When David Cutcliffe arrived at Duke in 2008, he was already hailed as an offensive guru. In six years with the Blue Devils, Cutcliffe has cemented his reputation as an excellent offensive coach and more. Duke’s offense is efficient, creative and balanced. If the success of 2013 is to be repeated, the Blue Devils offense will need to continue to earn Cutcliffe high praise.
There’s a good case for lofty goals going into the 2014 season. To begin with, Duke returns eight starters on offense. That includes quarterback Anthony Boone, running back Josh Snead and wide receiver Jamison Crowder.
All three of those skill-position players are seniors. Boone had an excellent year despite missing time due to injury. Snead and Duke’s running game steadily improved throughout the year. Then, of course, there is Crowder, who is one of the best receivers in the country.
The Blue Devils also bring back three starters on the offensive line. Senior Laken Tomlinson proved to be one of the best guards in the ACC. Fellow senior Takoby Cofield will also be back at tackle, and junior center Matt Skura will ensure that there’s continuity in the center-to-quarterback exchange.
The big questions for Duke going into 2014 surround finding a receiving target other than Crowder and maintaining a reliable running attack that keeps the offense balanced.
When it comes to receiving options, obviously Crowder is the best of the bunch. The standout receiver had 1,360 yards through the air last season with eight touchdowns. Crowder also added one rushing touchdown and scored twice on punt returns.
Fortunately for Duke, Crowder has several cohorts at his position who boast tons of potential. He is also supported in the receiving game by the most underrated tight end in the ACC.
Tight end Braxton Deaver is a senior who will add some girth to the offensive line and some firepower to the receiving corps. As a starter last year, Deaver was second on the team in receptions behind only Crowder.
Deaver was much more than just a safety valve for quarterback Anthony Boone. He amassed 600 yards receiving and averaged 13 yards per catch. Deaver also proved himself to be valuable in the red zone, totaling four touchdowns in 2013.
The graduation of wide receiver Brandon Braxton means that one of last season’s less utilized receivers will need to step up. It’s imperative that Duke finds receivers who merit defensive attention and stretch the secondary sideline to sideline. That will keep opponents from keying solely on Crowder.
Max McCaffrey, Johnell Barnes and Issac Blakeney will fight for the starting spots alongside Crowder. McCafferey had more catches and more yardage than the other two and will likely serve as more of a possession receiver. Barnes didn’t play much as a freshman but has great potential. By the end of the season, he may emerge as the team’s second-best receiver.
Blakeney, meanwhile, was one of the Duke players who spent the offseason on the track team. That experience should increase his already-impressive speed and, with his 6’6” height, he could be a menacing threat on deep routes.
Fellow receivers Anthony Nash and Ryan Smith were also on the track team. Though they only had five catches and 72 yards between them, both Nash and Smith should be improved players. If not redshirted, Trevon Lee could be an additional asset who would increase depth at wide receiver. The freshman from Florida was ranked the 33rd-best receiver in his class by ESPN.
Unfortunately, the running game doesn’t boast the same kind of depth as the receiving corps.
Jela Duncan led the Blue Devils in rushing attempts last season, but he’s earned a year-long suspension. Luckily, Josh Snead is a worthy replacement. The senior had 89 more rushing yards than Duncan despite getting six fewer carries. Snead’s 6.1 yards per carry is indicative of his explosiveness. That quality might even improve given that he was also one of the football players who went over to the track team.
Shaquille Powell similarly showcased his ability to break big plays. The junior will need to be a good secondary punch to keep Duke’s running game churning and keep opposing defenses off balance.
While Duke has speed in abundance, the Blue Devils lack a power runner. Duncan played that role last season, but since he’s unavailable for 2014, Duke will need to find an alternative. Quarterback Brandon Connette was invaluable in short-yardage situations, but he has transferred to Fresno State.
Either Duke must find a third running back to do the dirty work between the tackles or use a backup quarterback, such as Thomas Sirk, to fill that void. Otherwise, it may be Anthony Boone risking injury by taking the ball up the middle in short-yardage or goal-line situations.
Ultimately, even without Kurt Roper, Duke’s offense should be extremely good. New offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery has plenty of weapons at his disposal.
Boone is a reliable quarterback who can run when pressured. Crowder is a top talent who makes big and crucial plays that tip games in favor of the Blue Devils. Duke also has plenty of potential breakout players at wide receiver to take advantage of the space Crowder opens up. Snead and Powell, meanwhile, will offer a one-two punch of speed running.
If Duke can fill the two vacancies on the offensive line and round out the running game with a power option, the Blue Devils should be able to score on just about anyone. Offensive potency will be critical to Duke’s success. All the pieces on that side of the ball are in place for the Blue Devils to make another run at the ACC Championship.