Duke has big shoes to fill on offensive line

En route to its recent success, Duke completely transformed itself on the offensive line, where its players are much bigger, way more physical and -- perhaps most important of all -- able to shoulder much more responsibility.

That is a big reason why 2014 presents such a huge challenge. The two most veteran starters on the offensive line must be replaced, testing Duke in a way it has not been tested in years. Left guard Dave Harding and right tackle Perry Simmons started a combined 91 games and laid the foundation for the improvement the offensive line has made.

Without them, Duke plans on turning to promising Lucas Patrick at guard and Tanner Stone at tackle, both having been groomed for the moment that awaits.

“It’s hard losing guys of that caliber on the offensive line, but I believe we have the talent that we need to replace Perry Simmons and Dave Harding,” All-ACC guard Laken Tomlinson said in a recent phone interview. “We have athletes coming up, young guys who have been a part of our system for a while, and they’re biting at the chance to show the coaches what they’ve got.”

Patrick and Stone took the majority of first-team reps during spring practice. Stone, slated to be the backup to Simmons last season, missed all of 2013 with a broken ankle. When Simmons got hurt in the ACC championship game, Patrick played out of position and started at tackle.

That at least gives him some starting experience, though he did see playing time rotating with Harding last season. Quarterback Anthony Boone described Patrick as “a big, mean nasty offensive lineman.”

“He’s the one offensive lineman you want on your O-line to keep it balanced,” Boone said. “You might have your fundamentally sound ones, but then you have that one who’s a little edgy, a little chippy. That’s who he is, and he’s a great addition to our offense.”

Boone noted the “huge, tremendous progress” the line made throughout spring. Where Patrick was not much of a question mark to teammates because he got playing time a year ago, there was more uncertainty about Stone because he was getting back on the football field for the first time in months. But Boone said, “He’s big, he’s physical, and he understands what we’re trying to get done.”

Indeed, that seemed to be a huge difference throughout the course of the spring. Though offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery did not want to discuss potential new starters by name, he did say: “The biggest difference with our team over the last few years has been what coach John Latina has been able to do on our offensive front. Our offensive front has grown tremendously. You can lean on your offensive front more than we have in the past, and that gives you a good feeling.”

Tomlinson explained when he first arrived on campus in 2010, Duke did not have the depth necessary to be as physical as it wanted to be.

But now?

“We have depth and we have experience and we have necessary talent on the offensive line. Now all you can do is coach toughness and go out there and be a nasty offensive line,” he said. “I like being a part of this offensive line. I think we’re one of the best offensive lines in the nation, going out there and taking care of business every snap, letting the team know that we can handle whatever is out there.

“I think that gives our offensive players, our quarterbacks and receivers. a sense of confidence to go out there and compete at the highest level and not worry about are we getting beat around the corner, are we giving up sacks.”

Even still, there could be some bumps early in 2014 with two new starters on the line.