At first glance, one might have wondered if anyone could have lifted Duke’s football program out of its perpetual doldrums.
Duke finished 4-8, their ninth consecutive losing season. The Blue Devils lost 11 starters, and recruiting under former coach Carl Franks was so bad that Duke had just three verbal commitments at his midseason firing. And just like every year since 1999, just about everybody expects Duke to finish last in the ACC.
“We have a lot of convincing to do,” admitted new head coach Ted Roof, who took over in the middle of the season for Franks on an interim basis and permanently after season’s end.
Yet slowly but surely, Duke has taken steps toward rebuilding their once-proud football tradition. For the first time since 1989, the Blue Devils ended their regular season with a victory over rival North Carolina. The coaching staff has undergone a major facelift in the off-season. And most importantly, Roof is back as Duke’s head coach.
“When he walks into the room, everyone knows that Coach Roof has something to say,” quarterback Curt Dukes said. “I think that his attitude and his approach to the game really generate a lot of respect, not just as a coach, but as a person as well... He’s a coach that you want to play for. You want to go out and put your body on the line for [him]. He’s just that kind of coach.”
With loyal, motivated players firmly in tow, Roof must now face the onerous task of returning the Blue Devil football program to respectability despite a difficult schedule and a talent pool that, though improving, is still shallower than most in the ACC.
“Coach Roof is very blue-collar,” said cornerback Kenneth Stanford, a returning starter and co-captain. “He believes in hard work, dedication and commitment. Football is a game that you have to have those three things for and he brings it. It’s not just words; it is actions.”
For a team losing its two leading rushers, two top wide receivers, two leading tacklers and four-fifths of its starting offensive line, those three attributes could spell the difference between futility and success in the ACC this season and in years to come.
“We’re going to have to be mentally tough because that’s an element that relates to winning and control,” Roof said. “We need to make sure that we can push through things.”
The team has already been under extreme mental duress over the off-season. Khary Sharpe, expected to be the team’s go-to receiver, transferred to James Madison for undisclosed reasons. Later in the summer, Lance Johnson, the player expected to replace him, was dismissed from the team. And perhaps most severely, the Blue Devils lost defensive leader Micah Harris when he was tragically killed in a car accident June 11.
“He was such a great person,” defensive end Phil Alexander said. “When we lost him, it was a huge blow to everybody. When we all traveled to his funeral in Ohio and saw his family and high school, it made me realize how precious life is and how lucky I am to be here. It gave us all a chance to step outside ourselves and see how lucky we all really are.”
To commemorate its fallen leader, the team will wear a black heart patch this season containing Harris’ number, 55.
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Despite their difficulties, however, the Blue Devils enter the season confident they can continue their success from last season. Under Roof last season, the Blue Devils went 2-3, including a pair of impressive ACC victories and two competitive games against eventual bowl participants Tennessee and North Carolina State.
“For him to do what he did in such a short period of time, you have to feel good about what he’s doing and feel good about being a part of it,” said Cedric Dargan, who enters the season as the team’s primary ballcarrier. He replaces All-ACC selection and all-time leading Blue Devil rusher Chris Douglas.
Mike Schneider is the team’s starting quarterback after a heated spring battle with senior Chris Dapolito and Nebraska transfer Dukes. At wide receiver, senior Santerrio Landrum—one of the nation’s top kick returners—and sophomore Deonto McCormick will attempt to fill the void left by Sharpe and Johnson’s departures. Additionally, the team welcomes three freshman receivers, Jomar Wright, Corey Thompson and U.S. Army All-American Chancellor Young. All three will get playing time this season, Roof said.
The Blue Devils also feature exceptional depth at tight end, where sophomore Ben Patrick assumes the starting role this season from junior Andy Roland. Because of Duke’s tight end surplus, Roland has moved to starting fullback to replace the graduated Alex Wade.
On the defensive side of the ball, sophomore Eli Nichols will replace Harris on the line, and senior Orrin Thompson, who reported 30 pounds heavier this season, will face the daunting task of replacing All-ACC defensive tackle Matt Zielinski.
Despite losing one of the team’s leading tacklers in Ryan Fowler, the linebacking corps projects to be one of the Blue Devils’ strongest defensive units once again in 2004. Giuseppe Aguanno moves to inside linebacker this season to accommodate the addition of outside linebacker Malcolm Ruff. At the other linebacker position, Brendan Dewan, the team’s third-leading tackler last season, resumes his starting position.
Most importantly, however, Roof and company enter the season confident and eager to build upon last season’s successes.
“This is the first season that we’re coming off a win in our final game, so everyone has been in high spirits during the offseason and we’re looking forward to starting up the new season,” Dargan said. “We went through the offseason more confident and we want to get that feeling of winning again because it’s just an unbelievable feeling.”