What to watch this spring: Offense

What to watch this spring: Offense

The reigning ACC Coastal Division champions have already taken the field for Spring Practice 2014. Duke returns 44 lettermen including 17 starters from last year's history making group that finished 10-4 on the year. We examine the team on a position by position basis as in our spring preview. First up is the offense.

Quarterback:
The Blue Devils are fortunate enough to return both quarterbacks who saw extensive action in 2013. Starter Anthony Boone and backup/Phantom Brandon Connette combined to complete 296-of-467 (.634) passes for 3,472 yards with 26 TDs & 19 INTs while rushing 167 times for 551 yards and 19 TDs.

Boone will return as the starter, while Connette will once again be a defensive coordinator's nightmare by lining up at any number of positions. A season ago he produced a Duke season record by accounting for 27 touchdowns in 14 games.

Before the 2013 season began, Connette was projected to spend more time playing any number of positions than under center as Thomas Sirk had overtaken him as Boone's primary backup. However, Sirk suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in April and was never cleared in 2014. With Sirk out, Duke relied on Boone and Connette to play, but also had then true freshman Parker Boehme ready to go in an emergency role.

With Connette and Sirk expected to be back at 100 percent, Boehme will likely be the fourth option under center in 2014. True freshman and early enrollee Johnathan Lloyd will begin his career under center, but could transition to another position depending on fit. It's the same story with Quay Chambers, who spent his redshirt season as a quarterback, but was projected as a wide receiver out of high school by Scout.com

Projected Depth Chart:
1. Anthony Boone
2. Thomas Sirk
3. Parker Boehme
4. Johnathan Lloyd

Note: Connette will likely fill his phantom/x-back role for Duke while Boone takes the majority of the snaps as the team's starter. Sirk, if fully healthy, should be named the team's primary backup, and we like Lloyd to factor in during his redshirt season - making for an interesting debate this time next year.


Running Backs:
The Stable as it's known to Duke players, coaches, and fans, lost one of its top producers when sophomore Jela Duncan was suspended for 2014. The Blue Devils will also be without departed senior Juwan Thompson, who was one of the better blocking backs Duke had.

Starter Josh Snead returns as does Shaquille Powell. The two accounted for nearly 1,000 yards (998) on just 169 carries (5.91/carry) in 2013. With Duncan gone, it'll mean an increased load for Powell who carried the ball just 62 times a season ago. Snead will once again be the potential home run hitter with great speed, but it'll be up to Powell to be the work horse back as the team looks to fill the 113 carries assigned to Duncan.

Redshirt freshman Joseph Ajeigbe will be called upon to produce this season as the third string back. Ajeigbe came in a season ago with the reputation as a powerful back and is listed at 5'9 and 215 pounds. In last year's final scrimmage before the season opener, Ajeigbe recorded 49 yards on eight attempts.

Projected Depth Chart:
1. Josh Snead
2. Shaquille Powell
3. Joseph Ajeigbe

Note: Duke will have just three scholarship RBs on the roster for Spring Practice, which makes getting through the next several weeks injury free a priority. With Duncan gone, the Blue Devils may be relying on incoming true freshman Shaun Wilson as a fourth option when the 2014 preseason camp kicks off.


Tight Ends:
The Blue Devils return three lettermen including starter and all-ACC performer Braxton Deaver. A season ago Deaver hauled in 46 passes for 600 yards and four scores. He saved his best performance of the season for the biggest game, pulling in six balls for 116 yards in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Deaver's backup, David Reeves wasn't used as much in the passing game (3 catches/38 yards/1 TD) but was provides support in the run and blocking games.

Duke also has special teams contributor Dan Beilinson (appeared in 13 games), and Erich Schneider returning.

Projected Depth Chart:
1. Braxton Deaver
2. David Reeves
3. Dan Beilinson
4. Erich Schneider

Note: Deaver will be the primary target, and Duke will hope that Beilinson can take the necessary steps forward to factor into the passing game. He came into Duke three years ago with the reputation of a decent target for quarterbacks. Reeves recorded his lone score of the season against A&M, and it is likely he'll work himself into a few more passing play calls as the target as the year progresses.


Wide Receivers:
Duke returns first team all-ACC performer Jamison Crowder and several exciting and productive backups.

It all starts with Crowder who posted 108 catches for 1,360 yards and eight scores last season as the team's top target. Just how good was Crowder in 2013? He set program records for receptions, receiving yards, most games with 1+ reception (14), most games with 2+ receptions (14), most games with 5+ receptions (13), most games with 10+ receptions (4) and most games with 100+ receiving yards (7).

He will be back for more as a senior - probably as a preseason first team all-conference selection, but Crowder will need help as defenses redouble their efforts and attention. Duke returns six lettermen and two starters for 2014 after losing Brandon Braxton. The most productive returnees were rising senior Issac Blakeney (19 catches for 244 yards and four TDs) and Max McCaffrey (26 catches/282 yards/4 TDs).

Going forward, Duke will likely expect to see more out of sophomore Johnell Barnes, who earned his way onto the field as a true freshman in 2013 and averaged a team high 14.47 yards per catch. The Blue Devils will also look to see if Anthony Nash can realize his potential and translate his athleticism, size, and speed after spending two years working to add strength and weight.

Projected Depth Chart:
1. Jamison Crowder
2. Johnell Barnes
3. Issac Blakeney
4. Max McCaffrey
5. Anthony Nash
6. Ryan Smith

Note: This is arguably the deepest position on the roster along with the offensive line. Duke will headline with Crowder, and has a number of experienced second tier receivers ready to step up and relieve the pressure on their top receiver. Sophomore Ryan Smith actually played in five games before disappearing from the rotation latter in the season. We look for Barnes to make a big leap as a true sophomore, and to eventually emerge as the team's second option in the passing game. Blakeney will also factor in for size, and could be backed up by Nash. The rotation will also get a jolt over the summer when the class of 2014 arrives in Durham and immediate impact player Trevon Lee factors in.


Offensive Line:
For years the Duke offensive line was perpetually listed as a question mark when previewing the Blue Devils' upcoming season. However, head coach David Cutcliffe and his staff have made controlling the line of scrimmage a priority, and have recruited a number of high level linemen over their tenure. It has paid off and continues to do so leading into 2014 where Duke will return seven lettermen including three starters from a group that allowed the fewest sacks per pass attempt in the ACC.

Starters Takoby Cofield, Matt Skura, and Laken Tomlinson are back along with Lucas Patrick who filled in as a starter against Texas A&M. Carson Ginn is also back after playing roughly 10 snaps per game.

The most likely fill-ins have been in the program for three and four years already. Fourth year juniors Marcus Aprahamian and Cody Robinson will likely factor in along with underclassmen Casey Blaser, Sterling Korona, and Tanner Stone. The wildcard could be converted defensive tackle Sam Marshall who has prototypical size for an offensive tackle.

Projected Starters:
1. Takoby Cofield
2. Matt Skura
3. Laken Tomlinson
4. Carson Ginn
5. Lucas Patrick

Note: Gone are the days when the incoming freshman class would factor into the two-deep. The entire 2014 class has already indicated a plan of redshirting as the Blue Devils will rely on a stable of experienced players to protect Boone and open holes for the backs as Duke balances the offense. If everyone can remain healthy, Duke should once again have one of the better lines in the ACC.

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