After slipping to 4-8 in 2016, the Duke Blue Devils rebounded to 7-6 and earned the program's fifth bowl appearance since 2012. David Cutcliffe's team returns one of the ACC's top quarterbacks in Daniel Jones, while linebacker Joe Giles-Harris and cornerback Mark Gilbert are two of the league's best defenders. However, that may not be enough for Duke to break the .500 mark. The Blue Devils face a tough road slate that includes trips to Baylor and Northwestern in non-conference play. Two more issues: Veteran defensive coordinator Jim Knowles left for Oklahoma State, and the offensive line returns only two starters. With Jones and most of the skill players returning, Duke's offense should improve after averaging 19.8 points per game in ACC play.
Previewing Duke Football's Offense for 2018
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The Blue Devils have all of the makings of an excellent offense -- but they did so last year as well before turning into a complete disaster in midseason when they averaged 12.2 points during a six-game losing streak. Out of nowhere, Duke recovered to average 36.7 points over the final three games, finally living up to expectations with quarterback Daniel Jones at the helm.
Duke's problems last year started on the offensive line and spread through the entire offense, with Jones making uncharacteristically bad decisions while trying to force throws to receivers who couldn't get much separation.
Despite losing three starters, coach David Cutcliffe believes the Blue Devils can actually be better up front.
"The offensive line is a little more unproven, but I think we do have depth because we've got competition there," he says. "We believe we can be better than what we've been there, but we've got to prove it."
There's a wealth of talent at the skill positions with three starters back at receiver, led by T.J. Rahming (65 catches, 795 yards). Meanwhile, sophomore Brittain Brown has the mix of speed and physicality to be Duke's best running back since Chris Douglas graduated. He rushed for 701 yards last year despite splitting time with senior Shaun Wilson.
Previewing Duke Football's Defense for 2018
Duke is as good as it's been on the front six as perhaps any time in school history, thanks to three returning starters on the line and a potential All-American at linebacker in junior Joe Giles-Harris.
Giles-Harris is joined in the middle by Ben Humphreys, and the two serve as the anchors of a defense that appears poised to build on its success last season when it finished 21st in both scoring and total defense.
The strength of last year's defense was the secondary, but that group will be the biggest cause for concern as at least three players will start in new positions. There is one proven commodity. Cornerback Mark Gilbert earned first-team All-ACC honors after intercepting six passes and breaking up another 15. Safety Jeremy McDuffie suffered a serious knee injury in November, putting his status for 2018 into question.
With so many newcomers on the back end, expect co-defensive coordinators Ben Albert and Matt Guerrieri to ratchet up the pressure even more in order to give the secondary a break.
Previewing Duke Football's Specialists for 2018
Austin Parker was dismissed from the program in December but was reinstated to the team over the summer. He made 17-of-21 field goal attempts and averaged 42 yards on punts. Parker should be in the mix for All-ACC honors this fall. Deon Jackson and T.J. Rahming could handle returns.
There's reason to believe Duke will once again be stout on defense. It could be up to the offense -- which averaged only 19.8 points in ACC games -- to determine whether the Blue Devils will be a borderline bowl team or emerge as a contender in the Coastal Division. The schedule certainly gets tougher, with non-conference road games at Baylor and Northwestern and a crossover game at Clemson.
Cutcliffe likes what he sees from his group. "We know this team can run," he says. "[This] was the most physical Duke football that has been out here in quite some time. This is something we've got to build on; I'm anxious to see."