Five Unheralded Players That Will Be Crucial to the Blue Devils' Success
The Duke Blue Devils return many players from last season’s spectacular run. Quarterback Anthony Boone, running back Josh Snead and wide receiver Jamison Crowder are all back as seniors to try and make a third straight bowl appearance.
While those three players in particular are familiar names, some less obvious players will need to step up if the Blue Devils are going to repeat the success of the previous two seasons.
The five players that follow, though lesser known to football fans, will all be integral to Duke’s fortunes this season. They’ll be responsible for doing the unheralded dirty work, expanding Duke’s offensive threat or mitigating the problems facing a potentially weak defensive.
Thomas Sirk, QB
There’s no question that senior Anthony Boone will be the Blue Devils’ starting quarterback. However, head coach David Cutcliffe has historically implemented a two-quarterback system. Last season, Brandon Connette spelled Boone in short yardage and goal-line situations.
Connette was a power rusher from the quarterback spot and gave Duke a backfield rushing option to complement Boone’s abilities as a pocket passer. The versatility to tilt the offense towards a pass- or rush-oriented attack by simply changing who was under center made Duke a dynamic offense.
Depending on the defensive setup or down and distance, the Blue Devils could use whichever quarterback had the best chance to make a positive impact.
This offseason, Connette transferred away from Duke to Fresno State. The Blue Devils will also be without running back Jela Duncan due to his suspension. The absence of those two players leaves Duke with no power rushing attack.
In order to continue the two-quarterback system and retain some semblances of a power running game, Thomas Sirk will need to prove he’s ready to take snaps from under center.
Sirk is taller than Connette but doesn’t appear to carry as much bulk. Nevertheless, the redshirt sophomore, who sat out last year with an Achilles tear, is set to fill the shoes of Connette in goal-line and Wildcat formations.
Even if Sirk takes fewer snaps than Connette did last season, he’ll be counted on to provide some between the tackles running and goal-line toughness.
Shaquille Powell, RB
Like Sirk, Shaquille Powell will be invaluable despite not being a starter. Also like Sirk, Powell will be central to whether or not Duke can maintain the kind of running game that presents defenses with a balanced attack.
More than anything, Powell has impressed with his ability to break big plays. He averaged 5.5 yards-per-carry last season and totaled 344 rushing yards. He also had eight receptions for an impressive 90 yards.
But in 2014, Powell will need to show that he can be a workhorse as well as a playmaker.
Duke doesn’t have much in the way of tough runners who can burrow through the offensive line for hard fought yardage between the tackles. Starting running back Josh Snead is a prototypical speed back. At 5’9” and 190 pounds, Snead is much more comfortable running off tackle and getting outside the line.
Powell isn’t much bigger at 5’10” and 205 pounds, but his frame is more amenable to doing the dirty work in short yardage situations.
There is no question that both of Duke’s running backs can provide a lightning attack on the ground, but someone simply has to be willing to run dives up the middle to keep defenders from attacking around the outside.
Cutcliffe has shown a determination to maintain a balanced offensive attack. Establishing a healthy running game that will keep defenses guessing will require more than just the speed of Snead. Powell can capably spell Snead, but he must also show the grit required to grind out yards on inside runs.
Breon Borders, CB
Duke graduated both starting corners from last season. Ross Cockrell will be especially missed. The rookie with the Buffalo Bills provided the Blue Devils with a true shutdown corner. He was a defensive stalwart on a unit that had the bad habit of giving up big plays and unseemly point totals.
Sophomore Breon Borders looks set to replace the loss of Cockrell. His fellow corner Bryon Fields, also a sophomore, will be similarly important, but it’s Borders who looks to have the skill set of a defensive playmaker.
As a freshman, Borders had four interceptions. He also took the second most snaps of any Blue Devils cornerback and was second on the team in pass deflections.
Forcing turnovers was a key for Duke’s defense last season, and Borders’ aggressive play fits that kind of mindset.
Duke had 26 takeaways last season, and 18 of those were interceptions. This year Duke’s defense will once again struggle to get stops on third down.
As opposing teams march down the field, it will be incumbent upon the secondary to force turnovers that give the ball back to Duke’s potent offense. Borders has the ability and aggressiveness to make the kind of plays that end drives. He’ll need to do so if the Blue Devils are to avoid playing in shootouts all season.
Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo, DE
The Blue Devils return a great deal of talent from the 2013 team, but the defensive line was hit hard by graduation. Jamal Bruce is the only returning starter from a defensive line that wasn’t all that great last year and therefore may be even weaker in 2014.
Thanks to two supreme talents at linebacker, seniors Kelby Brown and David Helton, the defensive line will have some help in stopping the run. When it comes to generating a pass rush, however, the Blue Devils may struggle mightily.
Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo only played in nine games last season due to an ankle injury. In his career, the redshirt senior has made only nine starts, and none of them came in 2013.
Despite the lack of statistical prowess, Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo is Duke’s best playmaker on the defensive line.
The aforementioned ankle injury is hopefully the cause of a less than spectacular 2013 campaign when he accumulated just nine tackles and two sacks. In the two season prior to that, Dewalt-Ondijo totaled 36 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
As a redshirt freshman and sophomore, Dewalt-Ondijo showed enough potential to earn nine starts and was on the field for well over 300 snaps each season. Presumably his ankle is fully recovered, and Dewalt-Ondijo can return to the active player who earned so much playing time in 2011 and 2012.
For Duke to have any kind of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Dewalt-Ondijo will need to be coming strong off the edge and making his way into the backfield.
The potential for Dewalt-Ondijo to be a formidable defensive lineman is there. Injuries have slowed his progress, but if he can finally realize the promise that had the coaching staff in 2011 and 2012 so excited, then Dewalt Ondijo can help remedy the Blue Devils’ biggest weakness.
Braxton Deaver, TE
To fans of Duke football, Braxton Deaver is anything but unheralded. However, he isn’t nearly as recognized as he deserves to be throughout the ACC.
Perhaps the most underrated tight end in the conference, Deaver was Duke’s second leading receiver behind only Jamison Crowder. Last year, Deaver had 600 yards receiving and 4 touchdowns. This season the senior will continue to be an important part of the Duke passing attack.
The Blue Devils typically don’t have the most stout of offensive lines. While that issue has improved under Cutcliffe, Boone likely won’t have an eternity in the pocket on every pass play. Deaver routinely provides a quick option for Boone to release the ball before taking a hit.
Deaver is also a skilled route runner. He repeatedly finds space in the middle of the field. On medium and long routes, his ability to get open will relieve some of the pressure on Crowder.
Duke has a lot of talented young wide receivers who could potentially pose enough of a threat to keep defending secondaries from keying entirely on Crowder. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, all those wide receiver prospects are as of yet unproven.
Deaver, meanwhile, has a track record. If he gets open underneath the coverage, then that should allow Crowder to find space or go one-on-one downfield.
Duke will certainly need at least one of the young receivers to step up, but the presence of Deaver should divert at least some defensive attention from Crowder, give Boone a reliable safety valve and provide a sizeable red-zone target.