Duke’s senior class has burst out of the tunnel at Wallace Wade for the last time.
Senior Day has come and gone, and with a lackluster shootout loss to Miami, the 2012 regular season is no more. With four weeks to go before the Blue Devils’ first postseason appearance in 18 years, the attention now shifts to the team’s seniors, who have a rare opportunity to play their final game in Duke blue after the pomp and circumstance of Senior Day has ended.
The Blue Devils’ elder statesmen are an eclectic bunch, representative of the rag-tag group of underdogs that many of college football’s national pundits consider characteristic of this bowl-eligible Duke team. At first glance, they aren’t terribly imposing. With just 13 seniors on scholarship this season, including Kenny Anunike, who will return for a sixth year of eligibility, the Blue Devils were tied for 13th in the FBS for fewest scholarship seniors on their roster.
But don’t let their size fool you—strength in numbers can often be deceiving. Although Duke’s seniors are few, their impacts on the field this season have been enormous.
With the departure of Sean Renfree, one of the most successful quarterbacks in program history, and Conner Vernon, the most statistically accomplished wide receiver in ACC history, the Blue Devils will have Shaquille O’Neal-sized shoes to fill when it comes to offensive production next year. On the defensive side of the football, the team will have to carry on without its top two tacklers, safeties Walt Canty and Jordon Byas. Cornerback Lee Butler was one of the team’s starting cornerbacks, in addition to being the team’s leading kick returner. When the dust settles this May, the Blue Devils will have lost their starting quarterback, one of their three primary running backs, two of their top three wide receivers, two starting safeties and two of their top three cornerbacks.
Holes in the depth chart, however, will account for the smallest loss this team will incur the next time its senior class walks into Wallace Wade Stadium—this time for their commencement ceremonies. More importantly, Duke will lose its most fearless leaders. Renfree, Vernon and Canty were three of the team’s four co-captains this season. Byas, wide receiver Desmond Scott and center Brian Moore were three of the team’s emotional leaders as well. Sharing a unified leadership style, this group is hardly a vocal bunch—they lead by example, and the example they have set this season is a large part of why this team has overcome significant adversity to become bowl eligible.
After a season in which this program made monumental strides toward national relevancy for the first time this century, Duke may face a bit of an identity crisis as it heads toward the offseason. Luckily, head coach David Cutcliffe, who earned the ACC’s Coach of the Year award Tuesday, helped to establish a piece of this identity when he signed on to coach the Blue Devils through 2019. But Cutcliffe certainly has his work cut out for him to fill some of these crucial holes.
Primarily, Cutcliffe will need to select a new quarterback, whether that is Anthony Boone, Brandon Connette or newcomer Thomas Sirk, who redshirted this season. After this selection is made, he will need to decide whether or not a different style of quarterback may warrant a different structure to the Blue Devils’ offensive scheme.
It is unclear where Duke will turn to fill the voids of its lost leaders as well. Redshirt junior cornerback Ross Cockrell is the team’s lone returning captain and the Blue Devils’ junior class does not contain a high number of the team’s starters. Dave Harding and Perry Simmons will be responsible for stabilizing Duke’s offensive line in Moore’s absence, but it will be interesting to see how the Blue Devils move forward from here.
Having an age gap among Duke’s primary contributors is not always the worst thing. Duke is fortunate to be stocked with young talents who have been able to contribute early in their careers. But as the team moves forward from its most successful season in 18 years, the question remains—how do the Blue Devils replace so much leadership and talent, particularly at the skill positions?
Let’s just leave it to Cutcliffe to answer that question. After all, he just took a giant pay day to be the man for that job.