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Four questions as Duke football begins preseason camp

Duke, Florida State, FSU, Blue Devils, ACC Championship Game, Ba
Ethan Hyman - ehyman@newsobserver.com
Quarterback Anthony Boone will start for Duke, but who will be the Blue Devils’ backup?

Even after an ACC Coastal Division championship, Duke remains a work in progress.

After all, coach David Cutcliffe said not long ago, what’s the alternative? To be a work in non-progress?

“There have got to be more tangible things that occur on a day-to-day basis,” Cutcliffe said. “There are things in practice that we have to get better at.”

Duke will start working Monday, with the beginning of camp. One area for improvement Cutcliffe cited is the need for the Blue Devils to become more physical. That’s not the easiest skill to practice today. But Cutcliffe isn’t hunting more contact in practices – he’s looking for more quality contact.

It’s true, Duke is more in the fine-tuning phase of this rebuild than the complete knockdown overhaul that began when Cutcliffe arrived in December 2007. And the Blue Devils insist they’re still on the rise. There’s still an ACC championship to win (don’t try telling them everyone is playing for second behind Florida State).

Duke returns 15 starters from last season – eight on offense and seven on defense – so the personnel will look largely the same. Still, there are a few question marks entering camp.

1. How does the defensive line replace three starters?

This is the only unit on the team with significant turnover. Redshirt senior Jamal Bruce is back at defensive tackle and still recovering from right foot surgery during January. There will be three new starters, all players who served as backups on a unit that was fine – not great – last year. Redshirt seniors Dezmond Johnson and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo are the favorites to start on the ends, and junior Carlos Wray is a strong bet to take over at the other tackle position. Kyler Brown, a former linebacker, is listed as a second-string defensive end, along with senior Jonathan Jones.

“I think it’s been a question mark on our teams every year,” Cutcliffe said of the defensive line. “ I would love to see them earn some swag.”

Ideally, there will be an eight-10-man rotation at the position – that’s the only way to keep guys fresh against the popular up-tempo, spread-option offenses. And the Blue Devils believe they have the numbers to do that.

“We have a lot of experience coming back at end, and a lot of athleticism,” linebacker Kelby Brown said. “I’m not worried about those spots.” 

2. Who will serve as the backup quarterback behind Anthony Boone?

Other than Boone, no quarterback on the roster has taken a single snap during a college game. Redshirt sophomore Thomas Sirk saw his season wiped out by a ruptured Achilles tendon, and Parker Boehme redshirted. Both are ready to play, but in what capacity?

Cutcliffe has said he wants to continue to use the short-yardage quarterback, red-zone change-of-pace role previously held by Brandon Connette, who now is at Fresno State. Sirk seems to be the leading candidate to take over there.

“That’s one of the things I’m most anxious about in August, is to see how those guys respond to situation football,” Cutcliffe said of his backup quarterbacks. “We’re going to put them in a lot.”

3. Jeremy Cash is the most talented player on defense – is he a leader, too?

One of the more surprising revelations has been the emergence of redshirt junior safety Jeremy Cash as a team leader. Immediately upon transferring from Ohio State after the 2011 season, it was clear he had plenty of abilities. It wasn’t immediately clear if he had interest in becoming a leader. But, apparently, that does interest him, and that’s good news for Duke. Other players naturally will look up to him because of his skill.

“Cash is one of the hardest ballers that I’ve ever played with. It’s exciting, man,” Brown said. “I learn from being out there with him, just seeing the hunger that he has to make plays.”

4. Will the running game continue to improve?

This is a huge point of emphasis for Cutcliffe, running the ball better than Duke did last year. The Blue Devils did well, averaging 178 yards per game, good for fifth best in the ACC. But Cutcliffe wants more.

The offensive line, with its three returning starters (left tackle Takoby Cofield, center Matt Skura and right guard Laken Tomlinson), has the ability to run-block effectively. The main backs, junior Shaquille Powell and redshirt senior Josh Snead, had strong seasons last year.

Twitter: @laurakeeley
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