ACC: Thomas Sirk

It may seem counterintuitive to open spring practice in the depths of winter, but Duke coach David Cutcliffe believes he has found a formula that works for his Blue Devils.

For the second straight year, Duke will open spring ball in early February, hitting the field well before its counterparts. The idea came to him after the 2013 season, when his players clamored to return to practice as quickly as they could following a history-making season that featured 10 wins and a premier bowl slot in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Texas A&M.

[+] EnlargeDuke's David Cutcliffe
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesDuke coach David Cutcliffe liked the results from opening spring practice in early February last year that the Blue Devils are doing it again.
“It was the best spring that I’ve been around,” Cutcliffe said in a recent phone interview. “Our players loved it. Our strength staff loved it. Our medical staff loved it. Our team playing in bowl games every year now, there’s still carry over. We don’t have to restart everything in April. We can step right into it.

“And recruiting has changed, where we’re making final decisions on people in April and March. Now we know what our squad looks like, what our needs are and the direction we want to go, and we spend more time in the recruiting process after spring practice as a staff. We’re working five days a week on recruiting, which is great.”

Cutcliffe also said he got one more bonus after taking a look at his team last February.

“I came off the field the first day of spring practice last year and told our staff, ‘We’re going to have a really good football team, guys,’” Cutcliffe said. “I hope I feel the same way this year.”

When Duke does take the field Feb. 6, there will be major questions that have to be answered, most especially on offense. How do the Blue Devils replace starting quarterback Anthony Boone, All-ACC receiver Jamison Crowder and All-American guard Laken Tomlinson?

Cutcliffe said Duke will open the spring with Thomas Sirk as the starter at quarterback, though Parker Boehme and Nico Pierre will get their share of reps. The trio has combined for zero career starts, so Duke has gone from having the most experienced quarterback in the ACC to the least experienced in the span of a few months.

“This is the most athletic, fastest group of quarterbacks we’ve had,” Cutcliffe said. “Extremely strong arms. The only thing they don’t have is a bunch of experience, but Thomas won a game for us at Pitt running the football, so he’s been in games where it mattered. But at some point in any program, you’re going to be playing somewhat experienced quarterbacks. What you hope you’re doing is playing with talented, inexperienced quarterbacks -- and these guys happen to be multi-talented.”

Maybe more important is finding production to rival what Crowder did during his Duke career. He finished his career tied for the ACC and Duke career reception records (283) and ranks No. 3 on the ACC career receiving yards list (3,641) after closing with three straight 1,000-yard seasons.

Duke does have receiver depth, but nobody proven as a go-to player. Johnell Barnes, Terrence Alls, Anthony Nash and Max McCaffrey will be expected to step up. Cutcliffe also wants to see how redshirt freshmen Trevon Lee and Chris Taylor do in the spring. The potential also exists for ESPN 300 receiver Keyston Fuller to make an impact, provided he signs in February.

Beyond receiver, Duke should be set at tight end with the return of Braxton Deaver and at running back, where the Blue Devils have plenty of depth. Jela Duncan is back in class after being academically ineligible last season. He joins a group that returns Shaquille Powell, Shaun Wilson and Joe Ajeigbe.

Defensively, Duke will welcome back Kelby Brown, who is on track to return for fall practice after a third ACL injury. Plus, Jeremy Cash anchors a secondary that brings all its starters back.

“We have to prove ourselves, but I feel very good about our team,” Cutcliffe said. “I really do.”

He might feel even better about it come Feb. 6.
DURHAM, N.C. -- The schedule laid out so favorably for Duke, you had to stop and wonder whether the Blue Devils created it on their own.

The defending Coastal champions had three teams either at or below .500 to close out the season. All they had to do was win out, and they would be back in the ACC championship game.

But winning can be elusive. First, Duke lost to Virginia Tech 17-16 last week in a last-second heartbreaker. Then, Duke lost to North Carolina 45-20 on Thursday night in a different type of heartbreaker, one that dashed its hopes at a return trip to Charlotte.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Boone, Nazair Jones, North Carolina Tar Heels, Duke Blue Devils
Gerry Broome/Associated PressDuke couldn't deal with the pressure, both of expectations and from North Carolina, on Thursday.
While the complexion of both games was different, there a few common threads. Duke made too many mistakes against the Hokies, and it made too many mistakes against the Tar Heels. With a team that has so little margin for error, those mistakes became impossible to overcome.

So Duke trudged into the home locker room while rival North Carolina stomped on the Duke logo at midfield, then moved to the sideline and spray painted the Victory Bell Carolina blue. The Tar Heels clinched bowl eligibility with their strongest performance of the season, one that has been expected all sesaon.

When the schedule was released in January, the thought was that this game would decide the Coastal between Duke and North Carolina. While the Tar Heels fumbled about for the first half of the season, Duke rose to the top once again. But while last season was a fun adventure for Duke, this one proved to be a little different.

Unaccustomed to being the favorite, Duke could not handle itself in critical must-win situations. While coach David Cutcliffe might disagree, quarterback Anthony Boone said these last several games were more stressful than the stretch run a season ago.

“I think it’s going to be a different mentality now that that pressure of not losing is lifted off our back,” Boone said. “I think it might be a little more relaxed. Obviously, it’s a tough loss. But that Coastal thing, it may have gotten in the way a little bit.”

What is remarkable about the way Duke has turned around its program is that many consider the last two games a disappointment. That is how much expectations have changed around a program that is now used to winning far more than it is used to losing.

But Cutcliffe reiterated in his postgame comments that Duke still has a chance to win nine games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. There is still plenty left for Duke to accomplish, even though Georgia Tech will represent the Coastal against Florida State on Dec. 6.

“I told them, ‘It’s OK ... we’re all going to feel mad, we’re going to feel deep anger, we’re going to feel sad, we’re going to be disappointed but we’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re going to help each other. We’re all going to pick ourselves up. It’s tough to lose two games in a row. For us, that’s news. Everybody’s sick to their stomach, but if you don’t like what you’re getting, then change what you’re doing.”

Turnovers have been a factor. In their three losses this season, Duke has turned the ball over nine times. In eight wins, Duke turned it over three times. The mistakes were particularly devastating Thursday night. The first was a fumble on the opening drive, one that showed so much promise until Thomas Sirk coughed up the ball. North Carolina turned that into a touchdown.

In all, the Tar Heels scored 21 points off three turnovers. North Carolina had its share of mistakes, too, committing three turnovers as well. But Duke scored zero points off those miscues.

Duke players also said they could not match the Tar Heels’ intensity, and that won’t win many football games, either.

“We got out competed throughout the whole game,” Duke running back Shaquille Powell said. “UNC played real hungry and we didn’t play like we wanted to go out there and go to the ACC championship and beat these guys so we have to play with more intensity.”

Added linebacker David Helton: “That’s probably the most disappointing for us, knowing they came out and outcompeted us. We thought we had more in ourselves, but we know who we are and we know what kind of team we are and we know what we’ll do.”

Charlotte might be out of consideration, but Duke has no plans to lose out.

Planning for success: Duke

October, 14, 2014
It's not a label most quarterbacks enjoy, and for Anthony Boone, the "game manager" tag is one that probably gets tossed about too easily. He did, after all, go toe-to-toe with Johnny Manziel in last year's bowl game, and he's carried the Blue Devils on his back more than once.

Still, after Duke upended Georgia Tech on Saturday, which gave the Blue Devils their first win in Atlanta in 20 years and scrambled the Coastal Division race, coach David Cutcliffe's critique -- a compliment really -- felt spot-on.

"I thought Anthony managed the game very well," Cutcliffe said.

[+] EnlargeDuke's Anthony Boone
Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsDuke's Anthony Boone completed 16 of 26 passes for 131 yards, a touchdown and no picks against Georgia Tech. He also rushed 10 times for 49 yards.
Game manager. That's certainly what Boone seemed to do so well against the Yellow Jackets. He completed 16 of 26 passes for 131 yards, a touchdown and no picks. He added 49 more yards rushing, but it was the work of Josh Snead and Joseph Ajeigbe -- plus Boone's backup, Thomas Sirk, who scored twice -- that paved the road to victory on the ground.

Boone was the maestro, ensuring the perfect notes were played for Duke's offense to topple the previously unbeaten Yellow Jackets, but he wasn't asked to do much of the heavy lifting.

Six games into an uneven season, this is the role Cutcliffe would like Boone to play more often.

Boone's had his good games and his struggles, but what Cutcliffe wants his quarterback to understand is, Duke should be able to win without its quarterback playing the part of hero or goat.

"The theme for us when we're at our best, our offensive front is playing pretty consistent," Cutcliffe said. "When that works and Anthony has gotten in his groove, we're a very versatile offensive team. We can be different from week-to-week and play to different strengths."

That versatility will be crucial in this week's matchup against Virginia -- hardly a game many circled on their calendars at the outset of the season, but one that may now help shape the Coastal.

Virginia's defense has been exceptional this season, with a line that's created havoc for many a quarterback and a secondary that features veteran stars and emerging youngsters. In other words, it's not a matchup that begs Boone to play beyond his means.

"We're very aware Virginia is doing a great job," Cutcliffe said. "I think they're outstanding. They've played great defense all year long."

Still, there's a legitimate question about how good Duke's passing game can be. Just 2.8 percent of the Blue Devils' passing attempts against FBS teams have gone for touchdowns -- a number that ranks 59th out of 65 Power 5 teams and a fraction of the success rate they enjoyed at this point a year ago. Duke's adjusted QBR against FBS foes is just 53.5 -- below even Virginia, whose own QB situation has been a roller coaster. Star receiver Jamison Crowder has just 12 catches for 90 yards and no touchdowns in three matchups against Power 5 opponents.

Those numbers could add up to frustration for Boone and the Duke passing game, and could drive the quarterback to want to do more. That's exactly the danger against Virginia, Cutcliffe said.

The key for Boone is to do exactly what he need to do -- and nothing else.

"The biggest thing is what I've said all along, just trying to do too much, thinking too much, trying to go beyond what a player needs to do," Cutcliffe said of his QB. "He's very knowledgeable and takes great pride in being knowledgeable and that's awesome. But he has to remember to play the game. It was obvious to me that he was knotting himself up, and the deeper we got into the start of the season, the worse it was getting. He was getting away with it at times early with us being a good bit better than most of the teams we were playing. But when you're going to play against the people we have the rest of the way, you're going to have to be a better player. That's the bottom line."

In the loss to Miami, Boone threw 51 times -- a career high. He completed just 43 percent of his throws -- his second-worst rate as a starter. When it was over, Duke's place in the Coastal race looked bleak.

Then two weeks later, Duke looked far more prepared, Boone much better refined, and the Blue Devils climbed back into contention with a long-awaited win. There's a lesson there, Cutcliffe said.

Beating Virginia will take a little bit of everything, and not too much from the QB.

"Our guys were playing at a very high level from an effort and energy standpoint [against Georgia Tech]," Cutcliffe said. "Now we've got to build off this and do a great job of getting better at so many little things we need to do better."

Why Duke will win the Coastal

July, 23, 2014
The ACC's Coastal Division is wide open entering the 2014 season. With six of seven teams receiving at least one first-place vote in the preseason media poll, the possibilities for how this race shakes out are seemingly endless. Here, we take a look at the six teams that garnered first-place votes, examining reasons that are working for and against them in their quests to get to the ACC title game.

Why Duke will win the Coastal

[+] EnlargeAnthony Boone
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Boone playing with a chip on his shoulder could be good for Duke's ACC Coastal Division title hopes.
1) The Blue Devils are the defending champs. The program has had a steady climb under David Cutcliffe, most notably in the last two seasons, with a six-win campaign in 2012 preceding a 10-win, division-winning season last fall. Similar improvements this season, particularly on defense, will have Duke running away with the division, though one has to wonder how much higher this group has left to climb. Still, Cutcliffe has said that Duke is here to stay. And despite finishing second in the preseason media poll, the Blue Devils had the most first-place votes (33) of anyone, six more than the next-highest total, North Carolina at 27. They are good, and they know it. As does everyone else.

2) They have the skill players. Don't be surprised if Anthony Boone enters this season with a chip on his shoulder after seeing multiple preseason All-ACC teams list UNC's Marquise Williams ahead of him as the second-team quarterback. Boone took his Blue Devils into Chapel Hill last season and beat Williams and the Tar Heels, and Williams isn't even assured of starting this season. More importantly, Boone is throwing to one of the nation's most versatile receivers in Jamison Crowder, along with tight end Braxton Deaver and a talented stable of running backs who will be protected by an offensive line that brings back three key starters.

3) Their secondary is strong. The loss of All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell is not nearly as devastating as it probably could be, given the talent returning among the defensive backs. Safety Jeremy Cash is coming off a 121-tackle, four-interception season. DeVon Edwards is flexible in the back end and has a knack for making plays wherever he is on the field, including on kick returns. Breon Borders is looking to build off a freshman campaign that featured him picking off Jameis Winston twice in the ACC title game. Given the youth up front on the defensive line, this group will probably get tested more often, and it appears well-equipped to handle the workload.

Why Duke won't win the Coastal

1) The Blue Devils are the defending champs. Yes, Duke's success could -- could -- be the reason for its downfall, if there is one. As stated above, this program is no longer a secret commodity. In fact, some Coastal teams are probably still irked by the fact that Duke finished ahead of them in football. It's silly, yes, but it also presents a whole new set of challenges for a program that had not experienced much recent success until the last two seasons. How well Duke can handle having the target on its back will go a long way toward determining its fate in the division race.

2) Brandon Connette's legs will be missed. Connette is the program's career leader in rushing touchdowns (31), and his running ability was crucial in the red zone, which helped his efficiency as a passer as well. With Connette having transferred to Fresno State to be closer to his sick mother, more will be on Boone's plate, as the new No. 2, Thomas Sirk, has yet to take a college snap. Cutcliffe is high on the redshirt sophomore, but asking him to do what Connette was able to accomplish might be a tall task this early.

3) The defensive line is an unknown. Tackle Jamal Bruce is the only returning starter up front, though the other three linemen joining him on the first team are upperclassmen who have seen extensive time before. And, to be fair, the line was hardly dominant last season, averaging less than two sacks per game. Having a pair of 100-tackle linebackers back in David Helton and Kelby Brown sure helps, as does that secondary, but the pass rush cannot afford to take a step back in 2014.

ACC's lunch links: QB roundup

July, 22, 2014
The most honest man at ACC Kickoff was probably Wake Forest's Dave Clawson. And, to his credit, he even managed to find a little humor in the bleak picture painted by his depth chart this year, as the High Point Enterprise wrote.
Asked to comment about where his first Wake Forest team is predicted to finish in the ACC's tough Atlantic Division, Clawson replied, “Were we picked to win it? I didn't see those. Were we unanimous first? The bull's-eye is on us, right?”

Clawson didn't sugar-coat the team's lack of experience and depth, but he had his most pointed comments regarding the quarterback position, where Tyler Cameron and Kevin Sousa are battling for a job that no one seems eager to win.

“Those two guys who took snaps in the spring, neither did enough, even if we didn't have those [true freshmen] coming in, to take control of the job,” Clawson said.

What was unique from Clawson was his pessimism on the position. What wasn't unique were the questions about the position. Plenty of coaches were asked about their quarterbacks in Greensboro, and for good reason. After talking with each coach and the players in attendance, here's a quick run-down of where each ACC team's QB situation stands.

1. Florida State: Jameis Winston is the returning Heisman winner and his time in Greensboro was, at the very least, a solid first step in FSU's quest to repair its quarterback's image.

2. Duke: Anthony Boone is the only other quarterback in the league with at least 300 attempts last season who is back for 2014, but David Cutcliffe still plans to use two quarterbacks and eagerly talked up Thomas Sirk, who will step into the red zone role manned so well by Brandon Connette last season.

3. Clemson: The biggest worry for Clemson is the potential for a real quarterback controversy (or, at the very least, a lively debate) if Cole Stoudt struggles early. Dabo Swinney offered blanket support for his senior, but the early schedule is difficult, and the immensely talented but completely green Deshaun Watson is waiting in the wings.

4. NC State: Dave Doeren can barely contain his enthusiasm about the addition of Jacoby Brissett, whom the coach described as “everything you recruit in a quarterback.” Doeren did remind reporters, however, that Brissett's on-field experience remains extremely limited.

5. North Carolina: Hey, if Peyton Manning says Marquise Williams is going to be an exceptional passer, who are we to argue? Still, it's not enough to convince Larry Fedora to hand him the starting job just yet, and it sounds more and more like UNC will use two quarterbacks at times.

6. Syracuse: Terrel Hunt has proved he can win and he's taken on a leadership role this offseason, but he still needs to prove he can be a respectable downfield passer. And even Scott Shafer admitted things needed to get better there.

7. Louisville: The depth chart isn't set in stone here either, but Bobby Petrino had plenty of praise for Will Gardner in Greensboro, saying, "He can make all the throws you need to make. He's got the arm strength. He's got a very quick release. ... He's a natural leader that the players have already learned to follow."

8. Pitt: Paul Chryst says Chad Voytik still has a ways to go, but he's pleased with the quarterback's progress and, of course, Voytik will have as dangerous a weapon as any first-year starter in the league in Tyler Boyd.

9. Boston College: The Eagles actually have a relatively experienced and settled QB spot with the arrival of transfer Tyler Murphy, and lineman Andy Gallik said Murphy has grasped the offense and taken on a leadership role. But his problem will be that he doesn't have much in the way of receiving targets or experience in the backfield to help him out.

10. Virginia: Mike London shrugged off the rumors about his job, and one reason he can do that is that he's immensely confident in QB Greyson Lambert, who looks to have cemented his role as the team's starter.

11. Georgia Tech: Paul Johnson smiled at the notion that recently departed QB Vad Lee said the triple-option wasn't for him, noting the situation had become “frustrating” for both sides. With Justin Thomas, however, Johnson said he has the ideal quarterback to run his offense.

12. Virginia Tech: Well, Brenden Motley did get a preseason player of the year vote, even if he's not exactly destined to win the starting job. Frank Beamer said he plans to end the drama soon, even if no one separates himself and “he has to go with a gut decision.”

13. Miami: Ryan Williams would make this a much better scenario, but Al Golden isn't interested in predicting his veteran will be back from a torn ACL any time soon. That leaves Jake Heaps and Kevin Olsen, neither of whom earned a ton of praise in Greensboro.

14. Wake Forest: It's going to be a long year for Clawson, but at least he's got a sense of humor about it.

More links:

Dabo Swinney is confident Clemson will have a chance to win the Atlantic, writes The State.

Swinney has no intention of taking religion out of his football program, writes Sports on Earth.

There are no hard feelings between Swinney and Syracuse coach Scott Shafer, writes The Post-Standard.

Florida State's offensive line will be what sets the Seminoles apart in the ACC, writes Tomahawk Nation.

And your non-sports link of the day: If you don't hear from me for a few months, blame the new Simpsons World from FXX, which looks… amazing.
During Florida State's national championship-winning season, its leader in takeaways (Nate Andrews), yards per carry (Karlos Williams) and yards per touch (Kermit Whitfield) combined to start just one game. In the current landscape of college football, talent at the top is crucial but depth is often what separates the best teams. With that in mind, we counted down the ACC’s best backups -- players who weren’t starters last season and aren't currently penciled in atop the depth chart, but who could make a major impact in 2014. While we ranked our top five, there are plenty of other contenders. This is a quick look at those who just missed the cut.

[+] EnlargeRyan Green
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsRyan Green's experience should give him a leg up in the battle to be Karlos Williams' backup.
Ryan Green (RB, Florida State): Really, any of Florida State’s backup running backs could be here. Green has terrific speed and is the lone runner down the depth chart with game experience, but Dalvin Cook and Mario Pender figure to see plenty of action this season and could also produce big numbers the way this year's starter, Karlos Williams, did as the No. 3 tailback in 2013.

Wayne Gallman (RB, Clemson): Like FSU, Clemson boasts a deep backfield that could feature significant contributions from a number of runners. Still, it’s Gallman, the redshirt freshman, who seems to get the biggest raves from coaches. He could certainly find himself in a starting role before too long.

Tyriq McCord (DE, Miami): Primarily working on third downs last season, McCord showed plenty of promise, racking up four sacks, three forced fumbles and two INTs, despite not starting a game. One of those forced fumbles came against Florida, perhaps Miami’s biggest win last season.

Thomas Sirk (QB, Duke): The backup quarterback at Duke was a vital position last year when Brandon Connette finished third in the ACC in rushing touchdowns. The equally athletic Sirk seems equipped to handle that role in 2014.

Shaquille Powell (RB, Duke): Josh Snead returns as the team’s leading rusher, but in an offense with plenty of explosive talent, Powell, who averaged 5.5 yards per rush as the No. 3 back last season, figures to carve out a niche and has really impressed teammates this offseason.

Ron Thompson (DE, Syracuse): The converted tight end has the potential to be a beast on the defensive line, he just doesn’t quite have a full-time job yet at Syracuse. In limited action last season, however, he had two sacks and 20 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss.

Quarterbacks: There aren’t many teams that have completely settled quarterback situations, which means that odds are, one or more of the current backups will end up making a big difference down the road in 2014. Mitch Trubisky at UNC, Kevin Sousa at Wake Forest, Tim Byerly at Georgia Tech and, of course, Deshaun Watson at Clemson all have potential to be impact players before the year is out.

No doubt there will be plenty of other back-ups to emerge as significant playmakers this year. So, who else should we have considered? Who might take a big step forward in 2014?
In three years at Duke, Jamison Crowder has blossomed into one of the ACC’s best receivers, while helping the Blue Devils’ offense become one of the most feared in the conference. As Crowder prepares for what could be his third straight 1,000-yard season, we caught up with the Duke senior for his thoughts on what awaits in 2014.

You came to Duke when the program was a perennial loser, and you’ve seen it grow exponentially since your arrival. Did you envision this type of success from the beginning?

Jamison Crowder: As any recruit going to a new place, you have second thoughts about certain things. But I had confidence in what Coach [David] Cutcliffe pitched at me. We had guys coming in and some young guys already here that had good talent. Coach Cut said in the next few years, we’d be a program on the rise, and that was the mindset I had coming in. Now, that’s what’s happening. My career has escalated as well as the program, and right now, I couldn’t have made a better choice.

[+] EnlargeJamison Crowder
Ellen Ozier/USA TODAY SportsReceiver Jamison Crowder is looking to help Duke win a second straight ACC Coastal Division title.
How do you think people’s perceptions of Duke have changed since you’ve been here? And what did losing those last two games against Florida State and Texas A&M last season mean for where the program is?

JC: People saw we were for real, but for a lot of people, we still have a lot to prove. And for ourselves. We had a team meeting yesterday, and one of the things we talked about, obviously our program is headed in the right direction, but at the end of the year, both years, we didn’t win bowl games. We made it to the ACC championship and that was a good marker, but we failed to win. I think everybody on the team has that determination to continue the success, but now, win the championship games and bowl games. From the outside, I think we still have a lot to prove. A lot of people still think last year was a fluke, but I think we’re going to be pretty good again this year.

You’re back, Anthony Boone is back, Braxton Deaver, Josh Snead, several key linemen — can this year’s offense be even better than last season?

JC: We’ve got a lot of experience coming back. We’ve lost a few linemen and one of our running backs, but we have a lot of playmakers coming back. We have a pretty good running back in Shaquille Powell that is going to come on the scene a lot this year. Coach Mo [Scottie Montgomery] is a guy that’s fired up and puts players in the right position to make plays. Expectations are high. Last year, we left a lot of plays on the field. That’s in the back of our minds. We don’t want to leave any plays behind.

Is it fair to compare expectations for QB Thomas Sirk to what Brandon Connette did last year? Can he handle that role?

JC: Sirk is — Brandon had a little more of a built frame, but Sirk is taller and I think he’ll come in a lot on the goal line to run the wildcat. Sirk is very athletic and he can come in and fill that role. One thing he has to work on is in the open field, but I think he can overall come in and do what Brandon did, if not better, on the goal line and in short-yardage situations.

You had a very young secondary last year, including a lot of playing time for freshmen. Have you seen that group improve over the spring and summer?

JC: Most definitely. Those guys have a good work ethic. I lift with Bryon Fields and Quay Mann. Those guys have been working. Last year, they were thrown in the fire. They handled it well. They gave up some big plays, but they made some big plays. For a freshman to come in, that’s a difficult task, and they did real well last year. And this year, you can see they’re more comfortable and bigger and stronger and faster.

What do you need to accomplish this year to convince people at the next level that you’re a legit prospect?

JC: I just have to have another good season. My status, as far as the league, is still unsure because of my size or because I’m not the fastest. So I just want to have another good season, not get complacent. You hear a lot of people telling you you’re going to make it, but those same people are the ones making the decision whether I’m playing on Sundays. Only thing I can work on is me, and I’m staying hungry and continuing to work. I want to go out and make plays, score touchdowns and definitely have a better year as a returner this year. Last year I had two returns [for touchdowns], but I feel like I left two or three on the field.

You mentioned special teams, and the ACC has some very talented return men, including your own teammate, DeVon Edwards. Do you compare your game to any of those guys? Is there anyone who you particularly like to watch play?

JC: Most definitely, DeVon. It’s fun to have teammates that make the game easier. I’ve realized that scoring on special teams takes a load off the offense. That one play is a whole possession. DeVon and me, we joke that I’m going to have more. Last year, we both had two. So this year I said I’m going to have more returns, and he says, ‘You’re crazy.’ But you’ve got to go out there and perform. Aside from my teammate, I like [North Carolina's] Ryan Switzer. I’ve watched a few highlights on YouTube, and I like his game.

What would a third straight 1,000-yard season mean for you?

JC: It’s great to get 1,000 yards in two years. But I want to be able to play at the next level, and the numbers hold some weight, but if you’re not performing at the highest level it doesn’t mean anything. The numbers are great, it shows I’m working, but I can do better and I know I’m going to have to do better to have a chance to play at the next level. And as long as we’re winning ballgames, that’s the main thing.

Is this the most talented Duke team since you’ve been here?

JC: Most definitely. We lost a few guys, but we have a lot of talent — raw talent. We’re getting better. We’re adding talent on talent. We’ve got a lot of confidence and talent that Duke hasn’t had in recent years. Now we’ve just got to get ready to play.

The secrets to Duke's success

June, 3, 2014
David Cutcliffe earned plenty of praise for the job he did revitalizing Duke in 2012, but even the most optimistic Blue Devils fans had to be surprised by the leap their team took in 2013 — winning 10 games and playing for a conference title. So, how did they do it?

Obviously Cutcliffe’s efforts installing an offseason program, improving recruiting and installing his system have worked wonders in Durham, but dig into the numbers and there were a few key areas that proved crucial to Duke’s run in 2013 and could make the difference once again as the Blue Devils try to defend their Coastal Division title this fall.

Strong offensive line play

[+] Enlarge Laken Tomlinson
Jeremy McKnight/Icon SMIDespite some personnel losses, Duke's offensive line, led by the experience of Laken Tomlinson, can be successful again in 2014.
Last season: It’s no secret that strong play in the trenches can cover a lot of other blemishes, and Duke’s offensive line was exceptional in 2013. The Blue Devils mustered 29 dropbacks per sack, the 10th-best mark in the country and by far the best in the ACC (Miami was next at 23.5). Duke also averaged 4.6 yards per carry (up nearly a yard from 2012) and had 28 rushing TDs (10 more than the previous season).

2014 outlook: Last season’s success shouldn’t have been a shocker. Duke returned the third-most experienced line in the country for 2013 (113 career starts), which translated to a unit that gelled quickly. Now, Duke must replace its two most veteran starters in Dave Harding and Perry Simmons, but the Blue Devils still have plenty of experience on the line. Still, Duke’s line isn’t exactly green. Laken Tomlinson (39 career starts), Matt Skura and Takoby Cofield are all seniors, while Lucas Patrick and Sam Marshall are juniors with ample game experience. With another year in Cutcliffe’s strength and conditioning program, the 2014 line could be every bit as good as 2013's.

A workhorse on offense

Last season: No receiver in the country was more relied upon more than Duke’s Jamison Crowder. Blue Devils QBs threw the ball 472 times in 2013, with Crowder the target on a whopping 174 of them (37 percent). Crowder hauled in 62 percent of the balls thrown his way and was exceptional on both short passes and as a deep threat. Most importantly, however, he was consistently good. The only game in which Crowder finished with fewer than five catches was the win over Virginia Tech.

2014 outlook: The case can be made that Crowder won’t be a secret in his senior campaign, but ACC defenses had to have known what was in store last fall, too. In the past two seasons, with three different starting QBs throwing to him, Crowder has racked up 184 catches, 2,434 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’ll be among the best in the country -- and an ideal security blanket on offense -- once again in 2014.

Dynamic QB play

Last season: Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette combined for nearly 4,000 yards of offense (551 rushing, 3,472 passing) with 45 total touchdowns. As a point of comparison, Heisman winner Jameis Winston had 4,276 yards of offense and 44 total touchdowns. And thanks to the threat Connette posed with his legs, Duke was among the most successful teams in the country in the red zone, scoring TDs on 40 of 58 trips and 27 percent of its red-zone rushing attempts.

2014 outlook: Boone has another year of experience under his belt and is the ACC’s second-most veteran QB, but Connette’s transfer to Fresno State is a big blow. Only Navy’s Keenan Reynolds and Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch had more rushing TDs among quarterbacks last year than Connette, and they did so with nearly three times as many attempts. No player in the country with at least 30 red-zone rushing attempts scored at a higher rate than Connette in 2013 (42 percent), and while the Blue Devils are high on Thomas Sirk as Boone’s new backup, those are some enormous shoes to fill.

A playmaking defense

Last season: The easy knock on Duke last season was its defense. After all, twice Duke topped 48 points and still lost (Pitt, Texas A&M). Overall, the Blue Devils’ D ranked 82nd nationally, and it allowed nearly 8 yards per play in four losses. But the great equalizer were the big plays. Duke’s D recorded 26 takeaways (tied for 26th nationally) and 18 interceptions (tied for 13th nationally). The capacity for big plays helped offset too many bad ones defensively.

2014 outlook: The Blue Devils could be in for some rough patches on D again this fall. The secondary features four sophomores likely to see extensive playing time, while the defensive front gets a significant makeover from last season. Still, 14 of the 18 INTs from last season return, and DeVon Edwards, Breon Borders and Bryon Fields have the talent to blossom quickly.

Scoring on D, special teams

Last season: Thanks to Edwards and Crowder, Duke scored six non-offensive touchdowns last season, tied for the eighth-most nationally. The 16 teams that had at least six non-offensive touchdowns were a combined 130-66 (.653) in 2013, with eight of them winning at least 10 games (including both teams that played for the national title).

2014 outlook: Big plays on D and special teams can be maddeningly inconsistent. When they happen, they can be game-changers, but they’re notoriously tough to predict. Still, Duke returns athleticism in the return game and in the secondary, which should open up options, and if the Blue Devils’ offense can force opponents into shootouts, the D will have its chances to take a few more INTs to the house.
Florida State and Virginia snapped long droughts between 1,000-yard running backs this past season. That leaves three ACC teams hoping to do the same in 2014: NC State, Duke and Wake Forest.

The Wolfpack have not had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2002, giving them the longest current drought in the ACC. Duke is next, followed by the Deacs. So what are the chances somebody breaks through and gets to 1,000?

I am going to say slim. Here is my explanation why, for all three schools:

Duke: The Blue Devils have employed a running-back-by-committee approach and that is not likely to change this season with Josh Snead and Shaquille Powell returning. Quarterback Anthony Boone will get his share of carries as well. Now watch for Thomas Sirk, who is projected to move into the role Brandon Connette held over the last several seasons. Connette, the backup quarterback, had 337 yards rushing last season. He and Boone combined for 551 yards.
Last 1,000-yard rusher: Chris Douglas, 2003.

NC State: For the running game to be improved from a year ago, the offensive line has to stay healthy for the entire season because there is no depth. Staying healthy is not something this line has been able to do over the last several years. Shadrach Thornton is back, but depth still has to be developed behind him. Also, look for quarterback Jacoby Brissett to take carries and yards now that he is the starter. Shaky offensive line, mobile quarterback and running back questions do not equal a 1,000-yard back.
Last 1,000-yard rusher: T.A. McLendon, 2002.

Wake Forest: The Deacs have been among the worst teams in the country running the ball the last few years and were down to two scholarship backs at the position this spring, after moving Orville Reynolds over from receiver. Plus, the offensive line remains a work in progress. Between these three schools, Wake Forest is in the worst position to try and get a 1,000-yard rusher this year.
Last 1,000-yard rusher: Chris Barclay, 2005.
Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk has a bit of an unconventional background, having never been a full-time signal caller until his senior year of high school. But with Brandon Connette transferring to Fresno State to be closer to his sick mother, Sirk -- just more than a year removed from a right Achilles tear -- now finds himself with the chance to seize a much bigger role for the reigning Coastal Division champions, as the redshirt sophomore has the inside track to earn some meaningful playing time behind Anthony Boone in 2014. caught up with Sirk last week to discuss how he's preparing for his new role.

What was your reaction when you found out Brandon Connette was leaving?

Thomas Sirk: Me and Brandon were very close. When I came on my official visit here to Duke, Brandon Connette was my host. We have a big brother program here; he was my big brother. Me and Brandon, we always hung out and stuff, so it was kind of sad to hear he was going to go. It felt like I was losing a brother, a teammate and a great player. Me and him had a talk, and we kind of talked about what needs to happen now, and it kind of gave me a lot of confidence going into my role this summer, knowing that I'm stepping back into the spot I was in last spring before I tore my Achilles, and that I have to mature as a player and get ready to play. I have to be game-ready. I have to be ready to step in. I was excited for Brandon, he had the opportunity to play there, and also the opportunity that he gave me. He's competing for the starting job there and it allowed me the opportunity to compete for the starting job here. Overall, I think going into the summer it changed the way that I was going to perform this summer. It kind of changed my attitude about things, I'd say. Just the way I went into the summer. I wasn't down on myself by any means, and I know I still have a lot of work to do and I know I still have a lot to accomplish this summer. But I heard about Brandon, and it was immediately, like next day I had to get into the film room, start studying more and more. I knew I was going to have to watch more and more film.

What's the competition like with Parker Boehme?

TS: Parker and I, we work together, we watch film together. Any way that we can help each other, we're going to do so. We have a great relationship off the field but we know when we get on the field it's a competition. Same way with Boone, we're out there competing. Obviously we both came here to play. … That's kind of been the relationship with Parker and I. We'll help each other out in any way. It's not, 'I'm not going to tell you something because I think that's going to give me an advantage.' We tell each other what we do wrong, we tell each other what we do good. That's kind of the way our program's built around each other. We don't ever knock someone down in any way, shape or form. That's kind of the competition, and I know that competition makes players better, and I enjoy the competition with myself, with Boone and with Parker. I know they enjoy the competition, it makes the players more well-rounded and the urgency starts kicking in the film room more and we grow that relationship with other players.

What's it like to work with Scottie Montgomery? What's he like now in his current role?

TS: I like going into the meeting rooms with Coach Montgomery and on the field, because Coach Montgomery brings excitement wherever he's at. He brings urgency wherever he's at. He knows what we have to get done. We wouldn't want it any less than that because he knows we all could be great players if he pushes us to the point where we need to be each and every day. That's the mentality that I like. …. The quarterback drills that we have, his relationship with us, he's grown more with us, grown that bond with us like we had with Coach [Kurt] Roper, and I think that's definitely something that I've enjoyed when he's been in our quarterback room.

The spring seems so long ago, but what did you take from it?

TS: There's a lot of things in the spring that I could say I could go back and work on, and I'd tell you in the spring that I wasn't 100 percent but it was just a good opportunity for me to go back into football. And since then I've gotten a lot healthier, I put up tremendously on all of my leg work, my speed has progressed a lot also. But I'd say I need to work on my accuracy and I need to work on my preparation of everything that's going on before the snap. Just knowing the down and distance, knowing the play clock, knowing the time on the clock in general, along with knowing the plays. And since then when I watch film now, I put myself in situations that I think are going to happen in the game. For instance, if it's third-and-6, I go through one of our route combinations to see -- I'll go back and watch Sean Renfree and Boone and all the way back to Thad Lewis, just watching their decision-making. That's become a big thing for me since the spring, is knowing the down and distance and knowing the situation. I think that I'll be more game-ready when the time comes for me just because I've trained myself for then and even just going out on the field and having that play clock out there, I think that all that stuff maters. To be a well-rounded quarterback you have to not only perform well but you have to know the game, and I think that I know the plays very well. I'm very [knowledgeable] in our playbook and I think since the spring I've gotten a lot better with knowing the game of football and knowing different coverages. For instance, in the spring I would know where the coverage went if the safeties rotated, but I may have been a little unsure or indecisive on where I wanted to go with the ball, and that's the kind of situation I'm putting myself in now. If they do bring the Sam 'backer or Mike 'backer off the edge, then I know how to react. Where am I going to go with the ball? So just being able to react to the game and play faster is the biggest takeaway I got from the spring.

Coming back from the Achilles tear, how do you think you've grown as a football player long-term?

TS: It's one of those situations you never wished happen, but after that happened I couldn't control it. So I got the most out of the situation. I think I matured as a player, I matured as a person, just in my habits and the things that I do. I know the game of football 100 percent more now than I did when I got injured, and I feel more confident in myself now that I'm fully healthy that I'm going to come back as a player that is even better than I was before my Achilles [tear]. Football-knowledge, coverage-knowledge, knowing our playbook -- I think the opportunity that I've had to go through a whole football season watching the speed of the game from the sidelines is different from watching my true freshman year because I wasn't comfortable with the playbook then. But after watching this season standing on the sideline I kind of put myself in a lot of situations that Anthony and Brandon were putting themselves in out on the field. I got to watch a lot of football and I think that's progressed me as a player. I think that now as another year's gone by and the time's come just for me to play, I think that I'll be more ready in those situations than ever.

Duke spring wrap

April, 29, 2014
Three things we learned in the spring about the Duke Blue Devils:

Offensive line answers. Duke is losing its two most veteran starters on the line in guard Dave Harding and tackle Perry Simmons, who combined to start 91 games. But the Blue Devils seem to be in good shape based on spring results. Lucas Patrick is penciled in to replace Harding and Tanner Stone is in to replace Simmons. Though Patrick hurt his ankle in the spring game, he does not need surgery and will be available for fall practice.

Depth across the board. Coach David Cutcliffe said repeatedly throughout the spring that his team has more depth now than it ever has under his watch. Even during the spring game, Cutcliffe said there was a not a huge drop-off between his first-team and second-team units. That is a sign of a coach who has worked long and hard at recruiting to lay the foundation for his program.

Cornerback answers. Duke lost both starting cornerbacks -- All-ACC selection Ross Cockrell and Garett Patterson. But the Blue Devils are in good shape with sophomores Breon Borders and Bryon Fields. They both played in all 14 games in 2013, taking the second- and third-most snaps among all Duke cornerbacks. Borders broke the school freshman record for interceptions (four).

Three questions for the fall:

[+] EnlargeAnthony Boone
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDuke's Anthony Boone threw for 2,260 yards in 2013.
Replacing Connette. Losing quarterback Brandon Connette is a blow to the offense, especially when you consider how valuable he was in short-yardage situations. Thomas Sirk enters fall camp as the backup to Anthony Boone, with quarterback Parker Boehme right behind. Though Sirk and Boehme lack game experience, offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery said Sirk might be one of the better athletes on the team.

Defensive line. No other position group takes a hit as big as this one. Three starters are gone. Kenny Anunike, Justin Foxx and Sydney Sarmiento combined to start 109 games. Dezmond Johnson has the most experience, while Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo has the biggest playmaking ability. Kyler Brown made a transition from linebacker to defensive end to help with the pass rush.

Depth at running back. Last season, Duke returned four running backs to the rotation. But that number is down to two -- Josh Snead and Shaquille Powell. Redshirt freshman Joseph Ajeigbe had a good spring and is third in line. Incoming freshman Shaun Wilson could be relied upon as well if he proves himself during fall camp.

One way-too-early prediction

Duke will be the preseason favorite in the Coastal. The days when the Blue Devils were penciled in to finish last are gone. The defending division champions return 17 starters, including Boone and All-ACC receiver Jamison Crowder. Their schedule is also very manageable, with crossover divisional games against Wake Forest and Syracuse.
Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery described his final meeting with quarterback Brandon Connette as one of the most emotional meetings of his career.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Connette
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesDuke will be looking for experienced quarterback depth after Brandon Connette decided to transfer.
Understandably so. Playing thousands of miles away from his ailing mother had weighed heavily on Connette for months. Finally, he decided he could not take the burden any longer. Connette was granted a transfer to be closer to his mother in California.

It was the right decision to make on all fronts. Now, Duke has to try and defend its Coastal Division crown without a key part of its offensive game plan. The good news is veteran starter Anthony Boone returns. The bad news is there is no experienced depth behind him, and nobody ready to take all the snaps Connette would have received in 2014.

“It never is our approach to train a guy for a certain role,” Montgomery said in a phone interview. “What we're going to do is train the quarterback position, and it has nothing to do with splitting time or roles. We’re just trying to get the best possible quarterbacks we can have, one behind another or one adjoined or aligned with each other. Anthony is our starter, no question about that, and we're trying to develop young men behind him.”

What made Duke function so well as an offense last fall was the way Boone and Connette effectively split time. Connette proved he was more than just a Wildcat quarterback, too, when Boone was out with an ankle injury and missed a few games.

In 13 games, Connette was in on 246 plays -- 101 rushing and 145 passing. He finished second on the team in total offense (119.2 yards per game), right behind Boone (224.9). He led the team with 14 rushing touchdowns and was second in scoring. He leaves school as the all-time leader in rushing touchdowns with 31.

All that production will have to come from somewhere else now, whether from the running backs or other quarterbacks. Thomas Sirk and Parker Boehme will now be put into “more of a heated situation” Montgomery says, in order to get them prepared for more competition.

“Thomas Sirk may be one of the better athletes we have on our team,” Montgomery said. “He has to be more consistent with who he is as a player. He's a young quarterback, and he had a good spring. He developed in a lot of ways, but when you’re at the No 3. spot, it's a lot different than when you're at the No. 2 spot.”

Boehme was injured for a good portion of the spring, so Montgomery wants to see more from him during fall practice. Duke also has true freshman Johnathan Lloyd, an early enrollee who went through spring practice, and welcomes four-star dual-threat freshman quarterback Nico Pierre this summer.

“We're prepared to move forward and get guys ready,” Montgomery said. “There may be a guy who comes out of the middle of nowhere at the quarterback position and plays lights-out and moves into that role, not necessarily fill the shoes of Brandon, but also create their niche in the offense.”
This is a bittersweet parting for Duke.

Quarterback Brandon Connette, who accounted for a school-record 27 touchdowns last year, has been granted his release to transfer to a school closer to his home in Corona, Calif. Connette wants to be -- and should be -- near his mother, Nancy, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2013.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Connette
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDuke will miss Brandon Connette's ability to run as well as pass.
While it’s a huge loss for Duke -- significant enough to diminish the Blue Devils' chances of defending the ACC’s Coastal Division title -- it’s a monumental win for Connette, who has had to endure his mother’s struggle against cancer from a distance.

“Being away from my family during my mother’s illness has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to endure,” he said.

Connette, though, remained the consummate teammate, lining up at quarterback, running back, tight end, wide receiver and even safety during his redshirt junior season in 2013. He was clutch, accounting for five game-winning touchdowns (against Memphis, Troy, Virginia, NC State and Wake Forest). As a fourth-year junior, his experience alone was invaluable to the offense. He also led Duke in rushing touchdowns in three of the past four seasons.

This spring, he finally took every snap at quarterback and was relishing the opportunity to focus on one position alongside starter Anthony Boone. Now Boone is the undisputed starter, and redshirt sophomore Thomas Sirk will be No. 2.

Boone should be even better in 2014 as he will be in his second season as the starter, and he’s 10-2 in that role. He completed 64 percent of his passes last season and put on a thrilling performance against Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Not bad, but it’s like Batman without Robin.

Even without Connette, Duke can still win the Coastal Division -- the Blue Devils return 17 starters, including eight on offense -- but it’s impossible to ignore the offensive production that will have to be replaced. The fact that Connette wasn’t a full-time starter makes his numbers even more impressive.

Rival North Carolina, meanwhile, is quickly closing the gap, especially offensively. Duke will have home-field advantage against the Tar Heels this year, and it was Boone who led the game-winning touchdown drive against UNC in last year’s Coastal-clinching 27-25 win.

Connette’s departure is going to be tough to overcome, but it would be foolish to count the Blue Devils out because of it, especially considering the mediocrity that pervades throughout the rest of the division. Don’t forget, Duke was picked to finish last in the division in 2013. The Blue Devils are making a habit out of proving people wrong.

First, though, they have to prove they can overcome the transfer of one of their veteran playmakers.

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 11, 2013
Around the ACC we go ...
Duke redshirt freshman quarterback Thomas Sirk had surgery Wednesday afternoon to repair a ruptured right Achilles tendon, the school announced. Sirk suffered the injury during the team’s practice on Wednesday morning.

No timetable has been set for Sirk’s return. Sirk enrolled at Duke in January 2012 and didn't play last season.