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Deep defense to carry feisty Blue Devils

After being one of the nation’s youngest teams last season, the Blue Devils are wiser and more experienced than a year ago. At practice, shoulder pads pop just a little louder—a sign of the fruits of an incoming recruiting class that ranks among Duke’s best in decades. And along the sideline, head coach Ted Roof and one of the ACC’s highest-paid coaching staffs direct the team on a mission to prove that the Blue Devils are better than the last-place finish most major publications have predicted for them.

So after a tumultuous off-season that included four transfers and an overhauling of the coaching staff, does Roof think that this year’s Blue Devils look better than last year’s?

“Yes, I do, but it doesn’t matter,” Roof said. “We’ve got to go prove it on Saturday. We can look like the Green Bay Packers out here [on the practice field], but we’ve got to go perform on Saturday.”

Unfortunately for Roof, that is something Duke has yet to do during his short coaching tenure. Last season, the Blue Devils proved they could compete with the rest of the ACC by beating Clemson and playing mighty Florida State to within a field goal at halftime. But like so many Duke teams before them, the Blue Devils could not produce any kind of consistency en route to a 2-9 season.

Small wonder that Roof, who is 4-12 since replacing Carl Franks in 2003, is hesitant making any big promises for the season.

“I know we’ve gotten better,” Roof said. “I know we’re headed in the right direction, but I want to see it. I want to see it against an opponent, not against yourself.”

Duke may still not be at the talent level of the ACC’s top schools. Furthermore, the Blue Devils would likely need a pair of upsets to secure the program’s first bowl bid since 1994. But the Blue Devils appear poised to take a big step forward in 2005.

The team’s biggest area of strength will be the defensive line, where last season’s injuries will benefit this year’s team. Last year, the tragic preseason loss of projected starting defensive end Micah Harris was compounded when defensive end Phillip Alexander, projected as one of the team’s best players, saw his season end in the second game. His absence, however, paved the way for defensive ends Eli Nichols and Justin Kitchen to gain playing time, which now gives the Blue Devils tremendous experience along the defensive line. Alexander’s return gives Duke an All-ACC caliber pass rusher.

Meanwhile, one of the nation’s top-10 defensive line recruiting classes, highlighted by mammoth defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase and Clifford Respress, provides the unit with quality depth.

“We are an exciting defense,” Alexander said. “I think the big thing from past years is we are real deep. In past years we had to depend on people for longer periods of time.”

Duke’s secondary should combine with the line to give the Blue Devils one of their better defenses in recent memory. The Blue Devils lose departed senior Kenneth Stanford and transfer Daniel Charbonnet at cornerback, but return second-team All-ACC player John Talley, who is one of the nation’s top shutdown corners. Junior Deonto McCormick, whose late-game interception helped beat Clemson last season, starts alongside him, while sophomore Chris Davis is one of the ACC’s most promising young safeties and return men.

If the Blue Devils harbor hopes of a winning record, the defense will have to be stout as the offense is riddled with question marks.

The three certainties in the offense come at quarterback, running back, and tight end. Redshirt junior Mike Schneider enters 2005 with a firm grip on the starting quarterback job, something he did not have last season. Roof has praised the mental maturity of Schneider, who enters the season with 18 starts under his belt.

“There is no substitute for experience, and Mike is battle-tested in this league,” Roof said.

At tailback, senior Cedric Dargan hopes to rebound from an injury-plagued 2004 campaign, when various injuries held the Jacksonville, N.C. native to only 462 yards. His absence, however, allowed for the emergence of sophomores Ronnie Drummer and Justin Boyle. Both Drummer, a shifty back with lightning-quick speed, and Boyle, a 225-pound bruiser back, logged over 4.5 yards per carry last season.

Andy Roland, one of the ACC’s best blocking tight ends, and Ben Patrick form one of the best tight end duos in the ACC, possibly the nation. The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Patrick led Duke in receptions last season and will play H-back, a hybrid tight end/fullback position, in order to allow both he and Roland onto the field at the same time.

The Duke offense appears shaky outside those positions, however. An already young wide receiving corps got even younger with the transfers of Corey Thompson and Chancellor Young, both of whom were expected to contribute significant playing time this season. The inexperience at the wide receiver position could force Schneider to focus the passing game on Patrick and Roland.

“We’re obviously going to go to our strengths, and I would say that Ben [Patrick] and Andy [Roland] are two of the best tight ends there are,” Schneider said.

And along the offensive line, the team’s depth situation became so dire they were forced to move senior defensive tackle Demetrius Warrick to offensive tackle.

“I’m definitely not satisfied,” Roof said of his offensive line play. “We have definitely made strides, but I’m not satisfied.”

The offense’s job became even more difficult with the hiring of offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who is instituting Duke’s third offense in as many years. Yet Roof, who has stayed mum on the new scheme, is just as anxious as Duke football fans to see it executed on game day.

“There are probably about 118 other Division I coaches today talking about how excited they are about the season and how much improvement they’ve made and all that kind of stuff,” Roof said. “But you know, you feel good about it but at the same time you want to see it. The proof is still in the pudding, and you’ve got to perform on game day.”

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