Duke's football future is bright
Posted December 8, 2013
Updated February 6, 2014
While there are no moral victories in football, Duke has a lot to be excited about, even in the wake of a disappointing 45-7 loss to Florida State in the ACC Championship game. Even though they battled the Seminoles in the early rounds of Saturday night's title bout, the body blows took a toll on the Blue Devils and the second half was more about determining a final score than a champion.
Make no mistake, Duke should be disappointed. They had a great chance to strike first as sophomore running back Jela Duncan broke free down the left sideline, but he dropped a pass deep in FSU territory that would have almost certainly set Duke up with a first and goal and an eventual lead. What's worse, is that Duke's 67-yard drive came on the heels of a Florida State fumble by running back Devonta Freeman, who coughed up the football inside the Duke 5-yard line. When you're a 29-point underdog, moments present themselves in a football game that you must seize. That was the first, and when Ross Martin's 47-yard field goal was wide to the right, the Devils came up empty.
Later, Duke got a lift from a Jamison Crowder 40-yard punt return that set the Devils up at the FSU 37-yard line. But, Anthony Boone's first interception of the game negated the opportunity and 73 yards later the Seminoles cashed that mistake in for a 14-0 lead. Duke didn't have to take unnecessary risks to beat Florida State, but they had to play a clean game and take advantage of just about every scoring opportunity. Those last two elements were, unfortunately, missing from the Blue Devils' arsenal.
Still, Duke football has an awful lot to look forward to as we head into the bowl season and beyond. The Blue Devils are almost certainly headed to the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Years Eve, the most prestigious post season assignment for the program since the 1960 Cotton Bowl win over Arkansas. Beyond this bowl season however, Duke's football future is very bright. Of the 48 players listed on the depth chart last night in Charlotte, 39 of them have at least one more year of eligibility.
Duke's four leading rushers all return, including all three of their top tailbacks. Junior Josh Snead, and sophomores Jela Duncan and Shaq Powell all averaged more than 5 yards per carry and junior quarterback Brandon Connette rushed for almost 400 yards and 13 touchdowns. Duke's receiving corps is also returning almost entirely intact. Assuming explosive wide out Jamison Crowder and tight end Braxton Deaver don't chase NFL dreams a year early, the Devils will bring back six of their top seven targets and almost 90% of their 2013 receiving yards.
Eleven different Duke players received all-ACC honors, including four that were selected to the first team. Eight of them are coming back. Seven of Duke's top nine defensive backs are freshmen and sophomores and the Blue Devils will return eight of their top 10 tacklers.
In many cases, when a program like Duke's makes a splash, it's on the backs of a seasoned senior class. And, while the Blue Devils certainly were buoyed by veteran corner back Ross Cockrell and sixth year senior defensive end Kenny Anunike, the real driving force behind the surge was the emergence of talented younger players, most of whom will be around for at least another season. Players like DeVon Edwards, a redshirt freshman who had four return touchdowns this year. Breon Borders, a true freshman corner back who intercepted Heisman Trophy favorite Jameis Winston twice Saturday night in Charlotte. And Jeremy Cash, the transfer from Ohio State – yes, THAT Ohio State – who was second on the team in tackles in his first season for Duke.
It's impossible to predict what next season will bring. Clearly, they were a team that achieved a lot in 2013. Aside from the obvious 10-wins and a second consecutive bowl invitation, and a title shot that no one among the college football Illuminati felt would ever happen, they developed an identity. Duke football established something this year. No longer is Duke the doormat of the Atlantic Coast Conference. No longer are they everyone's homecoming game. No longer is Duke a pushover. Duke was physical, fast and relentless football team this year. Until wearing down under the immense talent and determination of a Florida State team that appears destined to bring back the glory days, they were exactly that last night.
Saturday night was an opportunity to win a championship, one that Duke wasn't able to grasp with both hands. While failing to do so is crushingly painful to the players and coaches, it's just another part of the process. From the rubble of a program that had been out of the football business six years ago to the precipice of a conference championship, Saturday night was as much of a step forward as it was a temporary step back.
David Cutcliffe is building a program at Duke and so much of that foundation will be around next season to continue the construction.