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Navy on deck, Duke set to sail

Duke is readying for its season opener against Navy when the Blue Devils will have to contend with a pounding option-oriented offense and a ferocious defense. Unlike Navy, which enters the game with 18 seniors expected to start, Duke will bring a young team and up to 14 freshmen could play.

The dream begins with a nightmare.

Duke head football coach Ted Roof has prepared his entire life to be a head football coach, but he leads the Blue Devils for the first time without the word “interim” in his job title against Navy, arguably the toughest team in the nation for which to prepare.

Observed individually, the Midshipmen appear only modestly impressive. But when united, the team’s pounding option-oriented offense combined with its ferocious defense has allowed Navy to maximize its talent under the tutelage of head coach Paul Johnson. Last season the Midshipmen finished with an 8-5 record and appeared in the EV1.net Houston Bowl.

“We’ve got a ways to go,” Roof said. “Usually [for the first game of the season] you start preparing for the opponent around Thursday, so you get a week and a couple of days. But because of the nature of the opponent, we started a couple days early. Last Tuesday we actually started working on a lot of Navy stuff.”

The Midshipmen return 15 starters from last year’s squad, and 18 seniors are expected to start for the Academy. In contrast, the Blue Devils, who start only six seniors and will have to rely on true freshmen.

“We’re probably going to play somewhere in between 12 and 14 true freshmen,” Roof said. “That can be a little nerve-racking. Those guys who were getting on a yellow school bus who were driving 10 miles at this time last year are now getting on a jet to go play with jets flying over them. There’s something different about a 23-year-old young man and an 18-year-old kid. A lot happens between 18 and 23.”

Without standouts such as Lance Johnson, Khary Sharpe, Reggie Love, Chris Douglas, Alex Wade and Drew Strojny and with new offensive coordinator Marty Galbraith, the Duke offense should look substantially different from last season’s. Despite the extreme amount of turnover, Roof expects the offense to be productive in 2004.

“The younger receivers have improved a lot since spring practice,” he said. “I think they were a little confused during spring ball, but through practice, they’ve gotten better and I think they’ve made the older receivers better. As far as our identity on offense goes, our buzzword has to be ‘efficient.’ We’re not going to blow anybody away, but with the ball, we have to be efficient.”

The offensive voids have left a particularly large opportunity for redshirt sophomore tight end Ben Patrick. The Savannah, Ga., native had 218 receiving yards and also provided impressive blocking in 2003. The Sporting News named Patrick Third Team Freshman All-America last season.

“He was elected captain as a redshirt sophomore,” Roof said. “I haven’t been around that too much. He comes to work every day, he pushes himself and he pushes his teammates.”

Patrick joins Andy Roland and Calen Powell as one of the best tight end trios in the nation.

The versatile Curt Dukes, a player much hyped when he transferred to Duke from Nebraska, looks to help the Blue Devils in mostly a supporting role. Though he is listed as only a backup holder on the depth chart released Monday, Roof said he expects Dukes to play multiple positions this year, including quarterback.

Sophomore Mike Schneider will begin the season as the team’s starting quarterback, though senior co-captain Chris Dapolito will “definitely” play Saturday, Roof said.

“I go into each week preparing mentally knowing that I will play,” Dapolito said. “It doesn’t change how I go about things. I love the game so much it doesn’t matter if I play or not. I’m still going to have a good time.”

Although the unit lost All-ACC performers Ryan Fowler and Mike Zielinski, Duke’s defense is composed of mostly familiar faces. However, Roof is still concerned about how prepared his team is for the unorthodox Navy style.

Roof is confident about his team’s chances against Navy but still worried about the long-term. For Roof, Duke football is not just about one game in Annapolis, Md., but a philosophy and a mentality that will lead the University to success in the future.

“I think [a victory over Navy] would certainly give us some confidence and confidence is such a powerful thing,” Roof said. “What we believe in, what we do, isn’t based on one game. The foundation of our program is not based on what happens in one game, but maybe it will generate some enthusiasm outside the program, maybe dump some fuel on that fire.”

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