The 2019 season was anything but a smooth ride for Duke.
The Blue Devils fell flat on national television in the season opener, losing 42-3 to then-No. 2 Alabama in Mercedez-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Three wins in as many weeks followed, including a road win over Virginia Tech to begin the ACC slate, to inspire hope that the Alabama loss was behind them.
But after a close loss to Pittsburgh and win over Georgia Tech, the Blue Devils lost five straight while averaging a little more than 14 points per game in that stretch. A Senior Day win over Miami stopped the bleeding, but was too little too late as Duke finished 5-7, suffering its first losing season since 2016 and just its third in eight seasons.
With the departure of dual-threat quarterback Quentin Harris, head coach David Cutcliffe will need to find a new signal-caller for the 2020 campaign, but that is far from the only unknown that the staff will be dealing with as spring practices commence in Durham.
5 Storylines to Watch During Duke's Spring Practice
1. QB1 slot up for grabs
Quentin Harris' departure means an open competition for the starting quarterback role in 2020. Clemson transfer Chase Brice appears to be the front-runner, possessing immediate eligibility after he graduates this spring and enrolls at Duke in the summer. He’ll join a quarterback group comprising redshirt junior Chris Katrenick, redshirt sophomore Gunnar Holmberg, and incoming freshman Luca Diamont.
During the 2018 and '19 seasons, Brice totaled 1,023 passing yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions. His most memorable moment at Clemson came when he replaced an injured Trevor Lawrence and led the Tigers to a come-from-behind win over Syracuse in 2018. Of the trio already in Durham, meanwhile, only Katrenick — with seven career games played and 15 total passing attempts — has even thrown a pass for the Blue Devils, with Holmberg notching just one carry for 19 yards in his lone game action, which came in 2018. Diamont, meanwhile, is a three-star prospect from the Los Angeles area who joined the Blue Devils in January as an early enrollee.
2. Replacing tackle production
Duke loses not only Harris but also its top two tacklers from a season ago, linebacker Koby Quansah and safety Dylan Singleton. Together the pair averaged 16 tackles per game, one of the sparse bright spots on a defense that struggled mightily throughout the season.
Safety Marquis Waters and linebacker Brandon Hill, the next two Blue Devils in tackles, both enter their final season of eligibility while linebacker Shaka Heyward will be a redshirt sophomore in 2020. That trio combined for 17.6 tackles per game a season ago, so consistent production from that group will be key heading into the fall.
3. Continued development of RB Deon Jackson
Just as the staff will hope to see growth from some of its rising playmakers on defense, that's also the case for Jackson on the other side of the ball. The rising senior rushed for just 641 yards a season ago — finishing outside the top 10 in the ACC — and only found the end zone six times.
That production was a step down from a breakout season in 2018, when Jackson totaled 161 carries for 847 yards. Turning the page and approaching — if not surpassing — 1,000 yards in 2020 would be a more-than-welcome result, especially with the question mark that (for now) remains at quarterback.
4. Growth of Noah Gray and Jalon Calhoun
Staying on the offensive side of the ball, Duke would be thrilled to find a dominant, go-to receiver in 2020. Gray, a tight end, led the team in receptions (51) last year and finished second in yards (392) to Calhoun, who caught 46 passes for a team-high 420 yards as a true freshman. Aaron Young transferred to FAU after a five-year career and Scott Bracey has entered the transfer portal, so there is room for last season’s two leading receivers to take another step forward and command increased attention heading into 2020.
5. Early enrollees with a chance to shine
Bracey is not the only Blue Devil seeking to play elsewhere after the 2019 season. Offensive lineman Liam Smith, linebacker Jacob Morgenstern, safety Javon Jackson, and kicker AJ Reed also entered the transfer portal, leaving an opportunity for some early enrollees to make an immediate impression.
Of the 16-man signing class joining Duke in 2020, five enrolled early. That group includes Diamont, as well as three-star wide receiver Malik Bowen (Mt. Juliet, Tenn.) and three-star linebacker Christian Hood (Missouri City, Texas), all of whom fill positions of need for the Blue Devils.
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.