more year. Or two.

Related: Check out Duke's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Cutcliffe's Blue Devils last spring:

Growing up, I didn't understand why a coach would want to take, say, the Alabama job over the Duke job. People have already won at Alabama, so why not win somewhere new? Every job is equal, right? And why would Steve Spurrier leave Duke for Florida, anyway? (Even at a young age, I had some stellar pro-underdog, liberal guilt going on.)

Now that I'm a little older, I understand the concept of the resume killer. In 2002, Ted Roof was a reasonably successful defensive coordinator; by 2007, he was a failed head coach. In 1999, Carl Franks was a reliable, long-time Steve Spurrier assistant; by 2003, he was a failed head coach. Fred Goldsmith? Same thing. In 1992, he was Sports Illustrated's national coach of the year at Rice. In 1996, he went 0-11 in Durham.

A great coach can win -- and potentially win big -- at a resume-killing job; a good one probably can't. David Cutcliffe likely isn't a great coach, but he's certainly a brave one. He left a seemingly comfortable post as Tennessee offensive coordinator to take over a program that has won seven or more games in a season three times since the Beatles came to America and has won either zero or one games five times since Y2K. And you know what? He's done a downright stellar job in his three years there.

The middle part of the last decade was really, really bad, even for Duke. Take a look at the table at the bottom of this post. The Blue Devils have actually improved their on-field product, at least slightly, in four of the last five seasons. Their lone year of regression was not severe. And yet, they went 3-9 and ranked 80th in overall F/+* last season. That's measurable improvement for the Blue Devils. And in a world where bowl bids are as plentiful as Duke-UNC basketball promos on ESPN in February, it is not inconceivable that Cutcliffe could deliver just that one day. If Vanderbilt and Indiana can do it, so can Duke, right? As long as you define success as "random Humanitarian Bowl bid," then Cutcliffe is well on his way to finding considerable success in the Research Triangle... […]

David Cutcliffe's performance in Durham has thus far been quite admirable. If Duke can keep making slight improvement this season, then the experience and depth that he has been building on offense could lead the way to a decent run in 2012. But probably not before then.

Shutdown Fullback Does The ACC

To reach the elusive six-win plateau at Duke, you are all but required to win almost every close game you have. Virginia, for instance, went 5-1 in one-possession games last season, and it got the Cavaliers to a nice bowl game (Chick-Fil-A).

And since the Blue Devils went 1-5 in games decided by more than one possession, they needed to go 5-1 as well to reach bowl eligibility. Instead, they went 2-4. Among those four losses: a 23-21 tumble to Richmond that all but wrote off a bowl quest on the first day of the season.

Duke rebounded from the Richmond loss, however, and produced almost half a season of average play:

First Five Games: Opponents 29.9 Adj. Points per game, Duke 28.5 (-1.4)
Last Seven Games: Opponents 31.2 Adj. Points per game, Duke 25.6 (-5.6)

Injuries and ineffective personnel led to a lot of shuffling as the season progressed. Two quarterbacks threw at least 50 passes (and attempted at least 40 rushes), two running backs got at least 70 carries (for a run-light team), nine offensive linemen ended up with starting experience, three of four contributing linebackers and more than half the two-deep in the secondary missed time, and a potential star in defensive end Kenny Anunike played only four games. That's a lot for a thin team to deal with, and Duke didn't handle it well.

Still, the Blue Devils put up a fight; they lost by one to Wake Forest (24-23), by four to Virginia Tech (14-10) and by seven to Georgia Tech (38-31), all at home. But in the end, they DID lose all of those games and limped home with another 3-9 record.


You can tell what fifth-year offensive coordinator Kurt Roper wants to do with the ball. You can also tell that he doesn't necessarily have the horses to pull it off. For the third straight year in 2011, Duke pulled off a perfectly mediocre Off. F/+ ranking -- 59th in 2009, 64th in 2010, 61st in 2011 -- and it forced opponents to defend sideline pass after sideline pass, going all in on efficiency and a three-man game: quarterback Sean Renfree and receivers Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner. Renfree was 40-52 in an early win over Boston College, and Vernon and Varner combined for 18 catches on 23 targets for 194 yards. The Blue Devils picked Florida International apart in the same way, averaging 10.7 yards per play over their first 20 plays before FIU adjusted.

Varner is gone, but Vernon (956 receiving yards, 9.3 per target, 68 percent catch rate) and Renfree return for their respective senior seasons. They are as proven a combo as any in the ACC. The problem, of course, is everything else.

Because of the snap-turn-throw aspect of the passing game, Renfree was sacked a minuscule 3.6 percent of the time (his backup, Anthony Boone, was not sacked in 53 pass attempts); that led to an Adj. Sack Rate ranking of 15th. Unfortunately, the Blue Devils ranked 104th in Adj. Line Yards.

Even while spreading the field as horizontally as possible, the line couldn't open holes, and running backs Juwan Thompson and former four-star signee Desmond Scott were only average at taking advantage of what they had. The two had their moments (21 carries for 111 yards in a tight loss to Wake Forest, 13 for 97 in a tight loss to Virginia Tech), but Duke ranked just 85th in Rushing S&P+, clearly a hindrance on the progress of the offense.

Both Thompson and Scott return in 2012, and Duke will welcome a pair of interesting freshmen to the mix: four-star freshman Shaquille Powell and three-star Jela Duncan. Seven linemen with starting experience return (90 career starts), including two-year starters Brian Moore (center) and Perry Simmons (tackle), so in theory, the run game will improve. But by how much?

And for that matter, who replaces Varner in the pitch-and-catch game? Projected starting receiver Brandon Braxton moved to safety, projected starting tight end Braxton Deaver just suffered his third reasonably serious injury in seven months and is almost certainly out for the season, last year's starting tight end Cooper Helfet graduated, and of course, sophomore receiver Blair Holliday is in critical condition following a jet ski accident on July 4 (His condition is improving, and that's what's important; his impact on the depth chart is not). That leaves sophomore Jamison Crowder (163 yards, 7.4 per target, 64 percent catch rate), junior Corey Gattis (one catch) ... and newcomers.

Give Kurt Roper one more horse, and he might put together a really impressive offense. But unless a freshman like Powell is that horse, he will probably remain one short.


Third-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is still looking for traction on the defensive side of the ball. In Cutcliffe's first year in Durham, Duke ranked 42nd in Def. F/+. But in Knowles' first two seasons, the Blue Devils have ranked 78th (in 2010) and 105th (2011). Last year, a unit with almost no seniors played like it, ranking 104th on standard downs and 93rd in passing downs. Duke fielded a conservative, relatively efficient pass defense, but with no pass defense and no push against the run, that didn't really matter.

The secondary was, almost by default, the strength of the 4-2-5 defense. Underrated junior corner Ross Cockrell (one interception, nine passes broken up) returns, as do three safeties (Walt Canty, Jordon Byas, August Campbell) who combined for 9.5 tackles for loss, two picks and five passes broken up.

But the best player on the defense, safety Matt Daniels (four tackles for loss, two interceptions, 14 passes broken up) is gone, which could be costly. However, converted receiver Brandon Braxton looked promising this spring -- a temporary move for depth reasons turned into a permanent move when he played so well.

Meanwhile, if everybody returns from injury, it's possible that a suddenly experienced front seven could improve. A terribly light defensive line put on quite a bit of collective weight this year, and everybody but tackles Charlie Hatcher and Curtis Hazelton return. But ends Kenny Anunike and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo (combined: six tackles for loss, five sacks, two forced fumbles) missed spring ball and were uncertain for the fall. These two, junior Justin Foxx (4.5 tackles for loss), plus sophomores Dezmond Johnson and Jamal Wallace could make for a perfectly deep set of ends. At tackle, you've got junior Sydney Sarmiento … and somebody. Not sure. Sophomores Nick Sink and Steven Ingram, maybe?

The line may be a question mark, but the linebackers look pretty good. Last year's entire two-deep returns, including starters Kelby Brown and Austin Gamble (combined: 12.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, four passes broken up), and three-star freshmen Keilin Rayner and Deion Williams should add depth.

For this defense, it's all about the line. The back seven are competent enough, but if they are asked to perform at an above-and-beyond level, as they were last year, they probably won't.

Defining Success

It's been almost 18 years since Duke went to a bowl game, and after teasing with increasingly competent play in previous years, it's hard to imagine that 2012 will be considered a success unless the Blue Devils make a serious run at bowl eligibility. Home games versus Florida International, North Carolina Central and Memphis could get the Blue Devils halfway there (then again, they might be underdogs against FIU), but the other half might be dicey. The other home games are against Virginia, North Carolina, Clemson, Wake Forest and Miami, and the only seemingly winnable road game is against Wake -- whom they have lost to in 12 straight contests.


It's hard to be the head coach of the Duke Blue Devils. As I said last year, David Cutcliffe was quite brave to take the job in the first place, and he has performed capably and admirably. But "capable" isn't quite enough. You need to be great.

Duke has a stellar pitch-and-catch combination, a decent secondary, two former four-star recruits at running back and hope for improvement on both lines. The Blue Devils also have no margin for error whatsoever. If they stay competitive at home, pull a pretty big upset along the way and win every close game they have, they could finally sneak away with a six-win season. But while it's easy to root for Cutcliffe and the perpetual underdog football team to succeed, it's pretty hard to predict it.

For more on the Blue Devils, visit Duke Baskeball Report.

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