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Spring Football '14: How Duke Follows Up Last Season

Anthony Boone
It was one of the best scenes in college football this decade: after a victory over UNC, Duke's football players carried their head coach David Cutcliffe off the field, after clinching their first 10-win season in school history and the ACC Coastal Division, giving them a chance to play undefeated Florida State. The Blue Devils would end up getting mauled by Jameis Winston and the eventual champion 'Noles and would then suffer a heartbreaking loss to Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Success was great for a Duke football program that had slowly rising from the ashes under Cutcliffe; they made their first bowl appearance since the 1994 season and nearly took down Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. But, with success, there comes raised expectations and this Duke team now is expected to compete in the Coastal, especially with a number of key players back and a weakened ACC. How will Cutcliffe and the rest of these Blue Devils follow up their miraculous 2013?

They will have two key offensive contributors back for their quest to defend their Coastal title and get back to the ACC Championship game. Senior Anthony Boone had a strong first season as starter for the Blue Devils last year after taking over the job from Sean Renfree. Boone would throw for 2,260 yards and 13 touchdowns last year, while splitting time with the mobile Brandon Connette. This offseason, Connette transferred to Fresno State and should compete for the starting job there with Derek Carr out of the picture. This leaves the door open for Boone who has shown a lot of improvements so far this spring. Cutcliffe is great with his quarterbacks and always get the best out of them, so expect another strong year from Boone. Senior receiver Jamison Crowder flirted with the NFL, but is back to give Boone a top-flight option in the passing game. An All-ACC selection a year ago, Crowder hauled in 108 receptions with 8 scores on his way to 1,360 yards. Although not very big, just 5'9", Crowder has lethal speed and has proven to be an excellent route runner throughout his time in Durham. Even with those two returning in the passing game, expect Cutcliffe to keep this offense pretty balanced, considering he does have his leading rusher back in senior Josh Snead. Snead, a gritty runner, had 651 yards last season and averaged over 6 yards every carry. This offense took a hit when backup Jela Duncan was suspended for the bowl game and for the entirety of the 2014 season. Duncan recorded 562 yards and three scores last year for Duke, while splitting time with Snead. The offensive line will include a real talent at guard with senior Laken Tomlinson returning, an All-ACC selection as well in 2013.

The Blue Devils will not get a lot of credit for their defense, but it was solid throughout 2013 and has 6 starters returning. It has a bend not break mentality; it will give up it's fair share of yards but it will get crucial turnovers when it needs to or big stops. It is led by yet another senior, middle linebacker Kelby Brown. Brown is a beast with a nose for the ball and he loves to hit. He has great instincts and is a sure tackler. Senior David Helton returns on the outside to help take some of the leadership load off of Brown. Helton is only scratching the surface of what he can be as a linebacker; he has shown improved pass-rushing skills over his time with the Blue Devils. Even with cornerback Ross Cockrell gone the secondary could be one of the strongest units on this experienced team. Cockrell is a ball hawk who could fall in the mid-rounds of the NFL Draft, coming up in two weeks. Replacing him will not be easy as Cutcliffe will most likely lean heavily on sophomore Bryon Fields, who has potential but hasn't seen very many snaps. Junior safety Jeremy Cash is a monster at safety and could have a huge year and sophomore DeVon Edwards, who should see time at one of the other two safety spots (Duke will usually play three), has the potential to turn into quite the playmaker in the defensive backfield.

There shouldn't be any denying this is the most talented Duke football team that has ever played at the university. Crowder has a chance to be in the race for the Biletnikoff and the defense has experience throughout it. If Boone can continue to develop under Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils have quite a serious shot of defending their Coastal crown. A quick peek at their schedule suggests another double-digit win season as UNC ending their year could be their toughest test. These upperclassmen now have a taste for winning and they have a real shot at giving Duke their most memorable season yet.
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