Duke season preview

Today we’re looking at the Blue Devils as they try to get back to the postseason for the second straight year under coach David Cutcliffe:

Duke Blue Devils

Coach: David Cutcliffe (65-69 overall; 21-40 at Duke)

2012 record: 6-7

Key losses: QB Sean Renfree, WR Conner Vernon, S Jordan Byas, S Walt Canty

Key returnees: WR Jamison Crowder, RB Juwan Thompson, DE Kenny Anunike, CB Ross Cockrell

Newcomer to watch: S Jeremy Cash. The redshirt sophomore is expected to start this fall after transferring from Ohio State, where he spent two semesters. Cash left, along with former Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel, and he wound up choosing to transfer to Duke over Miami and South Florida.

Biggest games in 2013: Oct. 26 at Virginia Tech, Nov. 23 at Wake Forest, Nov. 30 at North Carolina

Biggest questions mark heading into 2013: The secondary. The group underwent a complete makeover this offseason, as Ross Cockrell was the only returning starter in the group. And even he missed the second half of spring with an injury. Cash, Dwayne Norman and Corbin McCarthy are the new faces that could earn spots in the starting lineup, but don’t be surprised if true freshmen Evrett Edwards and Quay Mann play as well. McCarthy, Cash and Norman were penciled in as the starters in the preseason depth chart.

Forecast: Regardless of how many starters Duke returns, or how many playmakers the team has this year, Duke is better simply because the players understand what it takes to get to a bowl game. Last year was a major milestone for the program, as Duke became bowl eligible for the first time since 1994, and the team continues to reap the intangible rewards of that six-win season. Of course, confidence will only go so far against the likes of Virginia Tech and Miami.

Much of Duke’s success this year hinges on three things: the progress of first-year starting quarterback Anthony Boone, how effectively Duke can run the ball, and how much the defense can improve. Boone has received rave reviews from those within the program, as he has a stronger arm than his predecessor, Sean Renfree, and is more mobile. He’s able to keep plays alive with his feet, and will give defenses a different challenge. With more option principles in the offense, it should be more unpredictable. They’ve got to get more out of their ground game, which ranked No. 98 in the country last year. Duke has its top four rushers back from last season, so the expectation is improvement. Defensively, Duke had one of the statistically worst groups in the country, ranking No. 105 in total defense, No. 107 in scoring defense, and No. 101 in rushing defense. This offseason, the staff went back to the drawing board and tried to simplify the scheme. The goal is to do less thinking and more attacking, and there is confidence within the program they’ll be able to do that -- particularly up front. It also can’t be overlooked that Duke doesn’t have to play FSU and Clemson this fall, two opponents that outscored Duke 104-27 in back-to-back losses. A favorable nonconference schedule should help Duke get back to the postseason again.