Their 6-7 overall record from last year might not be considered great for some schools, but Duke hadn’t been to a bowl game in 18 years. Their appearance in the Belk Bowl didn’t go well (they lost to Cincinnati 48-34), but it was a big step for a program that’s been the doormat of the ACC for years.
Cutcliffe has dramatically improved the culture of the Blue Devils, but faces his biggest challenge yet, having to replace three year starting quarterback Sean Renfree.
The Blue Devils will be transitioning from a pass-happy offense under Renfree, to a zone-read based scheme, likely to be run by junior quarterback Anthony Boone. He’s had some experience playing, throwing for 531 yards and five touchdowns in limited duty last year. He will have the luxury of playing behind a veteran offensive line that is well-versed in pass protection schemes. It remains to be seen how well they will do with a new look rushing attack.
In the pass game, Boone will have an All-ACC caliber wide receiver returning in Jamison Crowder. The speedy junior racked up 76 catches for 1,074 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012. He burst onto the scene last year, but will be a known commodity heading into ACC play in 2013. Isaac Blakeney will likely play alongside Crowder, hoping to improve upon a respectable 32 catch season last year.
Duke returns their three best running backs from last year, all of whom will be asked to carry more of the load this year. Jela Duncan, Josh Snead and Juwan Thompson shared the carries last year, and could do the same once again. Thompson will likely be the starter, but maybe in name only. Duncan led the team with 551 yards rushing and four scores last season and added another 19 catches in the pass game. He is perhaps the best big play threat in the backfield, and that could lead to increased responsibilities in 2013.
Duke’s 4-2-5 defense struggled mightily in 2012. They didn’t crack the top 100 against the pass or the rush, and it might not get much better this year. Their strength will undoubtedly be their front four where they return all four starters, but their secondary looks to be much weaker.
Defensive end Kenny Anunike and his five sacks are back, and his pass rushing abilities should help an inexperienced secondary. His counterpart on the other side, Justin Foxx, added 4.5 sacks as well.
The Blue Devils have solid depth at linebacker, and will look to Kyler Brown, Kelby Brown and C.J. France to improve their 101st ranking against the run last year. Those three will battle it out for the two linebacker spots.
Ross Cockrell is the lone returning bright spot in a secondary that is the biggest question mark facing this team. Last year, Cockrell had 63 tackles and five interceptions, but likely won’t face as many targets this year as there are other weaknesses offenses will try to exploit.
Duke will get a chance to get off to a nice start as they open up with North Carolina Central. However, there are no other guaranteed wins in their out-of-conference schedule in 2012. They play at Memphis and host Troy and Navy, and while they could go 4-0 in these games, they could also go 1-3.
They do open their ACC slate with two winnable home games against Georgia Tech and ACC newcomer Pittsburgh, but it gets much tougher after that. They face consecutive road trips to Virginia to play Virginia and Virginia Tech, before returning home for North Carolina State and Miami.
Thanks to the many question marks they face, it’s hard to predict exactly what type of year the Blue Devils will have in 2013. A new look offense will be led be a new starting quarterback, and that always gives coaches an uneasy feeling. However, with Cutcliffe’s track record of producing excellent quarterbacks and efficient offenses, scoring won’t be their concern.
The biggest concerns remain on defense, just like they did in 2012. If it can get better, it’s possible Duke improves and returns to consecutive bowl games. If not, it could be a long season in Durham.