Chron Chat: Fall Camp Preview

With fall camp on the horizon, the Chronicle's football beat writers take a look at the big questions facing the Blue Devils this summer.

With little more than a month until kickoff of the college football season, numerous positions remain unsettled on the Blue Devils' roster. What do you think will be the most intriguing position battle to watch during fall camp?

Brian Mazur: Although Duke has released a preliminary depth chart, a position that is still up for grabs is wide receiver. With the departure of Jamison Crowder, there is no longer a go-to guy in the receiving corps and it is going to be interesting to watch which players become the top pass catchers this season. The position is especially intriguing because veterans like Max McCaffrey and Johnell Barnes have become solid players, but have not yet shown the talent and firepower to replace players like Crowder and Issac Blakeney. On the other hand, redshirt freshmen Chris Taylor and Trevon Lee and true freshman T.J. Rahming have the most raw potential out of the pass-catching group but lack experience. Upperclassmen Ryan Smith and Anthony Nash will also be thrown into the mix in spite of limited playing time thus far in their careers. It'll be interesting to watch how much this young talent pushes the wiser and older players during fall camp.

Sam Turken: Brian is on the money here—the most intriguing battle has to be at receiver. Offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery has a deep receiving corps and will have to mix and match options till someone steps up. Barnes is shifty and can make plays in traffic, but his inconsistency the past two years has prevented him from being an every-down receiver. McCaffrey—the No. 3 receiver a year ago—has good ball skills and can separate from defensive backs and will see a lot of time in the slot this season. The Blue Devils' less experienced options also figure to see time on the field this season. Lee at 6-foot-1 and Taylor at 6-foot-2 both have big bodies that give them the ability to go up and snag balls, but also possess the speed to outrun defenders. Rahming is more similar to Crowder in terms of his versatility and ability to line up all across the field. Don’t be surprised if Duke uses him in a variety of ways offensively.

Seth Johnson: I also agree with Brian and Sam on the intrigue of the wide receivers here. With Cutcliffe confirming at this week's ACC Kickoff that Thomas Sirk will be the starting quarterback for the Blue Devils, I am interested to see who his targets will be for the season opener. Although the experience of McCaffrey and Barnes seemingly locks them in to two starting spots, I think the battle to replace Crowder as the major offensive threat will be fueled by the freshmen receivers trying to fill the roster. Fortunately for Cutcliffe, his recruiting has produced a lot of young talent eager to take the field. Lee could dominate his competition with a reported 4.49 40-yard dash time, but competing against Taylor and Rahming will not be easy. With an excess of young talent striving to impress, I will have my eyes peeled on who comes out on top with an impressive fall camp.

Nick Martin: Going three-deep at running back for an entire season is not something many teams do. So with a backfield that contains junior Shaquille Powell, sophomore Shaun Wilson and redshirt junior Jela Duncan, it will be interesting to see how the carries get divvied out. Wilson seemed to be a star in the making, but found little success outside of his record-breaking performance against Kansas—the 245 yards he racked up against the Jayhawks made up 41 percent of his season total of 598. With Josh Snead gone, the hole re-opens for Wilson to join Powell—who functions as a hybrid back of sorts—as a 1-2 punch. The only issue is that Duncan has returned from his year-long suspension and will join Powell as a veteran in the backfield. Duncan is very different from both Powell and Wilson in that he is a pure power back, and after dedicating a full year to prepare for his return, that’s more true than ever. Although the final depth chart will almost certainly have Powell as the No. 1 back, the race for No. 2 will be interesting to watch as the fall progresses. Ultimately, it is a win-win scenario for Duke, and the Blue Devils will likely split carries between Wilson and Duncan if no clear favorite is found.

Duke will be without familiar faces Jamison Crowder, Anthony Boone and Laken Tomlinson this season after graduating one of the winningest senior classes in program history. What is the Blue Devils' biggest concern heading into this season?

BM: The biggest concern for Duke this season is the passing game. There are some question marks on the defensive line and at linebacker, but starting a quarterback who has only thrown 14 passes alongside a flurry of inexperienced receivers is a huge red flag. An experienced offensive line and a trio of solid running backs will certainly allow the Blue Devils to run the ball. But when some of the tougher ACC defenses stuff the run, will Sirk and his cache of receivers rise to the occasion? If Sirk can live up to expectations and his speedy wide receivers prove to be viable big-play targets then the Blue Devils should definitely be one of the best teams in the ACC.

ST: The biggest question mark is at the quarterback spot. Anthony Boone—who finished his career as the winningest quarterback in program history—has left a sizable hole that Sirk appears ready to fill. The redshirt junior has all of the physical tools—arm strength, size, and speed—to be a successful option at quarterback but lacks experience outside of short-yardage situations. We have yet to see how well he can read defenses, look off opposing defenders and make decisions under pressure. If Sirk falters, Cutcliffe may not hesitate to bring in redshirt sophomore Parker Boehme—who is another dual-threat signal-caller with little experience. Much will depend on what materializes in the first few games of the season.

SJ: With the loss of defensive ends Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo and Dezmond Johnson, as well as defensive tackle Jamal Bruce, the Blue Devils have to find a way to fill the gaps in their defensive front—both literally and figuratively. Senior Carlos Wray is the lone returning starter at defensive tackle, bringing with him 39 tackles and two sacks from a season ago. Projected starter A.J. Wolf has played in 23 career games and redshirt senior Kyler Brown will have to record way more than the 24 tackles he had a year ago. With a vacant spot at right defensive end, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has pegged redshirt senior Britton Grier as the best option to shore up the trenches. As a unit, I think the defensive line will have one of the steepest learning curves when the team opens conference play against Georgia Tech Sept. 26. If the Blue Devils cannot gel quickly in the first three weeks of the season, the Yellow Jackets' read-option offense could roll into Durham and steamroll its way into the end zone drive after drive.

NM: Wide receiver. With the departure of Jamison Crowder, the Blue Devils have no proven playmakers on the edges. We’ve seen flashes from Barnes, but that’s all they’ve been—flashes. Barnes has the speed to hang his hat on but doesn’t possess the same hands and athleticism that Crowder did. McCaffrey is hands down the most dependable target for Sirk—who will be aided in his first season as a starter by the return of tight end Braxton Deaver. McCaffrey is a great possession receiver and one of the best route runners in the conference but doesn’t present a consistent deep threat. Although the offense will be based on the incredibly talented stable of running backs, the Blue Devils' unproven receivers will have to step up if Duke wants to keep defenses honest.

The Duke defense was dealt a huge blow when it was announced that Kelby Brown would miss the 2015 season with a torn ACL. How big of an impact will Brown's absence be to an already suspect Blue Devil defense?

BM: When Brown went down with an injury late last summer, young linebackers Chris Holmes and Zavier Carmichael were pressed into action. The game experience the duo gained last season will undoubtedly help them in 2015 and help mitigate Brown’s absence. But, the main difference this year is the Blue Devils' linebacking group is without Brown and David Helton—who were two tremendous leaders on the defensive side of the football as the play-callers in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Brown’s injury will force Carmichael—who is just a sophomore—to call the shots with a short amount of time to learn this role before the season begins Sept. 4. Converted safety Dwayne Norman has seen his numbers decline since his freshman year, but showed potential last season in the win against Georgia Tech. His jarring hits show he can be one of the most physical players on the team and Knowles won't be afraid to use him in blitz packages. I think Carmichael and Norman will have an easier time replacing Brown’s talent and physicality than his leadership abilities.

ST: Because Duke usually plays a two-linebacker set, a deep linebacker corps is not paramount. Jeremy Cash—the strike safety who usually lines up in the box—serves as what most teams consider a third linebacker. Nonetheless, the Blue Devils will need four to five reliable linebackers to help them through the long regular season. Replacing a leader like Brown is no easy task, but similar to the receiver spot, there are several guys who are capable of stepping up. Norman is faster than many linebackers and tackles, as he demonstrated against Florida State in the 2014 ACC Championship game. Holmes—another converted safety—has 13 games of experience at linebacker and will likely back up Norman. Carmichael will assume Brown’s starting position at middle linebacker and has the ability to drop back in zone coverage or move in to stop the run. As Brian said, the big question will be whether he can excel as the on-field coach of the defense as a sophomore.

SJ: Although Knowles' defense coped with the loss of Brown last season, the Blue Devils had experience to replace the injured linebacker. I am a little wary of expecting the same success from Norman as Helton had a season ago. The 6-foot-1 defensive veteran put on weight in order to make the transition to linebacker and the success of his change remains in limbo until he takes the field this fall. With all of this in mind, I think Brown’s absence places a tremendous amount of pressure on Carmichael to run the defense in the mike position beside Norman. In addition, there will be added stress on the five returning starters in the secondary to push up and assist on tackles, which could leave the secondary overdrawn and vulnerable to the deep ball if they do not stay disciplined.

NM: Duke’s defense last year was actually very underrated. They had one of the top scoring defenses through the first seven games of the season and managed to do so without Brown. However, this is a new year and many of the well-known faces on the front line are now gone. With Helton, Brown and defensive ends DeWalt-Ondijo, Johnson and Jonathan Jones all lost to graduation, the front six is going to look very different this season. Brown’s loss is a big one, but may not be entirely detrimental to the team. Like last year, he will still be on the sidelines to mentor the other linebackers, including his replacement Carmichael. The Blue Devils don’t need Carmichael to be Helton or Brown, per se, but there will still be pressure on him to perform opposite Norman.

The home of Duke football will have a new look when the Blue Devils take the field this season. What is your favorite part of the recent renovations to Wallace Wade Stadium?

BM: After sitting in a temporary press box all fall, I'm going to be looking forward to the opening of the new Blue Devil Tower, scheduled for the 2016 season. Not only will the five-story tower house a whole new press box and multiple broadcast booths, but it will also have a number of luxury suites and boxes for fans to enjoy the game from. This experience has never been and will not be available at any other Duke athletic venue, affirming the school's dedication to the football program. The response to the tower has been tremendous, as the athletics department announced earlier this month that all 21 suites have already been sold out. The addition of the tower will really modernize Wallace Wade Stadium and cement what is becoming a fantastic game day atmosphere in Durham.

ST: As great as the new five-story, 90,000-plus square foot tower and the new video board sound, I am most excited about the increased seating capacity and removal of the track. Wallace Wade Stadium has always lacked that big college football stadium feel partly because of the track and I can't think of any other major program with a stadium that has a track. Since Wallace Wade does not trap noise as well as other conventional stadiums due to its dug-in design, the fact that the seats are now closer to the action should create a more raucous environment that allows the team and the fans to feed off each other.

SJ: I cannot wait to see the new video board in action. The closer fan seating will definitely provide a new atmosphere to Wallace Wade Stadium that has never been felt, but I am excited by the potential for the 3,175 square foot board to create energy. From first-hand experience, when part of the old Wallace Wade board was moved to Koskinen Stadium and unveiled for the men’s lacrosse game against Notre Dame, it created an entirely new atmosphere. Now, switch fields and put another hype video on a 1080P high definition display that rivals many new NFL boards, and I expect the reaction to be magnified. What’s better than seeing Jamison Crowder snag Sean Renfree’s pass out of midair, flip into the end zone and send Duke to its first bowl in more than a decade against bitter rival North Carolina on the new video board?

NM: Personally, I think while the renovations will look nice, the only necessary renovation was the update of the sports medicine/media building and new plaza. Past that, the rest—the scoreboard, lowered field, addition of seats lowering into the bowl and installation of blue seats—are expanding upon a stadium that was fine the way it was. Also, the addition of seats when the attendance numbers haven’t actually increased over the past four years is some probably wishful thinking on their part. But you know what they say, you’ve got to spend money to make money.

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