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Around the cooler: Why Duke football matters this fall

<p>Redshirt senior safety Jeremy Cash passed on the NFL after last season, opting to return for a final year in Durham instead.</p>

Redshirt senior safety Jeremy Cash passed on the NFL after last season, opting to return for a final year in Durham instead.

After struggling through yet another long summer featuring way too many baseball games, there is nothing like the impending excitement of college and the professional football season. 

For the next two months, it will be Blue Devil football, not basketball, that rules Duke athletics, and though the team doesn’t garner the attention of the campus like its counterparts in Cameron Indoor Stadium, this could be the make-or-break season for the program.

After residing in or near the cellar of the ACC for almost a decade, the Blue Devils’ 25 victories in the last three years have slowly brought interest in football back to Durham. Led by head coach David Cutcliffe, the program has appeared in three consecutive bowl games and reached the ACC Championship game in 2013.

But without another solid season to build on that foundation this year, Duke’s progress may be all for naught.

With the graduation of the second-winningest senior class in the past 50 years, the familiar faces of Jamison Crowder and Anthony Boone that helped precipitate the Blue Devils’ rise are now gone, leaving behind inexperienced and unproven talent. Help is certainly on the way in the form of Duke’s 2016 recruiting class, which is currently ranked 23rd by ESPN and features six four-star recruits. But in the meantime, this year’s team will need to successfully form a bridge to the next generation of Blue Devil football.

Picked to finish fourth in the ACC Coastal Division in the preseason poll, Duke could again have a chance to contend for the division title—when it claimed the crown in 2013, Cutcliffe’s squad had been slated last in the preseason poll. Now, I’m not saying I expect the Blue Devils to be in the national title discussion come winter. The team is scheduled to play only one ranked team—No. 16 Georgia Tech—this season and with the Coastal Division among the weakest in the country, respect for Duke in the polls will be hard to come by.

But there are numerous reasons why spending a Saturday at the newly renovated Brooks Field at Wallace Wade Stadium will be worth your time, even if it means getting up early for a 12:30 p.m. kickoff.

Among the biggest reasons is the new venue itself. With the removal of the track, fans will be closer than they’ve ever been to the action, and the action itself will be magnified by a brand-new LED video board twice the size of its predecessor.  

On that video board, you can expect to see numerous highlights of redshirt senior safety Jeremy Cash among others in the Blue Devils’ secondary—which is shaping up to be one of the best in the nation. After transferring following his first season at Ohio State, Cash was one of the best at his position in the country the last two seasons and garnered consecutive All-America selections. But the Miami native turned down the opportunity to “Cash” in on his success and head to the NFL and instead returns as a consensus All-American ready to wreck havoc in the ACC once again. Fans may not realize it yet, but in watching Cash every Saturday, they could be seeing a future first-round NFL draft pick go to work.

On the offensive side of the ball, Duke’s short-pass-centric offense may not change, but what has changed is the man running the show. Redshirt junior Thomas Sirk—known by some in prior seasons as ‘the guy that comes in to run the ball on third and short’—now takes over as the full-time starting quarterback. To this point, Sirk has thrown only 14 more passes in his college career than I have, but watching the growth of the 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback with a cannon of an arm promises to be worthwhile. 

If special teams is more of your thing, then the Blue Devils will certainly be worth watching this season. Along with returning three-time All-ACC kicker Ross Martin and three-time All-ACC punter Will Monday, Duke will send the always-electrifying DeVon Edwards back to return kickoffs, creating a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball.

The Blue Devils’ schedule should certainly help you get excited for the upcoming season. A late September visit from Georgia Tech should give fans the chance to watch the Yellow Jackets’ vaunted triple-option as well as a squad that has an outside shot at getting in the national title discussion. A Halloween showdown against Miami will be Duke’s chance to exact revenge on the Hurricanes for last year’s defeat at Sun Life Stadium. And a matchup with Pitt Nov. 14 promises to be a fun one as well—the last two games between the teams have ended with 51-48 and 58-55 scores that might threaten the circuits of the Blue Devils’ new scoreboard.

Yes, basketball season is more than two months away. But for the time being, there is plenty of intrigue to be found with Duke football.

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