Fall Camp opens for Duke football today and with it comes the nagging nervousness over when the first big injury of the year will hurt. Health is a huge part of football and particularly Duke football as key injuries to standout players have derailed promising seasons in the past. This season will be no different as Duke has already lost backup QB Thomas Sirk for most, if not all, of the season to an achilles injury.
The grim reality is Duke does not have enough depth in some positions to sustain many injuries like this, but to be fair, who does outside of the Tide and the Buckeyes?
However, while health is certainly a key to the season, it isn’t the only trait that will determine the Gridiron Devils success this fall. Here are my five things to watch for that could indicate whether Duke improves or declines.
1) Kelby Brown’s health – Ok, so I’m still on health, but this could be crucial. The linebacker hasn’t been fully healthy in two years but when he is, he’s the best linebacker on the squad. Against the run last year, Duke surrendered exactly 5.0 yards per carry and will be without Walt Canty and Austin Gamble, two of the better run stuffers. If Brown is healthy all season, expect a big upgrade in that area as he’s shown himself to be fantastic against the run in his career.
2) Brandon Connette – The Swiss Army Knife of Duke football wears many helmets but it will be most interesting to see what position he features most prominently. Mostly used as a power running quarterback the last two years, Connette will likely see that role fade this season with a more run-focused starting QB. So where does David Cutcliffe utilize this tool? Does he factor alongside David Reeves at TE in goal line situations? Will he factor in as the backup quarterback and see less risky game action? Or, my favorite, will he play WITH Boone in a two-headed, dual QB offense in which both can act as a running back or quarterback on any given play? Imagine lining up on defense, not knowing which will get the ball or what they will do with it even after it’s snapped?
3) Ross Cockrell’s opposite – Fall camp is often used to win position battles and few are as important than the cornerback position opposite of Ross Cockrell. While Cockrell is an NFL draft prospect, the other corner is entirely unknown. Garrett Patterson is currently listed as the starter but he is certainly susceptible to the likes of freshman Everett Edwards. Whoever wins this spot will be a target, make no mistake, as opposing offenses will likely shy away from Cockrell so there will be a lot resting on this players shoulders.
4) Anthony Boone – So much revolves around the junior quarterback and yet so much remains unknown. In the first season post-Renfree, Boone leads a new offense, with a new center, new receivers, and he himself is new. Sure, we saw him seal the win over Wake Forest and lead Duke to victory over Virginia but that is hardly a sample size to understand how his abilities will unfold over a season. We know he’s got a powerful arm and is a decent runner but how will we do when playing from behind? How will he execute the two minute drill? How does he take to getting hit? Can he stay healthy? Should Boone get injured, Duke’s season could come apart.
5) The New Receivers – Not only is it the first season without Renfree but gone are the Killer V’s. Duke has had one on the roster for the past five years but no more. Jamison Crowder returns and will assume the new role as top target. Beside him, several will try to step into the position he played so well next to Connor Vernon. The main contenders are Max McCaffrey, Anthony Nash, Isaac Blakeney, and Erich Schneider. The latter three all blessed with extraordinary size while McCaffrey possesses the best hands and was named Most Improved during spring ball. Each of them will factor into the rotation but it is unknown how many three wide sets Duke will use this fall thanks to the new offense, which will limit the targets each of them sees.
Just four weeks until Duke kicks off their season against N.C. Central on Saturday, August 31st.