After a bye week where head coach David Cutcliffe had to deal with the loss of his starting center, Duke is preparing for an in-state matchup with Charlotte. The two teams haven't met since the 49ers launched their football program in 2008 and a win against a Power 5 school is something that Charlotte would welcome. With that said, the Blue Zone brings you a player from each team capable of shifting the game in their team’s favor on Saturday:
Duke: Offensive lineman Graham Barton
I can’t remember the last time the Blue Zone picked an offensive lineman as an impact player, but Graham Barton finds himself in a unique situation. After both starting centers Jack Wohlabaugh and Will Taylor went down with injury, the true freshman Barton has found himself as the centerpiece of Duke's offensive line.
Charlotte has struggled getting to the quarterback all year, so I’d expect co-defensive coordinators Marcus West and Brandon Cooper to pick on Barton all game long. The Tennessee native has seen game action this year and while Cutcliffe speaks highly of him, this is his first time in the starting role. The importance of the center often goes overlooked but crisp snaps and good pass protection will give quarterback Chase Brice time to survey the field and make plays.
Linebacker blitzes and possibly even shading a defensive tackle in one of the A-gaps alongside Barton are both real possibilities, so having the composure to snap the ball cleanly and then make his blocks is going to be the difference between the Blue Devil offense breaking out or not.
Charlotte: Defensive end Romeo McKnight
The 49ers have a total of 3.0 sacks on the year, and 1.5 of them can be accredited to Romeo McKnight. McKnight has a prototypical pass rushing frame at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, but whether or not he uses that to his advantage will be a difference on Saturday.
If he can stunt and change his alignment to create favorable matchups for himself or for his fellow defensive lineman, Duke will have no time to work through any growing pains Barton may have. Brice has not shown any signs that he is getting comfortable in the pocket, so chaos in the backfield will be Charlotte’s best friend.
McKnight has the most promise out of the entire defensive line and if he can manage to disrupt the rhythm of the offense, the 49ers will have a much better chance at pulling off a historic win for their program.
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