| ||2011 SEASON IN REVIEW:Winning close games has not been easy for Duke and last year presented more of the same. For the second straight season, the Blue Devils finished 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the ACC and have now lost eight games by seven points or less over that span of time. |
The 2011 campaign certainly started on a sour note, with a 23-21 loss at home to FCS foe Richmond. That was followed by a humiliating 44-14 throttling at the hands of Andrew Luck and Stanford. The Blue Devils would turn things around though, winning three straight games with victories over Boston College (20-19), Tulane (48-27) and FIU (31-27) and began October with a winning record.
However, the win over FIU would be the last for Duke, which dropped its last seven games, including heartbreaking back-to-back affairs with Wake Forest (24-23) and Virginia Tech (14-10) in late October.
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|S 1 vs. FIU |
S 8 at Stanford
S 15 vs. NC Central
S 22 vs. Memphis
S 29 at Wake Forest
O 6 vs. Virginia
O 13 at Virginia Tech
O 20 vs. North Carolina
O 27 at Florida State
N 3 vs. Clemson
N 17 at Georgia Tech
N 24 vs. Miami-Florida
QB Sean Renfree
RB Juwan Thompson
WR Brandon Braxton
WR Conner Vernon
OT Perry Simmons
OG John Coleman
OG Laken Tomlinson
C Dave Harding
DE Justin Foxx
DE Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo
DT Sydney Sarmiento
LB Kelby Brown
LB Austin Gamble
CB Ross Cockrell
S Jordan Byas
S Walt Canty
OFFENSE:The Duke offense was a bit one-dimensional in 2011, moving the ball quite effectively through the air (272.2 ypg), while struggling for the most part on the ground (94.1 ypg). Despite ranking an impressive 28th in the nation in passing, the Blue Devils were a mere 93rd in scoring.
Quarterback Sean Renfree had a strong season under center, completing 65 percent of his throws for 2,891 yards and 14 TDs. It helped to have a solid one-two punch in the receiving corps in Connor Vernon and Donovan Varner. The pair combined for 131 catches, over 1,600 yards and nine TDs. Varner has move on and Vernon will now be relied on even more in a receiving corps in transition.
Vernon is up to the task though and has had a distinguished career in Durham, racking up 198 career catches. He heads into 2012 needing just 35 receptions to become the ACC's all-time leader in that category.
The hope is that with four of last year's five starting linemen back, Renfree will be afforded the time to gel with other receivers. Headlining the offensive line is sophomore guard Laken Tomlinson, who earned Freshman All-American honors in 2011.
The ground game features the veteran tandem of Juwan Thompson (457 yards, seven TDs last year) and Desmond Scott (367 yards, two TDs), but neither player has proved to be a workhorse that can provide the kind of offensive balance that Duke desperately needs.
DEFENSE:Last year's defensive unit showed flashes of solid play, but for the most part, was a disappointment, allowing 425.4 yards per game. The real problem was stopping the run, as foes averaged a hefty 180.7 yards per game on almost five yards per carry (4.9). The Blue Devils only lose three starters from last year, although All-American safety Matt Daniels is one of them.
There isn't a whole lot of valuable experience on defense in 2012 for Duke. The defensive line possesses numbers, but lacks a true leader. Ends Justin Foxx (30 tackles, 2-5 TFLs) and Kenny Anunike (13 tackles, four sacks) will need to step up in that regard. Junior Kelby Brown (65 tackles, 5.5 TFLs) and senior Austin Gamble (43 tackles, 3.5 TFLs) return in the linebacking corps, while senior free safety Walt Canty headlines the secondary. Canty is the team's top returning tackler after posting 87 stops in 2011.
According to cornerback Lee Butler, the secondary could be a strength for Duke, despite the loss of Daniels.
"It's hard to replace Matt Daniels. He was the heart and soul of our defense. But a lot of guys who played around him, we got to see him do things. We've learned from him. I think we'll learn to adapt. I feel we are actually better than we were last year because we have a lot more guys who have played ...and not just played one season, but played a couple of seasons."
SPECIAL TEAMS:The kicking game is another unknown in 2012 after being regarded as one of the more stable areas in 2011. Gone are All-American placekicker Will Snyderwine and punter Alex King.
The Blue Devils will likely go young in both areas this year. Freshman Ross Martin was a high school All-American and will be given every opportunity to make an immediate impact. Redshirt freshman Will Monday has a strong leg and should be able to lock down the punting duties.
OUTLOOK:In his fifth season in Durham, Cutcliffe is sitting firmly on a hot seat. While Duke has improved in terms of competing week-in and week-out, it has not translated in terms of landing in the win column on a regular basis. Still, Cutcliffe likes what he sees in his team.
"This team is the best of a lot of things - the best looking squad we've had, it's the strongest squad we've had and it's the fastest squad we've had," Cutcliffe said. "So regardless of what people say or don't say about our team, we go in with great expectation, not anticipation - there's a difference. And I want our team to clearly understand what expectation means."
The Blue Devils will once again move the football through the air with Renfree, Vernon and company, but will need to perform up to par in other areas to make true progress.
The non-conference slate is comprised of FIU, Stanford, NC Central and Memphis. Of those games, Duke is only really outmatched in one and the long trip out west to take on the Cardinal is likely to result in a lopsided loss. However, three wins out of conference will match last year's overall win total.
Getting over that mark won't come easy, as Duke has been relegated to the conference cellar for quite some time. ACC road trips to Wake Forest, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech aren't likely to add to the Blue Devils' win total. The home slate will prove equally challenging, with Virginia, North Carolina, Clemson and Miami-Florida all coming to Durham.
A third straight year at 3-9 and 1-7 in the ACC may not be able to keep Cutcliffe employed at Duke.
By Scott Haynes, Senior College Football Editor