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Rant Sports 100 in 100 College Football Previews: No. 81 Duke Blue Devils

FAIL!

Today, we’re 75+ days away from the kickoff of the 2012 college football season. As such, we’ll preview the No. 81 team in our Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football previews, the Duke Blue Devils.

After a frustrating 3-9 finish in 2011– which included a 1-7 mark in ACC play- coach David Cutcliffe‘s Blue Devils look to have the right personnel to turn a corner in 2012 and work their way back toward bowl eligibility.

Returning 15 total starters (7 offensive, 8 defensive), Duke will do its all to shed a reputation as being an afterthought among ACC gridiron programs.

Impact Players

Offense

Sean Renfree is the “starting” quarterback for Duke this fall, but that doesn’t mean he will be the only signal caller to take snaps in Kurt Roper‘s scheme.

Sophomore Brandon Connette may take some direct snaps behind center, and at times also line up at tight end as a potential receiving threat. The third-string quarterback– at least according to the spring depth chart– Anthony Boone may line up as a slot receiver in certain formations.

Duke will still depend heavily on the passing game this fall, and senior wideout Connor Vernon again promises to be the primary option for the Blue Devil quarterbacks. Vernon tallied 70 catches for 956 yards and six touchdowns in 2011, earning second-team All-ACC honors in the process.

Jamison Crowder and Blair Holliday, both sophomores, are also expected to step up and produce at a higher level in 2012 than the minimal production they created last season.

Duke returns four players on the offensive line, including Freshman All-American Laken Tomlinson, who should play a huge part in the unit’s overall success.

Senior running back Desmond Scott should see the majority of carries– when Duke chooses to run– and will be looking to improve upon a 383 yard season in 2012.

Defense

Duke runs a somewhat of an exotic, and little-used 4-2-5 base defensive set which requires good athletes to play at their peak at several different positions. This set was new to the players last season, and the Blue Devils’ defense struggled mightily, finishing 11th in the ACC as a unit.

Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles will need veteran members of the secondary to play with consistency this season, especially returning cornerbacks Ross Cockrell and Lee Butler, who will be tested early and often.

Linebacker could be a huge question mark for the Blue Devils, especially given the possible loss of Kelby Brown who suffered his second ACL tear of his career in February, and even upon a return, may not be 100%. Isacc Blakeney, who is listed on the roster as a tight end, could step in as a linebacker, or even a rush end in the 4-2-5, and could help make up for lost production if Brown isn’t full strength.

Three of the four defensive linemen return from a 2011 unit that struggled to produce in 2011 but should be much better by experience alone this fall.

Schedule

The opening two weeks of the 2012 season for the Blue Devils will be a challenge. Home games against Florida International– who could be one of the surprise mid-majors in the country this fall– and a road test at Stanford will likely be two losses.

David Cutcliffe’s squad will need to bounce back in Weeks 3 and 4 with a home game against the lowly Memphis Tigers and the ACC road opener against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.

A 2-2 split in the early going could be just the momentum the Blue Devils need to work their way back to respectability. A bowl bid may not be in the cards this season, but with a few breaks, you never know.

Kris Hughes is the College Football Network Manager for Rant Sports and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.

You can follow him on Twitter or check out his Facebook page.

Kris is also the host of Rant Sports Radio on the Blog Talk Radio Network Wednesday evenings at 8 Central Time.