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March 18, 2009

Duke enters 2009 with hopes of a bowl berth

Four victories don't seem like much, but at Duke it represents hope. Last season, Duke managed four wins, which equaled its victory total of the previous four seasons combined. If the Blue Devils continue to improve in their second year under coach David Cutcliffe, bowl eligibility might not be out of the question. But any postseason hopes are foolish unless the running game is bolstered and the linebacker spots are upgraded. Those will be among the top priorities in spring practice.

Here's a look at Duke as it prepares for spring drills.

David Cutcliffe enters his second season at Duke and may be headed for a bowl berth.
Coach: David Cutcliffe
Last season: 4-8, 1-7 ACC
Spring dates: March 18-April 18
Offense (4): G Kyle Hill, QB Thaddeus Lewis, C Bryan Morgan, WR Johnny Williams.
Defense (3): SS Catron Gainey, T Vince Oghobaase, LB Vincent Rey.
Special teams (2): P Kevin Jones, K Nick Maggio.
Positions of strength

Lewis has started since his freshman season and has gotten better each year. He's in his second season working with Cutcliffe and that's a plus. Redshirt freshman Sean Renfree was impressive enough that last year's backup, Zack Asack, will move to another position. Oghobaase, who posted 51 tackles and six sacks, is an imposing presence in the middle of the defensive line.

Help is needed

The running game is in dire need of an upgrade. Last season, the Blue Devils ranked just 103rd in the nation in rushing offense and managed only nine touchdowns. Last season's leading rusher, Jay Hollingsworth, gained only 399 yards. The return of Re'quan Boyette, who missed '08 with a knee injury, will help. But the Blue Devils have to replace three starters in the line. There's also a need for three new starters in the secondary and two at linebacker. And a few more wide receivers need to step up, too.

Keep an eye on

LB Adam Banks: He posted eight tackles as a sophomore reserve last season, but those totals should spike this season. Two starting jobs are open, and Banks who has good size (6-4/230) has a shot at one of them.

WR Austin Kelly: He had just 13 catches last season. Kelly, a junior, likely will have a bigger role in the offense this spring as Duke coaches search to replace the production of the graduated Eron Riley, last season's leading receiver.

WR Johnny Williams: He had 30 catches last season as a true freshman, although 11 came in one game. He figures to establish himself as the Blue Devils' top receiver. But he obviously needs to be more consistent.

His time is now

Senior Ayanga Okpokowuruk moved to defensive end from defensive tackle a year ago, but with disappointing results. He posted 29 tackles and just 3.5 sacks. He even fell out of the starting lineup for a while. He did play better as the season progressed, which raises hope he could have a strong final season.

The buzz

Last season, Duke had a winning record going into November for the first time since 1994. Even though the Blue Devils ended the season with a five-game losing streak, they still have hope for the '09 season. Priorities in the spring are rebuilding the offensive line and filling holes at linebacker. If significant progress is made there, the Blue Devils can enter September feeling they have chance for bowl eligibility. It'll be an outside chance, but that's more than Duke has had in more than a decade.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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