After leading Duke to four straight bowl games, head coach David Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils stumbled to a 4-8 record last season. There could be a potential rebound thanks to the emergence of a young quarterback, but the defensive outlook is considerably cloudier due to a lot of turnover and questionable depth. A wide-open ACC Coastal Division helps Duke’s chances of at least getting back to the postseason, a position Blue Devils fans have been accustomed to during Cutcliffe’s tenure in Durham.
Previewing Duke Football’s Offense for 2017
If nothing else, the 2016 season delivered quarterback guru David Cutcliffe his next project. Stepping in as a redshirt freshman, Daniel Jones proved to be a bright spot in a rough season, throwing for 2,836 yards and 16 touchdowns while closing the year with a string of 173 passes without an interception. And thanks to major roster turnover elsewhere, the 6'5", 210-pounder enters this season as the most experienced starting signal caller in the ACC’s Coastal Division.
Jones will have experienced targets to throw to in junior receivers T.J. Rahming, Johnathan Lloyd and Chris Taylor. Rahming’s 70 catches last season were 36 more than the next-closest Blue Devil. After splitting time with then-senior Jela Duncan last season, running back Shaun Wilson will become the featured back behind an offensive line that has three returning starters but little experienced depth. Ohio State graduate transfer Evan Lisle could end up playing a prominent role. He did not start a game during his career as a Buckeye.
Previewing Duke Football’s Defense for 2017
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The good news for the Devils is that the top two tacklers from last season — linebackers Ben Humphreys and Joe Giles-Harris — both return. Combining for 213 tackles and 20.5 tackles for a loss, they both possess size, speed and a nose for the ball. They should also have some help, as there are some seasoned linebackers able to rotate in when needed. However, the bad news facing Duke’s defense is that there are question marks nearly everywhere else.
Senior Mike Ramsay will reprise his role at defensive tackle, but he will need to guide the three new defensive line starters who will surround him. In the secondary, the Blue Devils will have to replace program mainstays Breon Borders and DeVon Edwards. Senior Bryon Fields and sophomore Mark Gilbert give the Blue Devils a pair of proven performers at cornerback. But senior Alonzo Saxton will be the lone returning starter at the Blue Devils’ three safety spots. Jeremy McDuffie, a converted cornerback, will likely man one of the others.
Previewing Duke Football’s Specialists for 2017
When Edwards was ready to field a kick, opponents had every right to be worried — he took six kicks back for touchdowns during his Duke career. With him gone, the Duke return game faces a major challenge. Wilson will get a chance to handle the kickoff return duties, but the punt return role is wide open. While sophomore Austin Parker averaged 40.9 yards per punt last season, locking up the starting gig for this season, he’ll likely also be called upon to try and solve the Blue Devils’ kicking woes. Last season, freshman A.J. Reed connected on just 3-of-10 field-goal tries. Reed is back as a sophomore to try and win the job again, but Parker and others will compete for the job as well.
For an example of how far Duke football has come, one needs look no further than last season. In the decade since he arrived in Durham, Cutcliffe turned what had been a football wasteland into a program that reached four straight bowl games, briefly cracked the top 25 and made great strides in recruiting, facilities and visibility. So when the 2016 squad stumbled through a season defined by injuries, bad breaks and head-scratching losses, oddly enough, it felt out of character.
This season, the Blue Devils should have a chance to get back to a more familiar Cutcliffe-era script. Jones should give the offense a dynamic leader and, if the defense can find answers, the Blue Devils have every reason to believe they can make strides and compete for a bowl bid in a Coastal Division that lacks a clear hierarchy.