For months, David Cutcliffe has told everyone how his Duke team might not be the most talented in the ACC, but that they'd fight to be the hardest-working squad in the conference. Great success in off season conditioning has seen the Blue Devils drop over 400 pounds collectively, but football is neither a track meet nor a weightlifting contest. You've got to put the pads on to see how much progress has truly been made, something that Cutcliffe says will likely keep him sleepless the night before Duke's first practice Monday morning.
With expectations for the Blue Devils as high as they've been in recent memory, here are three things to look for as the team prepares for its Aug. 30th opener against James Madison:
- Quarterback Play: Incumbent junior QB Thaddeus Lewis seems to have a firm grasp on the starting job after a strong 2007 campaign (2430 yds with 21 TD/10 INT). With nearly two full seasons under his belt as a starting ACC quarterback, Lewis has shown steady signs of improvement and has great chemistry with wide recievers that he has worked with for the past two seasons as Duke's primary starter. The addition of quarterback guru Cutcliffe into the mix should only benefit Lewis' development. But don't be surprised if senior QB Zack Asack sees playing time as well. Asack is a great athlete who runs well with the ball, and Cutcliffe has even hinted that he'll devise plays featuring both signal callers on the field simultaneously. Also, top recruit Sean Renfree could make an impact during practice. The Arizona prep product and Elite 11 quarterback signed with Duke largely to learn under the direction of Cutcliffe and is a capable dual-threat at the position.
- Special Teams: From his introductory press conference last December, Cutcliffe emphasized that his number one priority would be excellence in the kicking game. Field Goal woes torpedoed the Blue Devils in countless games over the past few seasons, and throughout spring practice and the summer Cutcliffe expressed his disappointment in the progress of his specialists. His tune hasn't been different in August, as Duke's kicking game is still not up to Cutcliffe's standards. Joe Surgan led off the 2007 season as the starting kicker but hit only 1 of 5 FG attempts last season, leading him to lose the job to converted punter Nick Maggio 4 games into the season. But Maggio was not much better as he posted a 2-for-5 FG record, including a critical miss in the season-ending OT loss to UNC. Surgan and Maggio, along with incoming K Paul Asack (brother of Zack), are all vying for the starting spot this year in what might be better termed as a pillow fight than a position battle. But one player to keep an eye on is a darkhorse candidate—freshman walk-on Jeffery Ijjas. If the unusual surname sounds familiar, it's because it is. Ijjas is the younger brother of recently graduated University of Florida kicker Joey Ijjas.
- Who will step up in the secondary?: On the defensive side of the ball, Duke's defensive line is anchored by All-American candidate DT Vince Oghobasse, while the team's linebacking corps boasts a pair of outstanding backers in Vincent Rey and Mike Tauililli. The Blue Devil secondary, however, has the most question marks of the unit. 2007 interception co-leader CB Leon Wright (3 INT) is back, but a large void has been left by the graduation of S Chris Davis. Incumbent SS Adrian Aye-Darko is a likely starter along with Wright, but the other two positions appear to be up for grabs. One name to keep an eye on is CB Randez James, who enrolled a semester early last winter. A 5-11 prep product of Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, James has blazing speed and was arguably the top catch in Duke's incoming class, along with Renfree.
-by Will Flaherty
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