DURHAM – Duke took a big step forward last year and the Blue Devils want to keep moving in that direction.
Coach David Cutcliffe’s team opens the season today against championship division opponent N.C. Central looking to build on its first six-win season since 1994.
New quarterback Anthony Boone said the Blue Devils are playing at a higher level than they did before last season, when they contended for an ACC Coastal Division title and reached the Belk Bowl.
“I saw how we practiced last year, and right now, we’re at a higher level than we were last year, and I think we’ve really bought into what we want,” Boone said. “We have a lot of guys from that team last year that won six games, so they kind of know what it takes to go out, compete and win games, and that’s just going to take us to a higher level.”
Not often has Duke been able to boast of having experience at winning games. While some key playmakers are gone from last year’s group – including three-year starting QB Sean Renfree and ACC record-holding receiver Conner Vernon – these Blue Devils return enough starters to make a return to the postseason a realistic possibility.
But nothing could undercut that momentum quite like another loss to an FCS team – especially one from across town that has only in its third year of full membership in Division I.
Duke has three FCS losses since 2006 – all to Richmond – but has won the two previous meetings with the Eagles by a combined score of 103-31.
“We have to get our guys going the way we want them to play, at a high level, and be concerned with what we do in terms of eliminating mistakes and playing fast and focusing on what we can control throughout the game,” interim Central coach Dwayne Foster said.
Here are five things to watch heading into the N.C. Central-Duke matchup that has been billed as the Bull City Gridiron Classic:
1 DUKE’S NEW OFFENSE: In keeping with a national trend, the Blue Devils are incorporating elements of the zone-read option into their offense in an attempt to take advantage of Boone’s playmaking mobility and a deep backfield – a luxury Duke hasn’t had in a long while. Of course, Boone also will throw it plenty – in the only other previous start, he threw four touchdown passes last year in a 42-17 romp over Virginia.
2 CENTRAL’S COACHING SITUATION: The Eagles made a rare preseason coaching change last week when Henry Frazier III was suspended and later fired following his arrest on a charge of violating a domestic violence protective order. Foster, an associate head coach who was promoted to acting head coach following the suspension, has the job on an interim basis and said he doesn’t think it will have any effect on the players because the rest of the staff remains intact and “they’ve bought into the motto of staying focused on the task at hand.”
3 PUT THE ‘D’ IN DUKE: The Blue Devils put an emphasis on their defense after injuries throughout that unit led to breakdowns that cost them a chance to win the division. It would be a bad sign for Duke – which allowed at least 41 points in five of its last six games last season – and a blow to its confidence to let the Eagles put up huge yardage and point totals.
4 KEY TRANSFERS: Several of the important players on both sides came from other places. Duke safety Jeremy Cash transferred from Ohio State. N.C. Central has a few players who started elsewhere, including quarterback Jordan Reid and left tackle Charles Goodwin (Winston-Salem State), receiver Lamar Scruggs (South Carolina) and defensive end Daniel Rhodes (Illinois).
5 HEALED: A pair of key Duke players who missed out on the bowl run last year are back. Redshirt junior Kelby Brown, who averages nearly seven tackles per game for his career, returns to start at middle linebacker after a torn knee ligament kept him sidelined last season. Redshirt junior tight end Braxton Deaver, who averaged nearly 14 years per reception in 2011, also missed last year with a knee injury. He could become a reliable threat in the passing game for Boone if healthy.