By Scott Haynes, College Football Senior Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: In the past 40+ years, the Blue Devils have posted seven or more wins just three times, so it was to no surprise that the team managed just five wins in 2009.
In his second season at the helm, David Cutcliffe did see glimpses of improved
play. Duke dropped the opener to FCS foe Richmond (24-16), but won five of its
next seven games to improve to 5-3 overall. That is where the win total
stopped though, as the Blue Devils lost their last four games to close out the
year. Still, a 3-5 finish in the ACC represented the team's best record since
1999 and the five total wins were the most for Duke since 1994.
OFFENSE: Duke averaged a solid 25.2 ppg a year ago, but the offense was one-
dimensional, averaging over 300 yards passing per game, compared to just 63.5
yards rushing. While the 2010 squad returns nine players on this side of the
football, the bad news is that veteran QB Thaddeus Lewis isn't one of them.
Lewis threw for over 3,300 yards as a senior and became just the second player
in ACC history to eclipse 10,000 yards passing in a career. Sophomore Sean
Renfree is the logical choice to replace Lewis and served well as his backup
in 2009. Although he is ready to go, he is coming off a late season ACL injury
last year and it remains to be seen if he is 100-percent.
Cutcliffe certainly believes in his new QB.
"Any time you replace a Thad Lewis, it is very difficult. But Sean has done a
great job of earning confidence. Our guys really love him. They know how hard
he works and how talented he is. And quite frankly I think they believe very
strongly in him."
The good news is that the team's top six pass catchers return to the
mix, three of which hauled in 50+ passes last season. Junior Donovan Varner is
coming off a huge sophomore season in which he pulled down 65 balls, for 1,047
yards and eight TDs. Sophomore Conner Vernon (55 catches, 746 yards, three
TDs) and senior Austin Kelly (54 catches, 625 yards, four TDs) round out a
potent trio. The offensive line returns four of its five starters and will be
tasked with protecting the new signal-caller, as well as opening up running
lanes for sophomore tailback Desmond Scott and company.
Cutcliffe knows that balance from the offense is a must.
"I think we'll run the ball better this year. We're going to throw it.
Everyone knows that. But we are going to run it better."
DEFENSE: The Duke offense should once again be solid, but the defense is the
real question mark heading into the 2010 campaign. While six starters are
back, the five that depart were seasoned veterans and the real heart-and-soul
of the unit, led by LB Vincent Rey, DE Ayanga Okpokowuruk and DT Vince
Oghobaase. Despite all the losses, Cutcliffe likes what he sees on the
defensive side of the ball.
"We've got a lot of challenges on defense. We've lost a lot of good football
players over the past two years. We're young, but I like our speed."
Junior safety Matt Daniels (83 stops) is the top returning tackler. Senior CB
Chris Rwabukamba (46 tackles, seven PBUs) adds another veteran presence in the
secondary. Junior NT Charlie Hatcher and senior DE Patrick Egboh will be
called upon to lead the way up front, while senior LBs Abraham Kromah and
Damian Thornton will be asked to do the same in the middle of the field.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game should be a strength for Duke this season, as
seniors Will Snyderwine and Kevin Jones reprise their roles as placekicker and
punter, respectively. Snyderwine was a Second-Team All-ACC selection last
year, converting 17-of-20 field goal attempts with a long of 51 yards. Jones
averaged just over 39 yards per punt and placed 14 of his 54 punts inside the
OUTLOOK: Although Cutcliffe is leading the Blue Devils in the right direction,
expecting an improvement in the win column is probably not realistic for this
year's squad. Duke's non-conference schedule features winnable games against
Elon and Army, but is tempered by a home date with defending national champion
Alabama and a road trip to Navy. ACC play has traditionally been where Duke
has struggled the most and this year will be no different. The team has to
travel to Wake Forest, Maryland, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech in 2010. If
that wasn't challenging enough, the teams coming to Wallace Wade Stadium
include Miami, Virginia, Boston College and North Carolina. Winning two
conference games this season is about all that should be expected in Durham,
once again placing Duke among the cellar dwellers in the Coastal Division
and ACC as a whole.