1) Seriously, tell us how good Thaddeus Lewis is. On a scale of 1-to-Hamilton, where does he rank? .6 Hamilton? .7 Hamilton? Is he better than Spence Fischer? Does he have an NFL future? We can see him being picked up late in the draft or as a free agent and ten months from now going all Steamin' Willie Beamin’ on the League...
Funny you should mention Joe Hamilton. He's one of my three favorite non-Duke ACC players of all time (the other two being Derrick Brooks and Anthony Poindexter). Thad Lewis is in that league. If Duke could run the ball at all, Lewis would be an ACC POY candidate. Right now the Duke offense is completely dependent on Lewis throwing the football effectively. UNC was able to get pressure on him last week with only four guys, so Lewis really didn't have many open receivers. Not fair throwing Spence Fischer in the conversation. He was a classmate of mine at Duke, so of course I will say Spence is the man. Duke could run the ball back in the day (the last Duke ACC POY was RB Robert Baldwin in 1994, Fischer's junior year), so the offense was not nearly as reliant on Spence as it is on Thad. I will say that Lewis does have a better arm and is more mobile. And if Thad finishes strong, he will own every meaningful Duke passing record. Considering the QB's that have come through Duke, that is quite an accomplishment.
Factoring in that Hamilton played on better football teams, I rank Lewis as a .9 Hamilton. Lewis might have a longer NFL career though. I think Lewis will thrive in the NFL for a few reasons. One, he'll likely have offensive lineman that can pass block. Two, he won't be required to carry a team on his shoulders every week. Three, he's tall enough (6'2") and has an NFL arm. Four, he's had David Cutcliffe teaching him for two seasons. I don't think he'll be Peytom Manning, but I could see being a 3rd QB or practice squad player next year. He has the tools to develop and become a serviceable NFL QB. Late round draft pick or more likely priority undrafted FA is my guess.
2) Coach Johnson noted in his post practice comments yesterday how he thought the biggest improvement in Duke’s team between this year & last is your defense. The last three ACC games you’ve held opponents to 13, 19, & 19 points. How have you improved so much? Personnel ? Scheme? What's the strength of your defense? You've seen the spread option in your win over Army earlier this season. How did you defend it & can you do this again against Tech?
Coach Johnson is correct. Duke's team defense has quietly gotten a lot better during the course of the season. Adding to the streak you had above, the Duke defense also shut out the NC State offense in the second half of their game (State scored their only points on a kickoff return). The key to Duke defensive improvement has been the play of the secondary. Duke is now lining up three ACC-caliber corners, and also have talent at safety that is starting to live up to expectations. Now, this will help Duke in two ways this weekend. One, the corners are pretty tough players and they all are good in run support. Additionally, the safeties also tackle well. For the Paul Johnson offense, these are required skills to have to limit big plays. Secondly, the Duke corners are playing pass coverage light years better than what Tech saw a season ago. Leon Wright is second in the conference in interceptions and passes defended. He's having an all-ACC type season. Demaryius Thomas does provide a physical mismatch against any corner he faces. But Duke can now make teams pay for off-target throws.
3) Duke just had its first 3 game ACC win streak since 1994. The program is clearly on the rise. What is Cutcliffe doing? Is the fan base energized?
The season-opening loss to Richmond still is hanging over the program. Had Duke won that game, they would only need one more victory in the last three for bowl eligibility. Still, Duke has already won more games in 2009, than they've won in any of the last 15 seasons. Cutcliffe is a proven winner at the Division 1 level. He knows how to coach kids up and get them to execute on game day. Duke is also a much better conditioned team than in years past. Plus, Cut is a great QB teacher, and the improvment in Thad Lewis's play can be directly traced to Cutcliffe's coaching. The bottom line is that Duke now can be fun to watch (last week aside), because they can score points. Now if Duke can get the consistency thing worked out, they might win one of these games they "don't have a chance in".
4) Duke's offense vs. Tech's defense seems to be a good match-up for you. Describe your offense & how you will attack our defense on Saturday?
Being a good matchup is a relative term. Tech has a quality secondary with all-ACC safety Morgan Burnett. Still, the Devils struggle the most with teams who have great defensive lines. Derrick Morgan leads the ACC in sacks and TFLs. Duke will need to get him blocked. If they do, Tech will have trouble stopping the Blue Devil offense.
As far as tactics go, Duke runs what I call a slow no-huddle. They will get an initial play call from the sidelines and line up like they are ready to snap the ball. This forces the defense to line up as well, which gives Duke a look at what they are facing. Then they will look over to the sideline for the real play call. Every once in awhile, they will quick snap the ball to catch the defense off guard. Duke will throw the ball about 70% of the time, mainly because they simply have been unable to run it consistently. I think Duke's longest rush from scrimmage this year is 20 yards. The good news for Duke is that they have four capable wide receivers that are tough covers for just about any defense. The base set is usually three WRs, 1 TE and 1 RB, but that personnel mix will change frequently. The temptation for opposing defense is to blitz to get quick pressure on Lewis. That worked earlier in the year, but as the season has gone on, it has become almost counter productive. Lewis is great at making quick throws into tight spaces. The offense staff is also very good at diagnosing when blitzes might be coming and adjusting the play-call accordingly. It will be an interesting chess match between Tech's DC and Duke's OC.
5) Who is the one guy on your team that makes you flinch every time Cutcliffe calls his number or the other team runs a play at him? Conversely, who is the one guy you’re counting on to make a plays on offense & defense?
That is a really good question. I don't have any specific players, but I can give you "heartburn plays". The power run off the edge has given us a lot of problems. i will be very interested to see how the Johnson option attacks this area of the field. Duke has good pursuit to the edges and stuffs the run up the middle well, but those power edge rushes have been very effective against us. VT, State, and Virginia all had success with this type of play. On offense, I cringe every time we try and run the ball up the middle. It's like beating your head against a wall. We do it over and over again and it almost NEVER works. If we get three yards on this type of run, that is a success in my book.
Things that make me happy. On defense, when teams try and run at our senior DT Vince Oghobaase. He was playing at an all-American level earlier this season (ask the Army OL coach about him), but he's been battling injuries as the year has gone on. Even at less than 100%, he is still very difficult to block. He's 305 lbs, strong, and very agile. And he's a senior that has seen the PJ offense every year, so he knows what to expect. Should be interesting. On offense, everytime Thad Lewis throws the ball to #2 Connor Vernon, I smile. Despite being a true freshman, Vernon has already proven to be one of the ACC's better receivers. The thing I like most about Vernon is his polish. You look at the kid and how he plays, and you won't believe he's a true freshman. Also, he's got the "white guy, possession receiver" label by some, but he has 4 catches this year of over 40 yards and is in the top 10 in the league in all-purpose yards. He'll burn you as quick as anyone else.
6) Give us a brief prediction & summary of what to expect on Saturday?
I expect a relatively high scoring game. Duke will play the option tough, like they always do, but I see the Nesbitt to Thomas combo scoring at least once. On the other side, Duke will rebound from the UNC debacle and get back on track offensively. It will be a close battle, but there will be a point in the game where Tech shows why they are 8-1 and Duke will show why they are 5-4. Duke will beat the spread but lose the game. Something in the neighborhood of 35-31 Tech.
7)If we're headed to the game this weekend, where should we eat BBQ?
Bullock's BBQ is about as authentic Durham as you can get. Some BBQ enthusiasts in the area think Bullock's isn't the best. But it’s quality and it’s close to the campus. Eat hearty!
David Dohrmann has been covering Duke football for 10 years for The Devils Den. He is currently the Duke football analyst for Scout.com and his blog can be found at duke.scout.com.