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Duke football 2016 position preview: Offensive line

<p>Duke returns three starters from a successful offensive line in 2015, but will have to replace first-team All-ACC center and co-captain Matt Skura</p>

Duke returns three starters from a successful offensive line in 2015, but will have to replace first-team All-ACC center and co-captain Matt Skura

With the 2016 season right around the corner, The Chronicle's football beat writers break down each of the nine major position groups: quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, offensive line, defensive line, defensive backs, linebackers, kicker/punter and kickoff/punt returners to prepare you for the regular season:

Make it two straight seasons now that Duke will be forced to replace a first-team All-ACC offensive lineman. In 2015, the Blue Devils had to fill the void left by guard Laken Tomlinson and this year, they will be looking to find someone to fill the spot of former captain and center Matt Skura. Fortunately for Duke, 60 percent of its starting offensive line in 2015 is back this season, with each of the three returners more experienced and ready to improve on a roller-coaster 2015.

The Blue Devils’ front five were crucial pieces in leading the ACC’s third-best offense to nearly 440 yards per game, and they also allowed the third-fewest sacks of any team in the conference. With a Blue Devil offensive attack led by a duo of talented running backs and last year’s leading rusher on the team—quarterback Thomas Sirk—the line will need to be at its best if Duke hopes to contend for the Coastal Division title.

Key Players Lost: C Matt Skura and LG Lucas Patrick

The loss of one of 2015’s senior co-captains cannot be understated for a Blue Devil unit that will run the ball often in 2016. Skura was selected to the All-ACC team in each of his final two seasons and was named a second-team All-America by USA Today as a redshirt senior—a testament to his talent and consistency as the anchor of Duke’s offensive line. The Columbus, Ohio, native helped the Blue Devils to the fifth-highest scoring offense in program history and was a leader on and off the field as Duke played in a bowl game in each of his four seasons of game action.

Skura is currently participating in training camp with the Baltimore Ravens and has appeared in both of their preseason games so far, but as an undrafted rookie appears unlikely to make the team’s 53-man roster.

Patrick did not garner as much attention as his neighbor on the line, but he was an honorable mention All-ACC selection in 2015 and a key piece of Sirk’s protection team since starting in the 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl against Texas A&M at the end of his sophomore season. The 6-foot-4 guard started the final 21 games of his Blue Devil career and attended rookie mini-camp with the Green Bay Packers.

Duke is also losing longtime offensive line coach John Latina, who retired after last season. The Blue Devils promoted former NFL lineman Marcus Johnson—who played at Ole Miss when Duke head coach David Cutcliffe was the head coach of the Rebels—to fill the position after five years with the Blue Devil program as a strength and conditioning assistant and quality control assistant.

Cutcliffe on the Offensive Line
We’ve got to find five [starters].... What sometimes happens when you’re an older player and there’s new players around you, you worry about them too much and not yourself as much. We’re trying to find that cohesiveness. What I am really pleased about is their work ethic and I think we are becoming much more physical.
It starts up front with our offensive line. They've been more willing than any guys in our locker room to take the extra step, do what they need to do to be the best they can.
Projected Starters

Duke's offensive line will remain intact to a certain extent with three of its five starters from last season returning to Durham. A pair of redshirt seniors in guard Tanner Stone and tackle Casey Blaser will steady the right side and redshirt junior tackle Gabe Brandner will protect the blind side of the Blue Devils’ quarterback. Stone is mostly recovered from offseason back surgery and played in last week's intra-squad scrimmage.

The returning trio—along with Skura and Patrick—each started all 13 games for Duke in 2015, and the chemistry they developed last season will be critical as they look to jell with a pair of new starters.

Filling big shoes in the middle of the line will be redshirt junior Austin Davis. The 6-foot-4, 290-pound lineman played just six games in 2015 and has been on the field for only 127 snaps entering his third year with the Blue Devils. Nonetheless, Davis cemented himself as the starter at center with a strong offseason, winning co-Most Improved Offensive Player after spring practice. The Mansfield, Texas, native brings an athletic build to a powerful line and has the maturity to make a seamless transition as he takes over for one of the best linemen in the ACC last season.

The left guard position will be a battle between redshirt freshman Zach Baker and redshirt sophomore Zach Harmon. The two Zachs have gone back-and-forth in the lead-up to preseason practice, but at the moment, it appears as if Cutcliffe has given the slight edge to Baker. The Green Cove Springs, Fla., native has yet to see the field in a Duke uniform, but will likely get the chance to prove himself in the near future.

Dark Horse: Zach Harmon

Just because Harmon may not start at the beginning of 2016, don’t rule him out as a potential starter at multiple positions later on. The 6-foot-3 lineman played in just four games last season, but can work at both the center and guard spots. At just 285 pounds, the Harmon has a versatile build that will enable him to step in comfortably if one of the starting linemen falters orsuffers an injury.

Be sure to stay with the Blue Zone for our continuing 2015 position preview series. Check in tomorrow to see how Duke's revamped defensive line will shape up this season with new coach Ben Albert.

Hank Tucker contributed reporting.

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