By Al Featherston
BUILDING A LITTLE DEPTH
Duke's spring depth chart at quarterback illustrates the progress that David Cutcliffe has made in his four years at Duke.
Back in the spring of spring of 2008, the new Blue Devil coach had just one quarterback to work with in spring practice. Thaddeus Lewis was a good one, but he had to take the great majority of the reps as injuries sidelined backups Mike Cappetto and Zack Asack.
"It was a lot different looking squad," Cutcliffe said.
Earlier this week, when the Blue Devils opened Spring Practice 2012, Cutcliffe found himself blessed by a wealth of quarterback riches.
It starts, of course, with rising redshirt senior Sean Renfree - a two-year starter who has thrown for 6,352 yards and 32 touchdowns at Duke. But behind him are rising redshirt sophomores Brandon Connette and Anthony Boone, who have both played significant minutes as backups.
Then on top of that, there is freshman Thomas Sirk, a recent signee who enrolled early and is participating in spring drills.
That's seven quarterbacks on the depth chart and while a couple will merely be practice players - which is in itself a big help - most of them will be vying for playing time.
"Those guys can be used," Cutcliffe said. "There's a strong chance you'll see Connette and Boone in the game at the same time some. We're going to try and be a little creative. I've always tried new things."
Renfree is clearly Duke's starter at quarterback and is one of the key players on the team. But Cutcliffe loves the versatility that Connette and Boone - two strong runners - bring to the table. He'll be interested to see them both together. Two years ago, Connette saw extensive action while Boone redshirted. Last year Connette was hurt and Boone became the primary backup - and the designated short-yardage QB.
This spring, they are both available.
"Brandon and I have a really good relationship," Boone said. "We're going to room together this summer, then next year get a house together. We critique each other. We know that pushing each other is going to make each of us better."
Boone and Connette have also taken Sirk into their circle, since he's a big quarterback with good running skills.
"We haven't treated him like a new guy," he said. "We take him out on weekends to throw. He can run. He outruns me and Connette easily. He's the fastest quarterback we have. I think his learning curve is going to be how the offense works and how to apply himself within the offense."
Cutcliffe has said in the past that under ideal situations, he prefers to redshirt his first-year quarterbacks to give them time to mature. He did that with Renfree and Boone at Duke and with Eli Manning at Ole Miss. In all likelihood, Sirk will redshirt next fall.
But next spring, he ought to be ready to join Boone and Connette in the battle to become Renfree's successor.
IT'S WHAT'S UP FRONT THAT COUNTS
Going into spring, the offensive line appears to be one of the team's strong points - both in terms of depth and proven performance.
"Our new offensive line coach - to me he's going to be a good one," guard Laken Tomlinson, a redshirt sophomore who started 12 games a year ago, said. "When we met with him for the first time, it was clear that he knew what he was talking about."
Latina worked with Cutcliffe at Ole Miss, so he's familiar with the Blue Devil offense.
"It's easy for us because Coach Latina has been in the system before," center Brian Moore said. "He's coached in it for six years. There isn't much change in terms of scheme or philosophy for us. There might be some calls he's made before that are a little different, but the goal is still is the same."
Latina inherits a veteran line - every player up front redshirted before playing. Moore, a fifth-year senior, is the anchor at center, while junior tackle Perry Simmons is a two-year starter. Junior Dave Harding has seen extensive action in two seasons, starting six games at center last year after Moore broke his arm in preseason. He'll team with Tomlinson at guard, where he has started seven games over the past two years. Sophomore Tacoby Cofield started the last two games a year ago at tackle.
Indeed, last year's injuries provided playing opportunities for a number of players. John Coleman started nine games at guard while Conor Irwin started two games at center.
"We've got a lot of guys who have played a lot of snaps on the line and young guys who are going to be able to get some good reps this spring," Moore said. "The offensive line has created a mentality there. It's hopefully something that will stick."
The young guys include five highly-touted freshmen who all redshirted last fall. They bring better size - three are over 300 pounds and another is 290 - to the mix.
"There's definitely going to be a lot of competition [on the offensive line]," Tomlinson said. "My year, there was not much depth. Now, we have a lot of really talented young players."
Moore, who missed all but three games last season with injuries, isn't taking anything for granted this spring.
"One of the best things about having a line with so much depth is that no one can be too secure in any spot," he said. "That's creates competition and ultimately makes the starters better and the guys on the two-deep better players. The lineup is not set in stone coming into the spring."
BACK FOR A RECORD SETTING YEAR
Rising senior Connor Vernon will be limited this spring as he continues to recover from an ankle injury suffered last season, but the veteran wide receiver has nothing to prove in the off-season. He's already established himself as one of the great receivers in ACC history.
In fact, if he can have a relatively healthy senior season, Vernon is a lock to set some pretty significant records. He's not only within easy reach of the Duke career record for receptions (he needs nine to catch former teammate Donovan Varner) and receiving yardage (he needs 643 to catch All-American Clarkston Hines), he is also within range of the ACC records in both categories.
He needs 35 catches for 843 yards to set the all-time league standards.
Those are not outlandish totals - in his first three seasons, Vernon has caught 55 passes for 746 yards; 73 passes for 973 yards; and 70 passes for 956 yards. He's already the first receiver in ACC history to have back-to-back 70-catch seasons.
"It's kind of weird to see some of the names on the list," he said when asked about the records. "I know I'll be proud if the records fall my way this season. But definitely my first and foremost goal is putting Duke football back on the map and getting to that bowl game and having more wins than losses this year. If the record comes, great, but the only record I'm really worried about is the one for Duke's team at the end of the year."
Duke will be replacing its second and third most productive receivers from last season - slotback Varner graduated, and flanker Brandon Braxton has been moved to safety. But Vernon is comfortable with the young guys moving into those roles - last year's freshmen such as Jamison Crowder and Blair Holliday, plus a couple of signees who will arrive this fall.
"It's going to be different after playing with Donovan and Brandon last year," he said. "But I'm excited about the new guys and we have a good class coming in."
The turnover at wide receiver will force Vernon to change in one regard.
"I want to be more of a leader," he said. "I've already started moving in that direction. Austin (Kelly) and Donovan did that their senior seasons and now it's my turn."
Vernon flirted with the idea of passing up his senior season to go pro this spring. But in the end, he decided to return.
"I talked to Coach Cut and my family and everybody agreed that I should look into it," he said.
He received information about his potential draft status from the NFL advisory committee.
"Everything was positive, just not enough for me to take off," he said. "Plus, I wanted to finish what I started here. And I promised my family that I would get my degree. I want that."
IT'S WHAT'S UP FRONT THAT COUNTS, PART 2
In contrast to the perceived strength of Duke's offensive front, the Blue Devils' defensive line still has a lot to prove.
There is plenty of depth there, but most of it is unproven. A year ago, Duke used seven redshirt freshmen up front and the results were spotty - Duke gave up an average of 180.7 yards on the ground and recorded just 17 sacks.
Defensive end Justin Foxx - a junior who ranks one of the unit's most experienced players - believes that the year's experience will improve with help from kids such as Jamal Bruce, Dezmond Johnson, Jamal Wallace and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo.
"It helps a lot," he said. "I think that was the biggest leap I've made so far [after playing one year]. Now you know what's going on, so you know how to prepare better. You know what you have to do. You know how to handle the tough things that come up."
Cutcliffe said that he's already seen the progress after the team's off-season conditioning program.
"I'm excited about what Jamal Bruce, Steven Ingram and Nick Sink - some of guys who have played - have done," he said. "Their off-seasons have been really good and in the case of Jamal Bruce, outstanding. I'm truly excited about what Dezmond Johnson and Jamal Wallace have done. Dezmond is up to 250 pounds and is maybe our fastest defensive lineman."
Cutcliffe likes his options.
"There's competition there as to who's going to be the best at that position," he said.
One thing Cutcliffe wants to find this spring is a consistent pass rush. To that end, he vowed to try every player on the team - including offensive players - in pass rush drills.
One offensive player sure to get a look is Issac Blakeney, a 6-6, 230-pound sophomore who was an impressive pass rusher as a strong safety last spring. He missed last season and now that he's back, he's been moved to tight end, where his size and speed should make him an asset.
But Cutcliffe suggested that Blakeney might see action as a pass rusher too.
"There's no reason for him to be standing over by me, if he earns it," he said.
Perhaps the best pass rusher on the team won't work this spring - senior Kenny Anunike, who had four sacks in a little over three games before he was hurt last fall, is still recovering from surgery.
Anunike is the only defensive lineman in his final year of eligibility - and even he might not be in his final year at Duke. Cutcliffe said that the school will likely apply for a sixth year for the oft-injured player, who also missed his entire first year at Duke with an injury.
• Anunike is one of six potential starters sitting out the contact portion of spring practice as they recover from injuries. The list also includes TE Braxton Deaver, DE Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, S August Campbell, LB Kelby Brown and Vernon.
• In addition to Deaver's absence, backup TE Jack Farrell is also out this spring. That leaves redshirt freshman David Reeves and Blakeney to handle the tight end chores. Neither has ever played a snap in a game.
• The two major position changes will be the move of Brandon Braxton, who caught 40 passes for 352 yards as a wide receiver last year, to safety and Blakeney from safety to tight end.
Cutcliffe said Braxton has a chance to have a similar impact at safety as Matt Daniels did.
"He's been a headhunter in the kicking game," the Duke coach said. "I think Brandon Braxton can change a game better at safety than at receiver."
He said the Blakeney move was predicated on the idea of finding the best spot for a unique athlete.
"I'm trying to find a place for a 6-6, 235-pound guy to impact our team," he said.
Among other changes, senior Lee Butler, is returning to cornerback after two years as a safety.
• Ohio State transfer Jeremy Cash will go through spring workouts with the team, but will not be able to play until the fall of 2013. The safety has three years of eligibility left at Duke.
• Redshirt freshman Will Monday is expected to inherit the punting job from graduated Alex King, but this spring Monday will also see a lot of work at placekicker. Cutcliffe likes walk-on kicker Jack Willoughby, too. Both kickers will be trying to establish themselves at the position before highly-touted signee Ross Martin arrives this fall.