Duke enter 2014 as a legitimate contenders in the ACC after going 10-4 in 2013 - quite a jump from the 6-7 mark they put up in 2012 -- and after showing drastic improvement on the defensive side of the football, where they'll return six starters including first-team all-conference linebacker Kelby Brown who rebounded from missing the entire 2012 season due to an ACL tear, to lead the unit to a near 50-yard, 10-point improvement per game in 2013.
On offense, sixth-year head coach David Cutcliffe may have a bit more of a challenge on his hands considering the loss of an offensive coordinator, two productive running backs and two starters on the O-line. However, top NFL prospect and all-conference second-team guard Laken Tomlinson returns with 39 starts under his belt and Anthony Boone is a year older in the system at quarterback with his top three targets from last year returning including record-setting WR Jamison Crowder and TE Braxton Deaver, both worth keeping an eye on as potential NFL prospects for the 2015 draft.
Duke's top NFL Draft-eligible prospects to watch in 2014:
OG Laken Tomlinson (6'3 | 320 | 5.23 | #77)
A second-team All-ACC selection as a junior and 39-time starter at right guard for the Blue Devils, Laken Tomlinson enters his senior year as one of the top guard prospects in the 2015 draft class. A three-time All-ACC Academic selection as well, the Chicago native has utilized an impressive combination of size, strength, athleticism and smarts to develop into one of the conferences most dominant lineman over the past three seasons, and has shown continual growth both physically and technically in that time.
Tomlinson possesses the ideal thick, powerful build for an NFL guard and demonstrates impressive movement skills for his size with nimble feet, flexible hips and smoothness when asked to change direction both as a run blocker and in pass protection. His natural strength is obvious, as he's able to routinely dictate and finish opponents when he latches on, and he does a good job of holding ground when anchoring, even when asked to reset after being caught off guard or initially knocked back.
From a technical standpoint, Tomlinson is still learning to use his hands, as he'll be seen from time to time allowing defenders into his frame rather than jarring his opponent with extension, due mostly to poor hand placement or lowering his shoulder on contact. He also needs to demonstrate better width in his lower half while sliding in pass protection, and continue to stay low off the snap to establish leverage earlier in the play, but these flaws aren't nearly as evident as they once were and he has become a much more consistent technician who relies less on strength and athleticism than he once did.
Look for Tomlinson to draw first round grades heading into the 2015 draft if he's able to stay healthy.
ILB Kelby Brown (6'1 | 230 | 4.82 | #59)
Brown rebounded from having to sit out the entire 2012 season due to a torn right ACL, to earning first-team All-ACC accolades as a redshirt junior in 2013 after putting together a 120-tackle campaign, including 11 tackles for loss, one sack, two interceptions and four double-digit tackle games including two whereby he notched at least 17 stops.
Though he lacks elite athleticism, he's more rangy than given credit for, and his strong instincts allow him to put himself in position to make plays that others may make by relying more on athletic ability. He's fluid in space, demonstrates good redirect quickness and despite carrying a lighter frame than you might prefer for an inside 'backer, plays with a fearless demeanor and physical nature, with solid wrap-up tackling technique.
He's still a little lighter than scouts would probably want to see for a guy who will line up on the inside at the next level, and his range may not be good enough to put on the outside, so some added bulk and another year of good health to show that he's fully recovered from the ACL injury could put him in position to be a top-half draft selection next year.
WR Jamison Crowder (5'9 | 175 | 4.53 | #3)
Duke's other returning first-team All-ACC member, receiver Jamison Crowder, comes off a record-breaking junior year that saw him set new school marks for both receptions (108) and receiving yards (1,360), to go with 8 TDs. He also returned 25 punts for 401 yards (16.0 avg) and two TDs.
At only 175 pounds, concerns about Crowder's size in transition to the next level are certainly merited, however, he has shown a knack for being able to keep himself clean with good quickness off the line, suddenness in and out of breaks and make-you-miss ability after the catch, giving him the look of a potentially very productive NFL receiver despite lacking burner speed or physicality to match up on the outside.
Other Duke prospects to watch in 2014:
QB Anthony Boone (6'0 | 230 | 4.78 | #1)
Athletic QB with enough arm talent to make an NFL roster, but who has struggled with consistency and decision-making thus far in his college career. Better poise and accuracy from the pocket could mean a chance to be selected in 2015.
TE Braxton Deaver (6'5 | 240 | 4.86 | #88)
Third-team All-ACC member as a junior (40 catches), with sure hands and sneaky acceleration down the seam, but who struggles as a blocker and doesn't exhibit athleticism to suggest he could be a dynamic "move" tight end option at the next level despite carrying a leaner frame. Improved run-blocking and some added weight without slowing down could lead to an NFL opportunity.