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December 26, 2013

A&M should be familiar with Duke's offensive scheme

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe had a reputation as something of an quarterbacks guru when he became head coach of the Blue Devils in 2008. Cutcliffe coached Peyton Manning as offensive coordinator at Tennessee and Eli Manning as head coach at Ole Miss and his offensive system fit in well with the late 90's and 2000's….I formation with a passing game based off of play action. It worked well enough that he took the Blue Devils to a bowl game last season which was no mean feat as Duke hadn't been to the post season since 1994.

However, in the spring of 2013, Cutcliffe decided that he had to change with the times, especially based on his offensive strengths (offensive line and running back). As a result, Cutcliffe went to more of a zone read, option based spread attack. This was a radical shift for a coach and his offensive coordinator (Kurt Roper who has taken the same job at Florida) who were born and grew up in the West Coast offense.

On the surface, it didn't seem to make much difference as the Blue Devils averaged virtually the same number of points and yards per game in 2013 that they did in 2012. In fact, since Duke had four special teams touchdowns in 2013, it could be argued that the changeover actually had a negative impact since those scores added two points a game to Duke's average.

Even so, when you go beyond those totals, there are a number of things that jump out at you. First, Duke averaged 50 yards a game rushing more this season than they did last year. They became a more physical team that ran the ball better on first and second down and consequently found themselves in fewer third and long situations (38% success rate this season versus 35% last season). Moreover, because they were more physical and utilized the quarterback as an extra ball carrier near the goal line, they converted 70% of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns as opposed to field goals. Finally, although they actually had more turnovers this season than last, they turned the ball over just seven times during a season ending six game winning streak that included three wins by a touchdown or less that turned out to be the difference between a winning season and a ACC Coastal Division title.

Duke essentially runs an offense that the Aggie defense should be familiar with….a option based attack that uses elements of the zone read and inverted veer like Auburn, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State. The Blue Devils use a tight end/H back/fullback who will line up in line, in the backfield, and as a tight slot/wing just outside of a tackle. They'll occasionally show an unbalanced line or use four wideouts but mostly they stay with the H back, three receiver sets that typify such offenses. They'll use a variety of backfield sets (pistol, back alongside the quarterback, back outside and to the back of the quarterback).

They do have a drop back passing game with Air Raid concepts but its secondary to being able to use play action passing which was the staple of Cutcliffe's offense when he had the Mannings. Contrary to popular belief, those offenses didn't have a seven step drop pass play in their playbooks…everything was based off of being able to run the ball and throw it down the field off of that.

Duke's offensive line has taken to the change in offenses very well because they don't have to pass pro as much or hold their blocks as long as in the pro style offense they previously ran. It's neither overly big (averaging 6 foot 4, 303 pounds) or athletic but they are experienced (four upperclassmen with 159 starts between them). As a group, they are smart enough that they don't incur too many penalties (just three in the ACC title game against a much more talented Florida State team) or miss assignments (first in tackles for loss allowed). You don't see people run free against them very often because they zone block a lot rather than pulling and trapping and allow people to beat them on penetration from the backside.

6 foot 3, 320 pound junior guard Laken Tomlinson is the best of the group. The Blue Devils are a right handed team that likes to run behind him as he is physical presence that can get good pad level and push in the running game. The other guard, senior Dave Harding, is 285 pounds and is more of a technician who is better in space. Right tackle Perry Simmons is technically sound but he's not the physical presence or athlete that left tackle Takoby Cofield (6 foot 4, 310 pounds) is. Cofield moves well laterally and is by far Duke's best pass protector. Redshirt sophomore center Matt Skura is the starter at center. He's held his own this season against bigger nosetackles and doesn't have any problems with snapping out of the gun. The play of his interior linemates means that he's able to come off of double teams more often than not and get to the second level versus opposing linebackers.

Starting quarterback Anthony Boone is 230 pounds in size but isn't much of a runner (just three yards a carry) and he was the ninth rated passer in the ACC this season with more interceptions than touchdowns. He's probably more of a game manager than anything else who can run the offense efficiently. Brandon Connette (6 foot 2, 225 pounds) actually has better stats both running (13 touchdowns) and throwing (13 touchdowns, 8.4 yards an attempt). He'll come in on goal line situations and use his rushing skills to overload the defense at the point of attack. He's considered a "gamer" who his teammates play hard for and who plays hard himself.

Duke's running game doesn't rely on any one player to carry the load (six players had at least 53 total carries). Although leading rusher Jela Duncan is suspended for the bowl game, he actually averaged only about nine carries per game and his average per carry was less than that of junior Josh Snead or sophomore Shaquille Powell. However, Duncan was the best overall blend of power and speed among the group. Snead is more of a change of pace back who is more explosive than Duncan but not quite as big (5 foot 9, 190 pounds). He does have a better first step than Duncan or anyone else that Duke has. Sophomore Shaquille Powell and senior Juwan Thompson are over 200 pounds and are the between the tackles runners who are physical, straight line players.

The receiving corps is led by junior outside receiver Jamison Crowder. He has the size of a slot but plays the Z in Duke's attack. On the surface, he looks like someone that you can be physical with and knock around but he's extremely elusive and good at beating jams on the line of scrimmage. In addition, Duke will move him in motion and hand the ball off to him on occasion. He had 96 receptions for over 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns. They'll use him downfield to stretch defenses with four verticals but mostly they'll throw the shorter routes to him and ask him to make big plays with his quick feet.

The remainder of the receiving corps is relatively young…two sophomores and a junior. Tight end Braxton Deaver is primarily a blocker in the offense but he did have 40 receptions and can read defenses and run his routes to find space. He's not particularly big or a change of direction guy but can be a useful target on third down. Sophomore Max McCaffrey (the son for former NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey) and junior Brandon Braxton are possession types with good hands.

Overall, Duke will miss Duncan's every down ability and speed as outside of Crowder and Snead he was the one guy with the capacity to strike long distance on every play. In fact, outside of Crowder, Duke's offense as a whole reminds you of the Rice team that A&M faced in its opener…more of grind it out attack with solid quarterback play and an experienced offensive line that didn't make a lot of mistakes but didn't make a lot of big plays either. They get some push in the running game but mostly they don't allow penetration and negative plays that put them in long yardage situations.

Even so, A&M's defense will be missing perhaps its best player in middle linebacker Darian Claiborne who is suspended for the bowl game after being arrested last weekend in an off the field incident. Claiborne plays with great awareness, is physical for a freshman, and was named to the freshman All American team. Another freshman, Jordan Mastrogiovanni, will be taking his place. Mastrogiovanni played more down the stretch and he's going to have to hold up against Duke's inside running game.

The Aggies had trouble all season stopping option running attacks regardless of whether or not it was the option game itself or the play action passes off of it. They did much better against Missouri until late in the game because they rotated talented freshmen such as Jay Arnold into the lineup, played guys like Daeshon Hall more, and overall used more athletic people that could get penetration to beat down and reach blocks.

Look for the Aggies to play more of the three man front that did a decent job against the Tigers with the ability to get off the ball and into the backfield. In addition, such penetration provides protection for a young Mike linebacker like Mastrogiovanni. However, if there's one thing that Duke does well, it's prevent negative plays with an experienced offensive line that doesn't miss assignments. In addition, A&M has to be cognizant of being outnumbered in the box when it goes to its three man front (eight offensive players versus six defenders) or Duke being able to take advantage of matchups (H backs versus nickel backs in the running game).

The Aggies have to be able to get better play out of their linebackers and defensive ends in terms of playing assignment football versus the option. The defensive ends have to be able to play a man rather than standing around in no man's land and turning everyone loose. The linebackers have to be cognizant of getting outside on exchanges with the ends on assignments and not overrunning plays to the inside.

If A&M can do those things, then it gets Duke into third and medium/long situations which is where the Blue Devils are more likely to struggle. They like to be in third and short to medium situations where they can stretch you downfield with Crowder and then throw crossing and hitch routes to keep drives alive. Although Boone and Connette completed more than 60% of their passes this season, both have footwork/mechanics issues (Connette was used as an H back in 2012) and benefit from being able to throw against single coverage off of play action and shorter routes in longer yardage situations. The Aggies like to play three deep looks to prevent longer throws and Duke will take those all day if they have the opportunity.

The best news for A&M is not Duncan's suspension, because Duke can rotate people and replicate his skill set to an extent. It's that Boone is not a runner on the same level of Auburn's Nick Marshall or Mississippi State's Dak Prescott. Connette is a physical presence and A&M might see more of him if Duke has issues moving the ball or sees something in the A&M defense that dictates more playing time. In fact, for comparison purposes, Duke isn't as good at rushing the ball as the Rebels or Bulldogs as they lack Ole Miss' speed and Mississippi State's size.

Nonetheless, the Aggies haven't stopped a SEC caliber opponent from running the football this season on a consistent basis. If the Aggies can get good play out of their young defensive linemen and not blow assignments on a consistent basis, they should be able to slow the Blue Devils down. Even so, Duke will want to run the ball to keep Johnny Manziel off the field (they attempted a similar strategy with Florida State's Jameis Winston which worked for a while) until turnovers did them in. If Duke can run the ball, then A&M fans had better be prepared for a closer game than the spread would indicate and much like they have played all season.

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