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Criticism inspires Duke’s improving offensive line

Duke’s offensive line is smaller than most of the defensive fronts it faces but has held its own for much of the year.
Duke’s offensive line is smaller than most of the defensive fronts it faces but has held its own for much of the year.

In the third quarter of Saturday’s loss to Georgia Tech, Duke backup quarterback Sean Renfree dropped back to pass when a breakdown in protection resulted in Renfree having to step up in the pocket as it collapsed around him. The redshirt freshman soon crumpled to the ground two steps later, lost for the year with a torn ACL.

The play was just another example that critics have used to point fingers at the Duke offensive line since before the season even began.

Whether it is failing to run the ball or giving up a sack in a critical situation, the Blue Devils’ big men up front have seen more criticism than any other unit on the team. Rather than get frustrated, however, the linemen use the criticism for more motivation.

“We’ve gotten called out as a line,”  right guard Bryan Moore said. “We have to take that as a challenge.... You have to work harder.”

Duke’s inability to run the ball is the team’s most prominent weakness.  The Blue Devils have averaged a paltry 63.9 yards per game so far this season, but have been much more proficient in the air.

This might suggest that Duke’s offensive line is better suited or prefers to pass block, as opposed to run block. Ironically, the players insist they do not mind run blocking when the situation calls for it.

“I enjoy both of them,” center Bryan Morgan said. “If I had to pick one, pass blocking is my best attribute, but I don’t mind hitting somebody in the face either.”

Nevertheless, there is a fundamental difference in the techniques involved in run and pass blocking. The Blue Devils’ line is small relative to the rest of the ACC. Consequently, it can be more suited to sitting back and protecting the quarterback as opposed to moving larger defensive lines out of the way for running backs.

“Weight wise, our guys are playing guys a little bigger,” offensive line coach Matt Luke said. “Run blocking is a more aggressive art form. You’re attacking the line of scrimmage, whereas pass blocking you’re backing up and staying in front most of the time.”

Whether pass blocking or run blocking, though, it cannot be denied that the line has gotten noticeably better since the start of the season, beginning with Morgan.

The junior is an interesting case because he started his career at left tackle before switching to center this year and the transition has been relatively smooth. Morgan admitted that at the beginning, he had trouble with snaps but now has great rapport with the quarterback, even on the road.

Despite the season-ending injury to Mitchell Lederman, the unit has come a long way since the season-opening loss to Richmond. Its progress was perhaps most on display in Duke’s 49-28 victory at N.C. State Oct. 10, when quarterback Thaddeus Lewis was given all day to throw time and time again on his way to 40-of-50 passing for 450 yards and five touchdowns.

The continuity the line has developed has allowed it to gel and help the potent passing attack become even more explosive.

“It’s funny because we’re a tighter group in terms of age differences,” left tackle Kyle Hill said. “It’s easier to communicate with each other and understand where one person is and just communicating on the line. We all have each other’s backs on the team.”

The other factor that has greatly aided the line’s development is Lewis’s presence.

The senior quarterback is on his way to a record-breaking season and will probably leave Duke as the all-time leader in most statistical categories as a passer. Lewis’s leadership and poise have had a pronounced effect on the line’s performance.

“I think his confidence rubs off on the whole line,” Moore said. “His attitude’s great for us. He’s not a selfish guy. There’s been games where he’s been knocked down a little bit and he’s always there not getting mad and wanting to get up for the next play. You just want to play harder for that guy.”

While they have definitely progressed this year, the players on the line know that there is always room to get better. Both Miami and Wake Forest boast prolific offenses, and for Duke to keep up, it must improve on its recent offensive displays.

But despite all the flak the line has taken this year, it remains motivated and determined to improve every week. And at the very least, the players the offensive linemen battle every day in practice have noticed.

“From the beginning of the season, a lot of guys have really stepped up,” defensive end Ayanga Okpokoworuk said. “Kyle’s really good and Bryan Morgan at center is going against guys who weigh 60, 70 pounds more than him and is still one of the best centers out there. Watching them grow, they’ve gotten a lot better.”

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