One of the more anticipated changes to the Duke football roster this year was supposed to be the increased depth along the offensive line. A strong class of redshirt freshmen had worked through the 2012 season, throughout the winter and spring, and was beginning to populate the depth chart as training camp wore on.
And then the injuries began.
First it was offensive tackle Tanner Stone being lost to a season-ending ankle injury. Less than two days later, it was classmate Casey Blaser who was lost for an extended period of time with an injured hand. Both played had been singled out by head coach David Cutcliffe as having strong camps, and were projected to see meaningful snaps against NC Central and beyond.
That kind of depth was welcomed for everyone associated with the Duke program, including the upperclassmen.
"Both Tanner and Blaser were having tremendous camps for us," said redshirt senior guard David Harding. "Losing them was hard, but we've had some new guys step up and really take their opportunities. Guys like Sam Marshall, Gabe Brandner, and Sterling Korona have been fantastic."
That Duke could use true freshmen along the offensive line certainly isn't ideal, but Harding says it's something that has changed over the course of his five year career.
"I was talking with Perry Simmons about this the other day. He's never really had a backup, so when those two guys went down, he was like 'well, it's back to the grind'. He's a durable player, who takes care of himself and knows how to make sure he's ready to go each week, but we're now in a position where the young guys are capable of stepping up. That's something you didn't see at the beginning of my career. There are so many young guys who are ready to compete and who can push the starters almost from day one."
The most likely candidate to step in for Stone is recently converted defensive tackle Sam Marshall. The 6-foot-8 redshirt sophomore played on both sides of the ball as a high schooler, but began his career on defense at Duke. That all changed last week however.
"He's been really good with the transition," said Harding. "He hadn't played O-line since high school, and he came in and has picked everything up very quickly as a tackle. As a guy on the interior, it's my job to just encourage him and offer pointers so he can continue to get up to speed."
Depth chart changes to the offensive line may have been made out of necessity, but graduation has played a role at other positions. Perhaps none more in the spotlight than at quarterback where Anthony Boone takes over for the departed Sean Renfree. As a signal caller for Cutcliffe, Boone has apparently accepted the role of team leader, and the offense has begun to evolve.
"He's a really vocal guy. There's not a drop off in leadership with him in control of the team from Sean. He's great at encouraging his guys, and he'll keep the position at a high level."
Intangibles aside, however, Boone is a completely different style of player than Renfree, which means new assignments and new play-calling for the linemen.
"He's a more mobile guy, and we have to be aware of that for sure. We know there will be a lot more times where he rolls out or scrambles, and we have to make sure we continue with our blocks for longer when that happens. It's a nice challenge, and I think we're ready to answer the call when it comes."
In addition to a more mobile quarterback, the Blue Devils will also be working to incorporate a much more balanced offensive attack, which will be powered by a stable of talented backs.
"We know that the coaches want to run the ball a lot more this season, and we're ready for that as well. This group of linemen have the experience and toughness to make sure we open holes for those guys to get the yards and keep us on the field. But, we're still going to be explosive through the air, and we're going to make big plays. As a lineman, I don't see it all the time, just flashes, but guys like Jamison Crowder and Issac Blakeney are going to show up every day, and make things happen for us."
This week Duke began focusing exclusively focusing on the season opener against the Eagles. With just 10 days separating the Blue Devils from that first kick-off, things have changed in practice.
"We're not really seeing much of the starting defense any more. Our defense doesn't run anything unusual up front, but Central does, so we're working against the scout team for this week. It's nice to start preparing for the season, and I know we'll all be ready. We know how important it will be to get off to a good start this season. Things have changed at Duke, and this team will be highly displeased if we don't make it to a bowl game this fall. It's the expectation."