Photo: Kell Walker behind Duke's secondary
Army-Duke is overshadowed among marquee college football season openers this season. Michigan-Notre Dame, Louisville-Alabama and Miami-LSU are the luminous matchups.
Nonetheless, Army-Duke is one of the more intriguing games pairing two teams that are looking to build on last year’s momentum.
ESPN recognized this when the network moved the opener from the crowded Saturday afternoon schedule to a highlighted Friday night slot. The Aug. 31 game will be aired on ESPNU under the lights at Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium.
Last season Army won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time since 1996 with wins over Air Force and Navy. The Black Knights also beat San Diego State in the Armed Forces Bowl to reach the double-figure wins column with a 10-3 season. One of their victims during a six-game winning streak was Duke, 21-16, at West Point’s Michie Stadium.
“We graduated a lot of great guys and contributors,” said junior Kell Walker, a returning starting running back. “Those guys were great leaders, and they have allowed us behind them to step up now. They encouraged us as soon as they left. Everybody on this team is encouraging each other to get better. We want to get better than 10-3. We want to elevate our team on the field as well as off the field.”
Army must replace quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw, who led the team in rushing, but the guy that wins the job has a deep cast around him. The next six backs in rushing yards return.
Walker was third with 648 yards and led it with 7.3 yards per carry. Senior fullback Darnell Woolfolk was second with 812 yards and tied Bradshaw for the team lead with 14 touchdowns. Sophomore Fred Cooper only ran for 72 yards and two TDs in a backup role, but he was one of the stars of the spring game with a 37-yard touchdown run.
“Getting a lot of playing time and coming into this year running the same plays, I’m in a groove,” Cooper said after the spring game. “I understand the plays and that helps me a lot more.”
Duke won its final three contests in an injury-plagued year to finish 7-6. The Blue Devils, who beat Northern Illinois in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, return 16 starters, including NFL quarterback prospect Daniel Jones, and 48 lettermen.
“There are so many people that return,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I think the end of the year, the way we finished, that the practices for the bowl game were even better than what we played. That's why we played so well.
“We played a really good team in Northern Illinois and we played really well. We've continued on that path. We've got to continue there. Our league, our schedule is tough, but I believe this team is going to be willing to work to be as good as it can be, whatever that is.”
One of the keys for Duke is better protection for Jones, who played the second half of last season banged up by undisclosed injuries.
“Daniel's been healthy for one thing,” Cutcliffe said of his progress in spring drills. “He's really matured. I would say he dove into the spring. I mean, he's really put a lot of heart and soul into it. He's had a really good spring. I've seen almost every area of his game improve; his understanding, just every approach.
“He's a very talented guy. He can run, he's got a big arm, he's got great size. I think he understands what his capabilities are. I think his word has been consistency. It's what he wants to see from himself. I think we're making progress in that area.”
For Army, now that the Black Knights have won the CIC Trophy for the first time in two decades, the next step is to flirt with Top 25 rankings. That’s something Navy and Air Force have done when they put together their CIC championship teams.
For Duke, it’s getting back to the top of the ACC Coastal Division. The Blue Devils won the 2013 ACC Coastal title before losing to eventual national champion Florida State in the ACC title game. The Blue Devils followed up their 10-4 record and No. 23 national ranking with a 2014 record of 9-4 that was second in the Coastal to Georgia Tech.
Army-Duke falls outside the attraction of a Top 25 matchup to open the season, but both teams are flirting with the rankings. That’s what makes it such an intriguing Friday Night Lights showdown.
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
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