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Going into their season opener, the Blue Devils boast a hungry young team with a revamped coaching staff. Loaded with young but experienced players, Duke is a team desperate to make a statement after a dismal 2-9 season.

“We want to get off to a good start,” head coach Ted Roof said. “You don’t get do-overs; you don’t get a second chance to play the first game.”

Unfortunately, their Saturday opponent, the East Carolina Pirates, need to make the exact same statement to climb to respectability.

Entering the game, uncertainty clouds both teams’ outlooks. Duke enters the contest with its third offensive scheme in as many years as well as an overhauled offensive line and an inexperienced wide receiver corps. Nevertheless, the Blue Devils enjoy stability and experience at quarterback, tailback and one of the deepest defenses in recent memory, giving hope that Duke could smash the Pirates.

East Carolina is just as difficult to predict. Starting quarterback James Pinkney missed spring drills with academic issues, leading to questions about the capability with which he can direct the new Pirate offense. Moreover, East Carolina suspended projected starting safety Jamar Flournoy indefinitely for a violation of team rules. Last year, the senior was one of the few solid producers on an anemic Pirate defense that allowed opponents to rack up nearly 40 points and almost 457 yards of total offense per game. And the presence of new head coach Skip Holtz has made preparing for the Pirates difficult for the Duke coaching staff.

“From a special teams standpoint, you’re preparing for all the what-ifs that you sometimes go through once or twice during preseason,” Roof said. “But now all the what-ifs could become reality, so you’ve got to spend extra reps on that. We’re just making educated guesses to what we’re going to see on offense and defense, based on what people have done, where people have been in the past and things like that.”

On the playing field, the Pirates feature a number of newcomers that could help them climb out of the Conference USA cellar. Defensive tackles Brandon Setzer and Marcus Hands give some much-needed size to a defensive line that notched just nine sacks last year. Talented seniors Chris Moore and Richard Koonce bring leadership and athleticism to the Pirate linebackers. In fact, the defense has impressed Holtz so much that he claimed the unit, which was 111th in total defense last season, was actually better than his team’s offense.

“We know we have the talent to be a solid defense, it’s more about attitude,” said Moore, a preseason Butkus Award Watch List member. “The problem is we don’t know how to win.”

Unfortunately for Roof, the onus of keeping Pirates out of the Duke backfield falls on one of the team’s weakest units. The Duke offensive line has lacked consistency during preseason practice, and Roof has struggled to find a cohesive group in a lineman corps lacking game experience—only two of Duke’s starting linemen, guard Tyler Krieg and tackle Demetrius Warrick, have ever started, and Warrick has never played a snap along the offensive line. Meanwhile, the East Carolina defensive line was the weakest link in its defense, allowing opponents to run for over 233 yards a game last season.

The East Carolina offensive line has three returning starters, including 330-pound senior guard Gary Freeman. But the Duke defensive line returns fifth-year senior Phil Alexander, whose 6.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss two seasons ago earned him a spot among the ACC’s top pass rushers. Junior Eli Nichols and seniors Justin Kitchen and Casey Camero give Duke plenty of experience along the defensive line, while a talented freshman class gives the unit quality depth.

Duke’s improved athleticism and experience this season is a big reason the Blue Devils are considered favorites Saturday.

“We’ve become a more physical football team because when the ball snaps, you can hear the football game too,” Roof said. “We’ve gotten better in that regard, but once again we’re ready to find out.”


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