February 16, 2011

Duke looks for defensive improvement

Duke did an adequate job of replacing four-year starting quarterback Thaddeus Lewis last season, but problems on the other side of the ball caused the Blue Devils to take a step backward.

The Blue Devils ranked at or near the bottom of the ACC in almost every defensive category and gave up at least 21 points in each of their games. Seven opponents cracked the 30-point mark, while four teams scored at least 44 points against the Blue Devils. No wonder Duke slipped from 5-7 in 2009 to 3-9 last season.

Duke will try to upgrade that defense without the services of co-coordinator Marion Hobby, who left to become Clemson's defensive ends coach. Duke coach David Cutcliffe made former co-coordinator Jim Knowles the sole defensive coordinator and hired former Miami assistant Rick Petri to fill Hobby's spot on the staff.

The Blue Devils have been able to throw the ball effectively since Cutcliffe took over the program in 2008. That won't change this year with returning starter Sean Renfree throwing to Donovan Varner and Conner Vernon. Cutcliffe also looks to have upgraded Duke's traditionally weak running attack and kicking game.

But the rest of the ACC also has improved. That's why the defense must get much, much better if the Blue Devils want to contend for the bowl bid that has eluded them since 1995.

Here's a look at where Duke stands heading into spring practice.

DUKE AT-A-GLANCE
QB Sean Renfree has the Duke offense pointed in the right direction.
THE BASICS
Coach: David Cutcliffe
Last season: 3-9 overall, 1-7 in the ACC.
Spring dates: Feb. 16-March 26.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (7): T Kyle Hill, G Brian Moore, QB Sean Renfree, RB Desmond Scott, T Perry Simmons, WR Donovan Varner, WR Conner Vernon.
Defense (6): LB Kelby Brown, S Lee Butler, CB Ross Cockrell, S Matt Daniels, NT Charlie Hatcher, T Sydney Sarmiento.
Special teams (2): P Alex King, K Will Snyderwine.
Positions of strength

Duke is stockpiled at receiver with the return of Donovan Varner and Connor Vernon. Vernon caught 73 passes for 973 yards and four touchdowns last season while ranking third in the ACC with 81.1 receiving yards per game. The only two ACC receivers ahead of him last year -- Miami's Leonard Hankerson and Maryland's Torrey Smith -- have departed. Varner had 60 receptions for 736 yards and one touchdown last year. Duke also has one of the nation's top returning kickers in Will Snyderwine, who went 21-of-24 on field-goal attempts last season, with a long of 52. One of his misses was from 54.

Help is needed

Duke ranked 108th in total defense (450.1), 109th in scoring defense (35.4), 113th in run defense (208.3) and 113th in sacks (1.0) last season. The Blue Devils will have a tough time getting much better in those categories because of their youth on the defensive line. Duke must break in two first-year starters at end, and one of the two returning starters on the front four -- T Sydney Sarmiento -- was a redshirt freshman last season. The offensive line has some issues, and Duke was last in the ACC and 104th nationally in rushing last season.

Three guys to watch

LB Issac Blakeney: This versatile athlete won two North Carolina state titles in the triple jump and led the Monroe (N.C.) High basketball team to a 32-1 record and a Class A state championship appearance as a senior. Listed at 6 feet 6 and 215 pounds last fall, Blakeney redshirted and attempted to add strength. He could crack the two-deep this fall and has the potential to challenge for a starting role late in the season.

WR Brandon Braxton: He's the son of David Braxton, a former second-round draft pick who played six seasons in the NFL. Braxton caught 14 passes for 180 yards and one touchdown as a true freshman last year. Braxton won't beat out Varner or Vernon for starting jobs this season, but he still could get plenty of opportunities in Duke's pass-oriented offense.

RB Josh Snead: As a true freshman, Snead rushed for 221 yards and one touchdown on 45 attempts, though he had just one carry in Duke's final five games. He ran for 83 yards on 14 carries in an early season loss to Alabama. Desmond Scott has asserted himself as Duke's main running back, but Snead should have at least a complementary role in Duke's backfield this season. He also is versatile enough to line up as a slot receiver.

The pressure is on

CB Johnny Williams: After making a combined 15 starts at wide receiver in 2008 and '09, Williams moved to the secondary last season and spent most of the year in a backup role as he adjusted to his new position. Now that he's had a year to adapt to defense, perhaps Williams can make more of an impact in his final college season. Duke has some experience in the secondary with CB Ross Cockrell and Ss Lee Butler and Matt Daniels returning. An improved Williams could help Duke's secondary take some pressure off that young front seven.

The buzz

There aren't any particularly notable storylines heading into spring practice. Yes, Duke had to make changes on the defensive staff. But that's nothing new around here. Last year, Hobby and Knowles were replacing former defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre, who left to become San Jose State's coach. Now the Blue Devils have to make do without Hobby. The uncertainty that surrounded the quarterback position in the post-Lewis era last season has disappeared now that Renfree has gained a full year of experience. Plenty of underclassmen took over big roles on this team late last season. This spring should give those underclassmen a chance to gain more experience as they attempt to take a giant step forward this fall. If they all meet that goal, perhaps the entire program will take a step forward as well.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.


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