What we know:
We know that Duke will need to find replacements at both kicking positions this year. At punter, Duke will replace 4-year starter Trey McDonald with senior Chris Sprague. After transferring from junior college before the 2004 season, Sprague was originally slated to redshirt. When Duke needed to find a reliable kickoff man, however, he stepped up and helped the Devils in that role. As the only scholarship punter on the team, Sprague will need to provide consistency and stability to a position where Duke has had few questions over the last four years.
We also know that Duke will once again have great kick coverage units. The Devils allowed a paltry 15.4 yards per kickoff return, easily the ACC’s best mark. Special teams standout Zack Smith leads this unit as the fearless “wedgebuster”, taking on the meat of the opponent’s blocking wall. Not to be outdone, the Duke punt coverage team was also among the league’s best, led by standout “gunner” C.J. Woodard.
Duke also discovered a dynamic kick returner last year in rising sophomore Chris Davis. He finished third in the ACC and in the top 20 nationally, averaging 25.8 yards per return, including a dynamic 94-yard TD against Maryland. Davis has been elected preseason second-team all-ACC return man, which indicates the level of respect he has earned in his short career.
What we don’t know:
We don’t know who will step up and be the first string kicker this fall. With the recent news of Alex Feinberg leaving the program for a season, Duke will have two players vying for the top job. Incoming freshman Joe Surgan possesses a cannon leg and was the top rated high school kicker in Florida last season. He will battle with returning walk-on kicker Randy DeSmyter for the starting role. DeSmyter has really improved his leg strength and accuracy over the past year, and will not be a pushover. Still, it is difficult to imagine Surgan losing this battle.
While having a reliable kick return game, Duke has struggled mightily over the past four seasons returning punts. Many players have tried their hand at this chore, but none have enjoyed much success. Chris Davis will probably get first crack at the job, but don’t count out players like Jabari Marshall, or even one of the freshman wide receivers such as Marcus Jones or Eron Riley.
Freshman PK Joe Surgan – While departed senior Matt Brooks enjoyed a fine moment last season with his game-winning 54-yard kick against Clemson, he spent most of the season struggling with consistency and distance with his kicks. Surgan has a dynamite leg and has 50+ yard range. Another facet of Surgan’s game that can’t be overlooked is his kickoff ability. Last season, he put 90% of his kickoffs OUT of the end-zone. If he can consistently produce touchbacks, the Devils will gain a field position advantage they rarely enjoyed last season.
What will happen in 2005:
Duke will once again have a solid season covering kicks and punts. Chris Davis will return at least one kickoff for a touchdown, and will also seize hold of the punt return duties. Joe Surgan will win the kicking position and provide Duke with its most consistent kicker since Sims Lenhardt. Surgan’s leg strength will also prove to be a weapon on the kickoff team. Sprague might struggle with his punting consistency, but will mix a few eye-popping punts in. If he can become more reliable, the entire Duke special teams will be a big asset for the upcoming season.