Duke football 2015 position preview: Offensive line

With the 2015 season right around the corner, The Chronicle's football beat writers break down each of the 10 major position groups: running backs, quarterbacks, receivers, offensive line, defensive ends, defensive tackles, linebackers, defensive backs, kicker/punter and punt/kickoff returners to prepare you for the regular season.

With a loaded backfield and new quarterback, Duke’s offensive line will have to move forward with what seems to be shaping up as a run-oriented offense without its two biggest forces up front from a season ago. The unit brings back an anchor at center and experience at three other spots, but with a fresh face at the weak-side tackle and two award-winning players now departed for the NFL, the Blue Devil offensive line will have a lot to prove come September.

Key Players Lost: Laken Tomlinson and Takoby Cofield

Tomlinson was an All-American and one of the core members of head coach David Cutcliffe’s 2015 graduating class that redefined Duke football for the world of college sports. Now with the Detroit Lions, Tomlinson was among the most hulking and technical lineman to strap up for the Blue Devils. Cofield was not far behind him, as he also started and progressed into an All-ACC tackle alongside Tomlinson to create a formidable protection for quarterback Anthony Boone's weak side.

In the past two seasons, Duke averaged 180 yards per game on the ground, and in 2014, Duke allowed the fewest tackles for loss in the nation, all while taking a running back by committee approach. The backs that have now broken out and shown the potential to be among the best in the conference were either young or suspended, and the rotation featured dependable but less explosive veteran backs such as Josh Snead. This year, with Shaquille Powell, Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson, Duke will have an experienced, explosive group. The only question will be if the offensive line can come together without Cofield and Tomlinson and create the same sense of stability and production that had become a staple in the past three years.

Cutcliffe on Offensive Line:

“We do have some competition on the offensive line, probably right now just six to seven guys as far as how the final five will fall by the time we open up.”
“We think we’re best when we can run the football like we did a year ago and the year before. Ask any lineman what they’d rather do, pass protect or run block—they’d all rather run-block. We are built around speed and we do spread the field.”

Projected Starters:

Although the loss of Cofield and Tomlinson will be felt, this year’s line will not exactly be starting from scratch. Center Matt Skura, a redshirt senior, will head up a group that features two fellow fifth-year players in guards Lucas Patrick and Cody Robinson. Redshirt junior Casey Blazer is slated to start at right tackle. Together, the four have combined to play 4,566 total snaps, with Skura leading the way with 2,030 and the rest all amassing more than 500 in their time at Duke.

The standout of the group is very clearly Skura—the Columbus, Ohio, native landed on numerous publications’ first-team All-ACC ballots and has established himself as one of the nation’s top centers. His role as the unit's leader will be just as important as his on-field production, as he—and the rest of the group—will have a relatively young first-time starter joining the squad.

Dark Horse: Gabe Brandner

The hole that has yet to be filled is left tackle, and redshirt sophomores Gabe Brandner and Sterling Korona figure to be in a battle for a starting spot throughout training camp. Neither has seen significant time on the field, combining to play just 120 snaps in 2014. But Brander gets the nod as the unit's dark horse after earning the Co-Most Improved Offensive Player award following spring practice.

A successful offensive line, like the ones Duke has formed in the past several years, does not function with a weak link. The entire unit's success breaks down if one player fails to successfully provide the necessary coverage. With that said, the importance of Brandner's ability to quickly step into the role as a dependable starter cannot be understated, as he will be filling in as new quarterback Thomas Sirk's weak-side tackle.

Although Cutcliffe has said it is not clear at this time who will be getting the nod come Duke's opener at Tulane, Brander is listed as the starter on Duke's website, and if his spring improvement was enough to win him the most-improved award, it would seem his chances of joining the starting unit are better than ever. Having played with some of the best offensive linemen to come through Duke for the past three years, Brandner's success is not only necessary at this point—it's expected.

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