Unfortunately for Duke, it enters this season with its roster riddled by injuries without having played a real game yet. Given this predicament, Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe will be forced to call upon a handful of talented freshmen that have yet to play in their first college football game.
With the 2012 campaign commencing Saturday against Florida International, here is the rundown of Blue Devil newcomers to watch, as they will be relied upon for immediate contributions:
Jela Duncan (RB): The debilitating losses of Duke passing targets sophomore Blair Holliday and redshirt sophomore Braxton Deaver forced the coaching staff to move former senior running back Desmond Scott—who was the team’s second leading rusher in 2011—to wide receiver.
Historically, Duke’s rushing attack has been by committee. Last year five players rushed more than 20 times, a high number considering the Blue Devils only ran the ball on fewer than 43 percent of their offensive plays. This season, fans should expect a similar approach on the ground, with two promising true freshmen in the mix for carries. The first of those is Duncan, a 5-foot-9 running back from Charlotte, N.C., who will get some playing time in the early going largely because of his “breakaway speed,” as described by Cutcliffe. That same quickness got him scholarship offers from Purdue, North Carolina, South Carolina and Pittsburgh in high school, before he pledged to the Blue Devils.
Shaquille Powell (RB): If Duncan is lightening, Powell is thunder. His power, toughness and physicality should allow the bruising tailback from Las Vegas to get touches in his first year at the collegiate level, especially in short yardage situations. Cutcliffe has also praised Powell for playing well in training camp with his advanced blocking abilities in passing down and on special teams. He and Duncan should help enhance the Blue Devil’s ground attack this year and in the ensuing seasons.
Dwayne Norman (S): With Taylor Sowell out for the year, Anthony Young-Wiseman out for the first game with a leg injury and Jeremy Cash sitting out for the season as a transfer, one of the few true freshmen that could see some playing time in the secondary is Norman. Drawing comparisons to former Blue Devil safety Matt Daniels, Norman has adequate size for his position at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds and a knack for getting off blocks and stopping the run. His aggressive demeanor on the gridiron garnered him scholarship offers from South Carolina and Georgia Tech and should make him an impact player on special teams from the get go.
Max McCaffrey (WR): On the verge of breaking the ACC all-time reception record, Connor Vernon promises to be the focal point for opposing defenses each week. McCaffrey and others must emerge as a reliable threat offensively, especially given the losses of Holliday and Deaver. Son of Super Bowl-champion wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, he has the tools to be a special wideout for years to come in Durham due to his 6-foot-2 frame, speed and versatility. He currently is sitting right behind Vernon on the depth chart, and with Cutcliffe’s pass-happy attack, it is reasonable to expect McCaffrey to get plenty of passes thrown his way this year.
David Reeves (TE): Although the team lacks veteran presence at the position after the graduation loss of Cooper Helfe,who is currently playing for the Seattle Seahawks, they do have Reeves. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Reeve’s makes up for the height and size Cutcliffe’s receiving corps have previously lacked. The redshirt freshman is currently the No. 1 tight end on the depth chart and will be called upon early and often in the passing game, but will also be an integral part of kick starting Duke’s rushing attack this weekend.
Erich Schneider (TE): A true freshmen and the No. 2 tight end on the depth chart, Schneider also brings size and skill to the tight end position. The Jacksonville, Fla. product gives quarterback Sean Renfree a big, possession-type target on the perimeter who should pay dividends in the red zone. Like McCaffrey, Schneider has natural abilities to be successful right off the bat in Duke’s spread passing game.
Tim Burton (KR/PR/CB): Cutcliffe has been adamant about this being his fastest Duke team to date. Burton is one of the many reasons why that holds true, and after redshirting last year he will likely get plenty of opportunities to showcase his quickness this season. His speed makes him a threat to score when returning punts and kicks, which will be his primary role this year, in addition to playing some cornerback.
Tanner Stone (LT): Very rarely does Cutcliffe refrain from redshirting offensive lineman, but Stone’s ideal size, advanced footwork and technique may force Cutcliffe to throw him in the trenches early. Regardless if he redshirts this year or not, the 6-foot-6, 260-pound Texas big man should be a reliable protector of the quarterback’s blindside in the future.