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Cutcliffe, Duke hoping experience pays off with first winning season since 1994

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Duke hasn't had a winning season since 1994 and has had just three since 1982.

But – be still, our heart – there is optimism the Blue Devils could slip into the postseason this fall. Coach David Cutcliffe returns 14 starters – seven on each side of the ball – and quarterback Sean Renfree is heading into his third season as the starter. His line returns four starters, and they did a nice job protecting him last season; if those guys can open a few more holes for the rushing attack, this offense has a shot to finish in the top half of the league.

[ ACC spring preview: Plenty of work to be done ]

Duke at-a-glance
Coach: David Cutcliffe (fifth season)
Last season: 3-9 overall, 1-7 in ACC
Spring practice dates: Feb. 22-March 31
Returning starters: (minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (7): WR Brandon Braxton, G John Coleman, C/G Dave Harding, QB Sean Renfree, T Perry Simmons, G Laken Tomlinson, WR Conner Vernon
Defense (7): LB Kelby Brown, S Walt Canty, CB Ross Cockrell, E Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, E Justin Foxx, LB Austin Gamble, T Sydney Sarmiento
Special teams: None

Alas, that brings us to the defense, which was bad last season. There was a lack of playmakers – Duke forced just 12 turnovers – and the pass rush was lacking. Duke had trouble stopping the run and also was lax against the pass.

If Cutcliffe and his coaches can unearth a pass rusher and find a ballhawk in the secondary this spring while everyone else is paying attention to the basketball team, those postseason aspirations may actually come true.

Brian McLawhorn of DevilsIlustrated.com – a Rivals.com website that covers Duke – provides a more in-depth look at spring practice.

The biggest problem: Defense. The defense long has been considered the team's Achilles' heel and the biggest issue preventing Duke from making a leap into the postseason. A quick glance at the stat sheet will show the Blue Devils have struggled to stop the run as well as the pass, but the numbers can be deceiving to a degree. The real problem has been the tendency to allow what Cutcliffe calls "explosives" – plays of 20-plus yards. While Duke certainly has areas in which it needs to improve, the concern is not centered on personnel but rather experience. The Blue Devils' lineup last season was dominated by young players, many of whom had not played many snaps the previous season. But with the likes of Es Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx, T Sydney Sarmiento, LBs Kelby Brown and Austin Gamble and S Walt Canty returning with a full season under their belts, mental mistakes should be few. That will be a focus through spring practice.

On the spot: DT Curtis Hazelton. Hazelton, who will be a senior in the fall, has played a limited role throughout his career. But with longtime starter Charlie Hatcher having graduated, spring practice will be Hazelton's opportunity to prove himself before the arrival of the freshman class. He made 22 tackles a year ago, and on a team dominated by experienced youth, he is one of the few upperclassmen not already in the starting lineup who has a chance to break through in his final season. If Hazelton does not amp up his game, there are multiple rising sophomores prepared to jump on the opportunity.

On the verge: WR Jamison Crowder. Crowder, a speedy sophomore, is on the verge of a monster season. He spent much of his freshman season returning kicks and punts, something he did well. With slot receiver Donovan Varner having completed his eligibility, Crowder should move into the starting lineup. Late in the 2011 season, Crowder began asserting himself and earned a reputation of being a big-play target. With Varner gone, Crowder will have plenty of opportunities to make his presence felt, as senior Conner Vernon will garner more than his share of attention from defenses.

General overview: The 2012 Blue Devils have been considered the group that is expected to get the program back into the postseason. For that to happen, the mentality of a bowl-level team has to show itself this spring. And that begins with the defense. The unit must show marked improvement in preventing big plays; if it doesn't, Duke could be in for another long season this fall. The Blue Devils also will be looking for Will Monday to show he is prepared to take over as the team's full-time punter and position himself to compete with incoming freshman Ross Martin for kicking duties.

For in-depth coverage of Duke athletics, go to DevilsIllustrated.com

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