Duke University is not exactly synonymous with being a football powerhouse. The Duke football program hasn’t had a winning season since 1994 but that could change this season as head coach David Cutcliffe aims to turn around a program that was among the worst in the NCAA over the last decade.
Cutcliffe is entering his sixth season with the Blue Devils and each year Duke has gotten progressively more respectable. Last season, despite a 6-7 record, Duke appeared in the Belk Bowl, losing 48-34 to Cincinnati. It was a disappointing end to an otherwise very nice season, at least by Duke standards. This season, however, could end with Duke not only having a winning record but appearing in their second straight bowl game which has never happened in the history of Duke football.
Duke’s strongest unit is their secondary led by senior All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell. Last season Cockrell had 13 passes defensed, 71 tackles and five interceptions. Cutcliffe has called Cockrell the best corner he has ever coached. Senior defensive end Kenny Anunike returns after he injured his knee in Week 4. Anunike was leading the ACC in sacks with 5 before injuring his knee and his return should give Duke a true pass rusher.
Duke’s defense should be much improved but, as with most football teams, Duke will go only as far as their quarterback can take them. Last year, Sean Renfree threw for 3,113 yards with 19 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Renfree is now trying to make the Atlanta Falcons as a backup to Matt Ryan. In Renfree’s place steps junior Anthony Boone. Boone got some playing time last season and was somewhat effective, tossing for 531 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. However, he completed only 51.6 percent of his passes, an area he will need to drastically improve in. Renfree, by comparison, completed 67.3 percent of his passes.
Boone will have help as Duke figures to feature their strongest rushing attack the school has featured in the last decade with sophomore Jela Duncan, senior Juwan Thompson and junior Josh Snead. Duncan, as a true freshman, rushed for 553 on 109 carries, a 5.1 average, and 4 TDs. He could become the first 1,000-yard rusher for Duke since Chris Douglas in 2003.
Duke’s receiving corps took a major hit with two of their top three receivers from last season graduating. Connor Vernon (1,074 yards, 8 TDs, 85 receptions) and Desmond Scott (66 for 666 and 2 TDs) will be replaced by junior Jamison Crowder (74, 1,074, 8) and junior Issac Blakeney (32, 290, 1). Jamison isn’t the fastest guy on the field but he is a threat to run with the ball after the catch and did have a 99-yard touchdown reception last year against Miami in the last game of the year. Jamison will be a reliable target for Boone as he adjusts to the starting quarterback job and he should see plenty of targets in a passing game that is trying to reinvent itself on the fly.
Will Duke suddenly find themselves in the Top 25? Well, no, that won’t happen this year or for a few years, if at all. However, this could be one of the most exciting seasons for Duke since Sonny Jurgensen was under center. Optimism is not something that is associated with football in Durham but this year could be much different than previous years and Blue Devil fans could have plenty to cheer about.