NCF Nation: Breon Borders

Duke Blue Devils season preview

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Duke Blue Devils, the defending Coastal Division champs.

[+] 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.
Key returners: QB Anthony Boone (64 percent completions, 13 touchdowns), RB Josh Snead (670 yards, 2 touchdowns), WR Jamison Crowder (108 catches, 1,360 yards, 8 touchdowns), TE Braxton Deaver (46 catches, 600 yards, 4 touchdowns), LB David Helton (133 tackles), S Jeremy Cash (121 tackles), LB Kelby Brown (114 tackles), CB Breon Borders (4 interceptions)

Key losses: QB Brandon Connette (27 touchdowns), RB Jela Duncan (573 yards, 11 touchdowns), LG Dave Harding, CB Ross Cockrell (3 interceptions, 16 passes defended), DE Kenny Anunike (13.5 tackles for a loss, 6 sacks), DE Justin Foxx (4 sacks)

Most important games: Sept. 27 at Miami, Nov. 1 at Pitt, Nov. 15 versus Virginia Tech, Nov. 20 versus North Carolina

Projected win percentage: .645

Vegas over/under: 8.5 wins

Instant impact newcomers: As freshman backups in 2013, corners DeVon Edwards, Breon Borders and Bryon Fields combined for seven interceptions and broke up 20 passes. All three are projected starters this season. Redshirt freshman Quay Mann could see time in the secondary this season, too. Redshirt sophomore Thomas Sirk has never seen game action but figures to play a big role taking over for departed quarterback Brandon Connette, who was a key figure in the red zone last year.

Biggest question mark: Can the defense take a step forward? The unit made big plays last season and there’s plenty of talent returning. But this was still a defense that ranked 12th overall in the ACC, allowing 418 yards per game, and a unit that coughed up 30 or more points five times -- including a combined 97 points in its final two games against FSU and Texas A&M. With turnover on the defensive line and youth in the secondary, Duke needs to prove it's ready to take the next step on that side of the ball.

Number to know: 174. That’s the number of times Crowder was targeted in 2013, by far the most among any ACC receiver (the next closest was Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, who was targeted 134 times). Crowder’s targets accounted for a whopping 37 percent of all of Duke’s passing attempts. He is one of only three receivers nationally (and the lone representative from a Power Five conference) to have a chance at a third straight 1,000-yard receiving season in 2014.

They said it: "The biggest danger is in changing who we've been. We are a good program because we have great habits. What we want to become is a great program with great habits. We're still a work in progress." -- Duke coach David Cutcliffe
Tommy Tuberville has never been one to hold back. Whether you want to hear it or not, brutal honesty is all you are going to get.

So when Derek Jones asked his former coach for a bit of advice about whether to join the Dallas Cowboys for a minicamp tryout, Tuberville laid it down: Forget about playing in the NFL, he told him. You need to be a coach.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jones
Courtesy of Duke University PhotographyDerek Jones is beginning his seventh season as a Duke assistant, and is on a path to being a head coach someday.
Jones had never given coaching a thought. He figured after his playing career was over, he would become a lawyer. But Tuberville made a convincing argument: Jones was a team leader, a hard worker and knew how to sell the Ole Miss program to incoming recruits while he was still playing.

Tuberville presented him with an opportunity, offering him a graduate assistant job on his Ole Miss staff in 1998. Try it, Tuberville told him. If you hate it, at least you will be on your way toward law school.

Jones considered the possibilities. He realized what Tuberville said was right. He was a 5-foot-8 cornerback with some CFL experience, but would he really have a future in the NFL? Jones gave up on his NFL dream and accepted the job. Now, 16 years later, he is going into his seventh season as a Duke assistant.

But more than that, Jones is headed down a path that could lead him toward a head coaching job. Jones recently participated in the NCAA Champion Forum in Orlando, Florida, where minority assistants identified as potential head coaches participate in sessions designed to prepare them to take the next step in their careers.

"I get it now, and I really appreciate Coach Tuberville seeing something in me that I didn’t see in myself," Jones said. "If he hadn’t given me that hard love and that advice, I may not have had a chance with Coach [David] Cutcliffe when he came to get in the door. Who knows where I would be now."

Indeed, one decision often becomes life-changing. Jones had a chance to work with Tuberville for one year before Cutcliffe took over at Ole Miss in 1999. Cutcliffe retained Jones, and they each left impressions on the other. Jones went on to become a full-time assistant at Murray State and spent time at Middle Tennessee, Tulsa and Memphis.

Jones' phone rang shortly after Cutcliffe became head coach at Duke in December 2007. Cutcliffe wanted Jones to join him with the Blue Devils.

“When he offered me the job, I had three other job offers on the table at some pretty big football-playing schools,” Jones said. “He said something that stuck with me. He said, ‘I know you’ve got some other things going on, and you can go to those places and you’ll probably be successful, but I think we have a chance to do something significant at Duke.’

“Going to place a like that, where the odds were against you, I knew I’d have a chance to make a difference not only in the lives of young men and on the football field, but also proving to myself that I’m actually good at this. It was more of a personal thing and believing in him. I saw what he was able to do at my alma mater. I knew if he could go into Ole Miss and do the things he’d done there, I knew there was a chance we could get it done at Duke.”

Cutcliffe sold his vision to incoming players, too, and has turned Duke into a division champion because everybody inside the program bought in. Jones has had opportunities to leave Duke, but he has stayed, largely because of Cutcliffe.

[+] EnlargeCutcliffe
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesDerek Jones believed in David Cutcliffe's vision for Duke football.
“The ability to work under Coach Cutcliffe is good for my growth,” Jones said. “He’s as good as any coach I’ve been around at so many things. The more knowledge I can obtain from him, the better I’m going to be long term. I can’t think of many other situations outside of the situation we’ve been in that compares to anything.”

Jones has aspirations to become a head coach, which is why attending the Champion Forum was so important to him. Assistants go through mock interviews with current athletic directors, have opportunities to network and learn everything that goes into becoming a head coach -- because it goes way beyond coaching. Jones has never interviewed for a head coach job, but when that opportunity comes, he will be much better prepared.

“Now I have a background on what it takes for me,” he said. “I can start to work on the things I don’t have in my arsenal right now.”

Jones does have the coaching. As defensive backs coach, he helped cornerback Ross Cockrell earn first-team All-ACC honors in 2012 and 2013. Cockrell was picked by Buffalo in the fourth round of the NFL draft in May. Duke returns a young but very talented secondary in 2014, led by All-ACC second-team safety Jeremy Cash, DeVon Edwards, Bryon Fields and Breon Borders.

They remain his focus, thanks in large part to the brutal honesty of a coach who believed.
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.

ACC's helmet stickers: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
9:00
AM ET
Florida State won its second straight ACC championship game, and it did so in resounding fashion, thumping Duke 45-7 on Saturday to secure a bid to the Vizio BCS National Championship Game.

Florida State QB Jameis Winston: It’s a credit to how good Winston has been this season that Saturday was perhaps one of his worst performances, and yet he still took home the game’s MVP honors. Winston completed 19-of-32 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns, adding another 59 yards and a touchdown on the ground. In the process, he set the FBS record for touchdown passes and passing yards for a freshman. His two interceptions were uncharacteristic, but Duke was unable to translate either into points. It was the seventh 300-yard game of the season for the Heisman Trophy favorite.

Florida State LB Telvin Smith: There was plenty of credit to go around on the defense, but Smith was one of the night’s biggest star. He finished with eight tackles, including two for a loss, one sack and an interception. FSU’s defense held Duke scoreless until the final drive with the backups on the field. Aside from a 15-play, 67-yard drive that ended with a missed field goal in the first quarter, Duke’s other 12 drives against Smith and the first-team D ended with nine punts and three turnovers.

Duke CB Breon Borders: It may not have been a particularly close game, but it was as physical a matchup as Florida State has played all season, and while Winston still earned an MVP, Duke’s secondary didn’t make it easy. Borders was the star, picking off two of Winston’s passes, while racking up four tackles. The two interceptions were an ACC championship game record, and Borders set the Duke freshman record with four INTs on the year.

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