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DeCock: Duke football has come so far, there’s room for a step back

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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    For much of the offseason, it felt like the Blue Devils were being overlooked given the talent returning from a 10-win team, at least until the injuries to Kelby Brown and Braxton Deaver. Nothing wrong with eight wins, though, and that’s well within Duke’s reach – if not more. The forecast: 8-4 and Christmas in El Paso.


DURHAM What a world we live in, where eight wins would be a mild disappointment at Duke. It took the Blue Devils five seasons to accumulate that many wins from 2003-07. That seems ages ago coming off a 10-win season and ACC Coastal Division title.

Given that it’s quite possible Duke will take its first step backward this season in a long, long time, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate what that really represents.

Considerable effort has been expended in recent years documenting the dramatic progress of Duke’s football program, and for good reason. The results have been astounding.

David Cutcliffe has obviously been the catalyst, but the push began before his arrival, and if Duke can do it, any school can turn around its football program with the right combination of money and people, the ultimate easier-said-than-done.

The momentum continues, with the indoor practice facility complete and long-overdue renovations at Wallace Wade Stadium finally under way – and finally needed to handle the influx of new fans. The days when Duke would play “home” games against Florida State in Orlando and Jacksonville to raise money are long, long gone.

It’s impossible to overstate the difficulty of the task and the degree of satisfaction that should be taken in accomplishing this much.

It culminated in a chance to play for the ACC title, an accomplishment unlikely to be repeated this season – not impossible, to be sure, but unlikely. While another 10-win season is certainly within reach for Duke, a more realistic expectation is probably seven or eight wins.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It would not represent regression for the program, only regression to the mean from a season that was, with very few exceptions, magical. And that is, again, a sign of progress: If the Blue Devils fall short this season, it would still be one of the most successful seasons in recent history.

To the extent Duke benefited from circumstances to get to the ACC Championship Game last season – four of Duke’s wins were by a touchdown or less – that pendulum often swings the other way, with a vengeance.

The Blue Devils will certainly win more than six games based on the connection between receiver Jamison Crowder and quarterback Anthony Boone alone. How many more? It’s hard to say, in part because of the uncertainty surrounding division opponents like Virginia Tech and Miami but also because of the uncertainty surrounding Duke’s own roster.

Which means the other challenge this season, as it always has been for Duke, is marshaling enough depth to make up for season-ending injuries to linebacker Kelby Brown and tight end Braxton Deaver, both key players, as well as the departure via transfer of the Brandon Connette Touchdown Machine.

Reasonable minds can differ over the difficulty of replacing Connette, who was impossibly fluid in the goal-line offense, but there’s no question his athleticism and knack for the big short-yardage play will be missed. No one quarrels over the difficulty of replacing Brown and Deaver.

It’ll take a team effort, and in his sixth season, this will be the litmus test to see if Cutcliffe has developed the kind of roster depth the Blue Devils didn’t have in 2009, his second season, when swine flu ravaged the team in training camp and a promising season was derailed immediately with an opening loss to Richmond. The bowl drought would live on until 2012.

It’s over now. The bowl streak stands at two. It’s almost certain to reach three, even if the path to get there might not be as impressive as it was last season.

And that’s OK. Duke has taken so many steps forward, there’s more than enough room to take a small step backward.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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