5 questions for Duke beat writer Laura Keeley

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson and Duke coach David Cutcliffe following last year's Blue Devils win at Bobby Dodd Stadium. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson and Duke coach David Cutcliffe following last year’s Blue Devils win at Bobby Dodd Stadium. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Laura Keeley covers Duke for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and offered her insight into Georgia Tech’s opponent this week, plus an in-depth scouting report into the culinary scene of the Durham area. My thanks to Laura for her contributions to the blog. You can read her stuff here and follow her on Twitter here.

Q: Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk did some damage last year against Georgia Tech as a goal-line/short-yardage specialist. What is his full game like? Is he more likely to beat teams with his arm or legs?

A: This is a great question, one I felt like I could answer confidently a week ago. Sirk looked great against Tulane and FCS N.C. Central, completing around 67 percent of his passes, making the right reads and decisions on when to pass and when to run, and it all made sense why the coaches spent all offseason acting like there was no concern with him inheriting the starting role. He looked like a bigger, faster, stronger and more accurate version of last year’s starter, Anthony Boone.

Then Sirk played Northwestern.

Simply put, it was ugly. Even us lay folks in the press box could tell he was making the wrong read and going to his checkdowns way too early, and just in the entirely wrong situations, like a third-and-long throw that went about two yards and was immediately snuffed out by the Wildcats’ defense.

And Cutcliffe expressed unhappiness with Sirk constantly deciding to tuck and run it himself between the tackles instead of waiting for plays to develop or letting his running backs take the pounding. It was basically a total and complete disaster, and Cutcliffe came as close to criticizing a quarterback as I’ve ever seen, openly admitting that Sirk has to make better decisions with the football.

Q: What’s your sense of this team? Could they be a legitimate threat to win the Coastal? What questions remain unanswered?

A: Sirk is a big question mark (at the risk of beating a dead horse). He was still defending all of the little swing pass checkdowns on Tuesday, saying he was taking what the defense was giving him. Yeah, Thomas, that’s great that the defense is giving you a checkdown on third-and-long—but, still, that’s not going to win Duke games. Northwestern would drop eight guys back and coverage and just have the defensive line rush a few steps before dropping back and waiting on the pass, too. I’d expect to see a lot of the same from opponents until Sirk proves he can get yards against that defense.

Of course, it’s easier to throw the ball downfield when your receivers are getting open, and the Blue Devils have an unproven crop at that position this year. Junior Johnell Barnes and freshman T.J. Rahming have the potential to be the No. 1 guy, but potential doesn’t get you much on Saturdays. Both of those guys need to work to get open more.

The defense, though, is solid. More on that momentarily.

Q: Paul Johnson said that Duke’s defense is the best he’s seen from the Blue Devils since he got to Tech in 2008 (the same year as Cutcliffe). Would you agree? What do they do well?

A: Yes, I would agree. Cutcliffe will point to Duke’s speed on defense, that this is, by far, the fastest defense Duke has ever fielded under him. That’s a testament to their work in recruiting and developing players—the Blue Devils are still in a phase of their rebuild/rebirth where the level of athleticism on the roster rises with each incoming class (and yes, there was obviously a ways to go in this department a few years ago).

The secondary boasts three guys with NFL potential—safety Jeremy Cash, who plays like a hybrid safety-linebacker, up close to the line in Duke’s 4-2-5 scheme, safety DeVon Edwards and cornerback Breon Borders. Having all of those guys on the back end certainly helps in pass coverage, and in blitz packages, too. Duke likes its athleticism at linebacker, where the rotation is four deep, and thus far the front four has been a pleasant surprise. Duke is never going to have the biggest or fastest defensive line, but as long as those guys can be a wash (as opposed to a minus), then the back end should be able to hold its own.

Q: I think I asked you this two years ago, but can you make some suggestions to Tech fans for places to eat/drink?

A: For after the game and Friday night, the Federal, also on Main Street, has great food and drink (and is where Pat Forde and his Forde Minutes were taken during hoops season a few years back). My favorite area of down is just a few minutes from the heart of downtown, where Fullsteam serves up great, Southern-inspired beer, which is brewed on site, and Motorco across the street has nice small plates and drink options, too. If you want nice farm-to-fork type local food, Watts is one of my favorite restaurants. Pizzeria Toro is great for pizza. So is Pompieri Pizza is you want a more casual experience (and no wait).

Can you tell I like food in Durham? Okay, back to football.

Q: You’re a new voter in the AP poll. What’s your weekly routine like, and what’s the worst e-mail you’ve gotten so far from a disgruntled fan?

A: Poll voting is harder than I thought it would be, to be honest. The preseason poll was ridiculous—you’re basically making it up as you go along. Who the heck knows who will be good, and preseason coverage is a shot in the dark at best (see what everyone expected from Auburn, which opened at No. 3 on my initial ballot). And then once the games started, it didn’t necessarily get any easier.

Yes, there were hard results, which was nice, but you have to balance not overreacting to one result with not holding onto some sort of ill-preconceived notion about a team. And then things get messy. Take Stanford, for instance: I started with them at No. 17 and then quickly bounced them after losing to Northwestern.

But then it turns out Northwestern isn’t bad. Not at all, in fact. And the same week I realize this, Stanford goes on the road and beats then-No. 6 Southern Cal. So you want to reward the Cardinal for that great win, but you can’t throw out the fact that Northwestern beat up on Stanford just two weeks ago, right?

And there’s no way that USC can be ranked ahead of Stanford when Stanford just beat them handily at home, right (somehow, my fellow voters didn’t grasp that concept)? Anyhow, it gets messy to sort through. And I do my sorting at 6 a.m. Sunday mornings, because I’m too boring to stay up until the West Coast games finish, and I like to get running by around 7.

And you know what, I’ll end with this pleasant note: I really haven’t had to deal with any terrible feedback, at all. This was a pleasant surprise! Maybe the worst was someone asking how I still had Auburn at No. 3, ahead of Alabama, after week one. The reason was because I thought Louisville would prove to be a solid team (wrong), so that win would stand up well. But then the Tigers took care of themselves the next week against Jacksonville State.


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