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Let the offense take flight

<p>The Blue Devil offense has fallen into a predictable pattern of conservative screen passes and runs, an issue that could plague the team against Boston College's top-ranked defense this weekend.</p>

The Blue Devil offense has fallen into a predictable pattern of conservative screen passes and runs, an issue that could plague the team against Boston College's top-ranked defense this weekend.

Handoff. Screen pass. Quarterback scramble. Punt.

Through four games, this sequence has become all too familiar for Blue Devil fans.

Despite starting the season 3-1 and sporting one of the best defenses in the nation, Duke’s offense has been lacking fluidity and consistency. The Blue Devils are averaging 34.0 points per game to this point in the season, but have also frequently stalled on the field with predictable play-calling. Quarterback Thomas Sirk had just 14 passing yards in the second half Saturday against Georgia Tech, when the Blue Devils scored second-half touchdowns via a DeVon Edwards kickoff return and a 30-yard Shaquille Powell rush set up by good field position following a Yellow Jacket fumble.

After losing one of the most successful quarterback-wide receiver combinations in program history in Anthony Boone and Jamison Crowder and the graduation of experienced members from the team’s offensive line, growing pains were to be expected early in the season.

But it’s hard to chalk up Duke’s offensive struggles to growing pains—this isn’t an issue of mistiming or poor route-running. This is an issue of a conservative system that has opted for a more methodical approach down the field.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve never coached the Manning brothers—or anybody, if we’re being honest—like Cutcliffe has and I’m sure there is merit to the scheme offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery and the Blue Devils have used this season. But some of the early-season numbers are alarming even when considering the team’s lopsided wins in matchups against a 1-2 Tulane squad and crosstown FCS foe N.C. Central. 

Sirk is only averaging 6.9 yards per pass attempt and has been relegated to short passes since the competition has taken a step up. In their last two games, top receiving targets Johnell Barnes and Max McCaffrey have combined for only 117 yards receiving—150 yards less than TCU receiver Josh Doctson racked up individually a week ago.

And perhaps most frightening of all, Duke’s attempts to limit turnovers by playing things conservatively have not worked. Heading into this week’s game against Boston College, the Blue Devils rank 95th in the country with eight turnovers. If you’re giving the ball up when calling short passes and power runs, why not open up the field more in hopes of making something happen?

The solution to Duke’s offensive woes is not yet clear at this point. Sirk certainly shouldn’t be expected to play like the next Tom Brady right away, but the redshirt junior has struggled throwing the deep ball and looking off defenders. The Glen St. Mary, Fla., native has flashed the ability to throw well on the run, and rolling Sirk out of the pocket more may allow him to see the field better.

Another forgotten piece in the early going has been tight end Braxton Deaver. After being named a third-team All-ACC choice in 2013 and recovering from ACL surgery last season, the sixth-year senior has only two receptions for 17 yards this year.

But perhaps the best way to keep the defense off balance is to throw in a couple of gimmicks. The Blue Devils have never been afraid to utilize strange formations—as they did when Crowder threw a touchdown pass with his left hand late in the team’s Sun Bowl loss to Arizona State last year—and it may be time to do so this season. 

Duke appears to have a potential fit for such a system in backup-quarterback-turned-running back Nicodem Pierre. With the running back position slowly getting healthy thanks to the return of redshirt junior Jela Duncan, this may be the time to head back to the two-quarterback system the Blue Devils have used so often in the past.

Regardless of the path Cutcliffe and his staff opt for, it is clear that something must be done and in short order. Duke’s defense is starting to gain this year’s Blue Devils national recognition, but the offensive performance against Northwestern may linger in the back of poll voters’ minds until Duke gives them reason to think otherwise. Upcoming matchups against Boston College and Army should be great opportunities to experiment with changes before beginning a tough stretch of games against Virginia Tech, Miami and North Carolina.

In the end, the team’s defense can only take the squad so far. To reach the next level, the Blue Devils must let their offense take flight.ss. Quarterback scramble. Punt.

Through four games, this sequence has become all too familiar for Blue Devil fans.

Despite starting the season 3-1 and sporting one of the best defenses in the nation, Duke’s offense has been lacking fluidity and consistency. The Blue Devils are averaging 34.0 points per game to this point in the season, but have also frequently stalled on the field with predictable play-calling. Quarterback Thomas Sirk had just 14 passing yards in the second half Saturday against Georgia Tech, when the Blue Devils scored second-half touchdowns via a DeVon Edwards kickoff return and a 30-yard Shaquille Powell rush set up by good field position following a Yellow Jacket fumble.

After losing one of the most successful quarterback-wide receiver combinations in program history in Anthony Boone and Jamison Crowder and the graduation of experienced members from the team’s offensive line, growing pains were to be expected early in the season.

But it’s hard to chalk up Duke’s offensive struggles as growing pains—this isn’t an issue of mistiming or poor route-running. This is an issue of a conservative system that has opted for a more methodical approach down the field.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve never coached the Manning brothers—or anybody, if we're being honest—like Cutcliffe has and I’m sure there is merit to the scheme offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery and the Blue Devils have used this season. But some of the early-season numbers are alarming even when considering the team's lopsided wins in matchups against a 1-2 Tulane squad and crosstown FCS foe N.C. Central. Sirk is only averaging 6.9 yards per pass attempt and has been relegated to short passes since the competition has taken a step up. In their last two games, top receiving targets Johnell Barnes and Max McCaffrey have combined for only 117 yards receiving—150 yards less than TCU receiver Josh Doctson racked up individually a week ago.

And perhaps most frightening of all, Duke’s attempts to limit turnovers by playing things conservatively have not worked. Heading into this week’s game against Boston College, the Blue Devils rank 95th in the country with eight turnovers. If you're giving the ball up when calling short passes and power runs, why not open up the field more in hopes of making something happen?

The solution to Duke’s offensive woes is not yet clear at this point. Sirk certainly shouldn’t be expected to play like the next Tom Brady right away, but the redshirt junior has struggled throwing the deep ball and looking off defenders. The Glen St. Mary, Fla., native has flashed the ability to throw well on the run and rolling Sirk out of the pocket more may allow him to see the field better.

Another forgotten piece in the early going has been tight end Braxton Deaver. After being named a third-team All-ACC choice in 2013 and recovering from ACL surgery last season, the sixth-year senior has only two receptions for 17 yards this year.

But perhaps the best way to keep the defense off balance is to throw in a couple of gimmicks. The Blue Devils have never been afraid to utilize strange formations—as they did when Crowder threw a touchdown pass with his left hand late in the team’s Sun Bowl loss to Arizona State last year—and it may be time to do so this season. Duke appears to have a potential fit for such a system in backup-quarterback-turned-running back Nicodem Pierre. With the running back position slowly getting healthy thanks to the return of redshirt junior Jela Duncan, this may be the time to head back to the two-quarterback system the Blue Devils have used so often in the past.

Regardless of the path Cutcliffe and his staff opt for, it is clear that something must be done and in short order. Duke’s defense is starting to gain this year's Blue Devils national recognition, but the offensive performance against Northwestern may linger in the back of poll voters' minds until Duke gives them reason to think otherwise. Upcoming matchups against Boston College and Army should be great opportunities to experiment with changes before beginning a tough stretch of games against Virginia Tech, Miami and North Carolina.

In the end, the team’s defense can only take the squad so far. To reach the next level, the Blue Devils must let their offense take flight.

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