Change marks start of spring football at Duke
This sure doesn't look like the same old Duke football team.
The Blue Devils on Monday began a spring practice season in which part of the emphasis will be on putting the ball in mobile quarterback Anthony Boone's hands and letting him run with it.
By introducing elements of the zone-read offense, David Cutcliffe is making a significant change. His pro-style system helped turn Peyton and Eli Manning into Super Bowl MVPs.
Cutcliffe says the switch was made in part because his personnel is better suited to run it. He declined to identify which schools the Blue Devils have modeled their scheme after, because he doesn't want to give the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference an advantage.
"It's too big of a tip of what we're looking at," he said.
The new system is designed to take advantage of Boone's speed.
"I can get the necessary yards, which is what the zone read is — four or five yards," Boone said. "If the defense makes a mistake, I can probably hurt them for 15, 20. ... I don't have the Johnny Manziel breakaway speed, but I definitely have enough speed to outrun linebackers that are misdirected and defensive ends that take too far of an angle."
He flashed some of it in spot duty last year after starter Sean Renfree hurt his elbow against Wake Forest.
He relieved him and took a bootleg 4 yards for the winning touchdown in that game, then in his first start against Virginia helped the Blue Devils gain a season-best 182 yards rushing while also throwing for four touchdowns in a 42-17 romp. He finished last season with 82 yards rushing on 26 carries while occasionally playing in short-yardage situations.
For the first time in his college career, he's the solid first-string quarterback and is taking over for Renfree, a three-year starter and classic drop-back passer.
Duke also lost two of its top receivers, including the most prolific one in Atlantic Coast Conference history — Conner Vernon, who finished his college career with 283 catches for 3,749 yards.
Because that kind of consistent production is virtually irreplaceable, the Blue Devils opted to change their mindset and put an emphasis on running the ball better. They have long been one of the ACC's worst rushing teams — though their ground game did finish eighth in the league last year — and with their top six rushers returning, they're determined to change that.
Cutcliffe says that renewed emphasis on the run has been met with enthusiasm by a veteran group of offensive linemen that returns four starters and much prefers run blocking to pass blocking.
"It's the difference in backing up and getting hit, or going up and hitting somebody," Cutcliffe said.
The Blue Devils hope those tweaks can help them get back to the postseason. They started last year 6-2, were in the conversation for the Coastal Division title through November and wound up in the Belk Bowl — their first bowl game since the 1994 season.
They were driving to beat Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl — but turned the ball over twice in the final 1:20 and lost 48-34 to give them a 6-7 finish and their 18th straight losing season.
Despite that, the program's perception took a step forward last year, going from perennial loser to postseason participant, and Cutcliffe sensed from the first practice of the spring that this team wants nothing more than to keep moving in that direction.
"Based upon their January and February work and meetings, (this) is certainly the most anxious team that we've had at Duke," Cutcliffe said.