When Duke had to replace record-setting receiver Conner Vernon before the start of the 2013 season, the Blue Devils had hoped receiver Jamison Crowder would emerge from a supporting role to become a key playmaker.
Crowder responded with an ACC-best 108 catches for 1,360 yards and eight touchdowns. He threw in a rushing touchdown and a punt return for a touchdown for good measure as he led Duke to a school-record 10 wins and a Coastal Division title.
Duke would love to have another supporting player from last season step up the way Crowder did, and so would North Carolina and N.C. State.
The Blue Devils will again rely on Crowder, who has posted consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in coach David Cutcliffe’s pass-happy offense. With quarterback Anthony Boone missing three games with a shoulder injury, Duke averaged 35.8 fewer passing yards per game last season than it did in 2012.
Cutcliffe has said the Devils need to run the ball better, but with a healthy Boone and all of the defensive attention on Crowder, there’s room for senior receiver Issac Blakeney, who caught four touchdowns last season, to make a jump in Duke’s offense.
At UNC, the Tar Heels fought back behind quarterback Marquise Williams to get to a bowl game after a 1-5 start. Tight end Eric Ebron, who led the team with 62 catches for 973 yards, was the main cog in coach Larry Fedora’s spread offense last year, but he was the Detroit Lions’ first-round pick in the NFL draft.
The Heels are blessed with exceptional talent in the backfield, with both T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood at running back, plus Williams is a year older and more confident after such a strong finish – even if he has to share snaps with redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky.
The Heels know what they will get in junior receiver Quinshad Davis, who led the team with 10 touchdown catches, but who will help Davis?
Sophomore receiver Ryan Switzer is already familiar with the end zone. He returned five punts for a touchdown last season. Fedora is banking on that explosive big-play ability to transfer to the offense.
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren is turning the offense over to quarterback Jacoby Brissett, a transfer from Florida, but Brissett’s success is dependent on how much help there is around him. Junior running back Shadrach Thornton was one of the few bright spots to the Wolfpack’s 2013 season.
When the lights are the brightest and the stage is the biggest, Shadrach Thornton is sure to play his best for N.C. State.
Against national champion Florida State last season, the junior running back from Hinesville, Ga., ran for 173 yards and two touchdowns.
Last season against then-No. 3 Clemson, he had a 21-yard touchdown run on his only carry of the game.
As a freshman in 2012, he ran for 114 yards and a touchdown at then-No. 11 Clemson.
Of Thornton’s seven career touchdowns, five have come against teams ranked in the top 15.
“Shad has had a lot of moments here, individually throughout his career,” Doeren said. “Now, for him, it’s about being a consistent performer. That’s his goal, is to be the same guy every day and stay focused.”
Thornton has led the Wolfpack in rushing in each of his first two seasons. He had 694 yards as a freshman and 768 last season. But for all of his success against the ACC’s top teams, there’s an off game. He has also had his share of off-field trouble.
Thornton was suspended for the 2013 opener for an offseason arrest. He was suspended indefinitely after the 2013 season after a second misdemeanor drug charge.
The charges were subsequently dismissed from the Dec. 2013 case, and Thornton has no outstanding legal issues.
He participated in spring practice and the spring game and is now back at “full status,” Doeren said.
“He has met every expectation on and off the field, academically and everything,” Doeren said.
“We’re excited that is kind of behind him and he can move forward.”
Thornton, who is 6-foot-1, 206, still finds himself behind senior Tony Creecy on the depth chart, but Doeren said there has been a rotation between the two and sophomore Matt Dayes with the starting offense.
The Wolfpack will need Thornton’s speed and toughness to make a jump on offense after last year’s struggles during a 3-9 campaign. Thornton averaged 4.7 yards per carry last season; the rest of the team averaged 3.3.
Ryan Switzer was talking about goals, setting them and reaching them, when he casually mentioned the greatest individual honor in college football. The thought seemed to come naturally to him, as if he’d always had it in his mind, as if he’d convinced himself long ago that it could be done.
“I set some big goals for my freshman year, and I’ve set even bigger goals coming into my sophomore and junior season,” Switzer, the sophomore receiver and punt returner at North Carolina, said before the start of preseason practice. “I feel like if I can continue to do what I’ve been doing, I feel like I could possibly win a Heisman.”
It was lofty talk – maybe some might say crazy talk – for a player who took a while to find his place last season, and who finished his freshman year with a modest 32 receptions for 341 yards. And yet what Switzer did on special teams doesn’t make the Heisman Trophy talk seem so crazy, after all.
Is his goal of winning the Heisman any more unrealistic than the thought of returning five punts for touchdowns in five games? That’s how Switzer ended his freshman season, with punt returns for touchdowns in four of UNC’s final five games, and two returns for touchdowns in a 34-27 victory at Pittsburgh.
Switzer, who at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds is always among the smallest players on the field, tied the NCAA single-season record for punt returns for touchdowns, and breaking the record seems like an afterthought to him. That is, at least, assuming other teams give him the chance. Why would any team punt to Switzer, after what he did during the final month last season?
“Because people are stupid, man,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know. And all it takes is one to try me. We thought we had every best special teams unit in the country last year, so I know every team we play thinks they have the best punt team in the country, and that I won’t do it to them.”
Switzer has established himself as a return man. His goal entering this season is to do the same for an offense that lost Ebron, the tight end who was the Tar Heels’ most reliable playmaker last season.
Switzer, who played running back growing up and throughout high school, had to work to adjust playing receiver. That’s part of the reason, he said, why it took him a while to get going in the offense during his freshman season.
“I feel a lot more comfortable in the offense this year,” Switzer said. “I knew it well last year, but that’s it. I was just trying to not mess up. … I just feel like the coaches are going to try to get me the ball in space as many ways as possible, and let me do what I do best.”
Switzer is likely to start at the slot receiver position. Fedora has talked a lot this preseason about the different ways UNC will attempt to get Switzer involved. Short passes. Longer ones downfield. Handoffs.
“You’ll see him blossom this year in that position in the ways that we’re going to get those touches to him,” Fedora said.
Back in 2012, when Issac Blakeney was a redshirt sophomore, he raised eyebrows on special teams, catching kickoff returners from behind and saving a touchdown on more than one occasion. He has always had an abundance of athleticism – but he has always been short on results.
Both he and the Duke staff hope the narrative changes in his final year.
Blakeney, who stands 6-6, is competing to start opposite Crowder and establish himself as Duke’s No. 2 receiver. Outside receiver is Blakeney’s fourth position at Duke – he started as a safety (a spot he earned zero snaps at after his redshirt year), then moved to tight end (32 passes for 290 yards and one touchdown) and then, last year, to slot receiver (19 passes for 244 yards and four touchdowns). Now he is on the outside, where he can run longer and deeper routes, ideally using his speed to blow by defensive backs in 1-on-1 situations.
“He’s a mismatch guy,” Cutcliffe said of Blakeney. “And he’s 6-foot-6, so he creates a mismatch problem probably more outside than he does inside.”
Blakeney spent the offseason working on his speed as a member of Duke’s track team. As a result, he trimmed down about 10 pounds, to 225. Losing the extra bulk helped make him a bit faster, he said. Crowder echoed that thought, too.
Crowder has been watching Blakeney’s development for years, as the two both went to Monroe High. He said it’s time for his longtime friend to have that breakout season, to post numbers indicative of someone with that level of athleticism. For both Duke and Blakeney, there’s no time like the present.