Near the end of spring practice, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe hinted that Thomas Sirk was progressing well as the starting quarterback tries to come back from the second ruptured Achilles tendon of his career.
During that same April 7 press conference, though, Cutcliffe talked about a series of injuries on the offensive line that left the Blue Devils short-handed at the position during camp, but declined to go into specifics.
Speaking on the ACC coaches teleconference Wednesday, Cutcliffe provided more clarity, noting that offensive guard Tanner Stone—who started all 13 games in 2015 and is one of three returning starters up front—underwent back surgery, putting his availability for the season into question heading into the summer.
"It was something that he had to have done. We didn't have an option so it was the right decision for him," Cutcliffe said. "Therefore it's going to be the right decision long-term. But I'm hopeful that he will be back."
Stone—who Cutcliffe called a leader of the unit—missed the entire 2013 season after undergoing surgery to repair a broken right ankle. With the redshirt senior sidelined, offensive tackles Casey Blaser and Gabe Brandner will be tasked with leading an offensive line that lost two linemen to the NFL after the 2014 season in Laken Tomlinson and Takoby Cofield and lost two more pro hopefuls this season in center Matt Skura and Lucas Patrick.
Stone's injury is the latest in a series of setbacks up front for Duke. Redshirt senior Cody Robinson's career came to an abrupt end during the Nov. 7 loss at North Carolina when the right guard aggravated a back injury. Back in fall camp, redshirt freshman Kameron Schroeder suffered a career-ending upper-body injury, and Cutcliffe said Wednesday that redshirt freshman Jake Sanders will also not return to the field.
The result is that the Blue Devils currently have 12 healthy offensive linemen—four of them centers—and just two proven starters in Blaser and Brandner. Add into the mix the fact that those linemen are learning under first-year offensive line coach Marcus Johnson—a former four-year starter for Cutcliffe at Ole Miss who was promoted to take over for the now-retired John Latina in February—and the Duke offensive line could be even more of a question mark than Sirk's availability under center.
Cutcliffe has four freshmen coming in the summer, and he said April 7 that it was possible some might play right away, a point he reiterated Wednesday. But he also is looking for some of the returning linemen to step up and fill the void.
"It's time to see [offensive tackle] Sterling Korona or [center] Austin Davis, [center] Zach Harmon, [offensive tackle] Christian Harris—all these guys have abilities and they have to understand that they are now the guys," Cutcliffe said. "They now have the rest of the team on their shoulders, and that is the mentality the offensive line has to have."
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