The Duke Blue Devils are set to open spring practice this weekend, eager to turn the page on a pair of forgettable seasons — with just seven total wins combined — after posting at least seven wins in five of the previous six seasons from 2013 to 2018. A spark of early momentum in spring practice can bring that shift in momentum to life, so here are five storylines to watch as the Blue Devils take the field in preparation for the 2021 season.
5 Storylines to Watch During Duke's Spring Practice
1. New season, same QB turnover
The quarterback position for Duke has most definitely experienced turnover in multiple senses of the word. The Blue Devils will start their fourth different quarterback in as many seasons, with Daniel Jones (2018), Quentin Harris (2019), and Chase Brice (2020) the last three primary signal-callers for head coach David Cutcliffe and Duke. Brice fell just short of the 200-yard mark in passing last season — finishing with 197.3 yards per game through the air — and has departed to Appalachian State to leave the Blue Devils once again failing to retain its primary quarterback from one season to the next.
Whoever ends up winning the job — with the leading candidates being redshirt junior Gunnar Holmberg, redshirt freshman Luca Diamont — will need to emphasize ball control in order to be successful and be capable of guiding the offense. Duke finished the 2020 season with more interceptions than any team in college football — throwing 19, in a short season — after throwing 14 and 10, respectively, in each of the last two seasons.
2. Retooling on defense
Duke placed two players — Chris Rumph II (0.73) and Victor Dimukeje (0.68) — among the top 50 nationally in sacks per game in 2020. However, the Blue Devils struggled mightily in stopping the run last season, allowing 213.2 yards per game on the ground, which was among the 20 worst marks in the FBS.
The news doesn't get much better for co-defensive coordinators Ben Albert and Matt Guerrieri, as the Blue Devils also lose two of their top three tacklers from a season ago in Rumph and Marquis Waters, with Shaka Heyward the only returning member of that trio. Duke has finished in the bottom 50 nationally in rushing defense in each of the last three seasons, a trend that Albert especially will look to halt as he aims to grow his defensive line as only three of 12 Blue Devil defensive linemen who possess more than one season of collegiate experience.
3. Hold the laundry
In a similar vein to getting more experience — though not just limited to the defensive line — Duke would be well served to build up some discipline among its players in advance of the coming season. The Blue Devils finished in the middle of the pack in per-game averages for both number of penalties committed and penalty yards in 2020, a far cry from just two seasons prior when Duke excelled in both categories, with top-10 marks in each.
With hardly a distinguishable difference in the number of fourth- and fifth-year players between 2018 and 2020, experience isn't necessarily the driving factor for success in this area. Rather, a combination of cultivating the available talent and building that discipline as early as spring practice will be a key driver for finding ways to keep the flags from flying.
4. Skill position development on offense
One hidden silver lining to the abundance of youth on Duke's roster a season ago — especially at the skill positions on offense — meant that the Blue Devils would lose little production to the professional ranks entering this season. That appears to be the case entering 2021, as Duke returns both its leading rusher (Mataeo Durant) and leading receiver (Jalon Calhoun) heading into the coming season.
In Durant and fellow running back Marvin Hubbard III — who hasn't played since tearing his ACL in 2018 — Duke features a senior and redshirt senior, respectively, who ought to help Duke climb out of the bottom half of the FBS in rushing, where the Blue Devils have spent each of the last three seasons. And in the passing game, Duke will bring 12 wide receivers and an additional six tight ends into the 2021 campaign. That group features three seniors/redshirt seniors and six juniors/redshirt juniors, who — like the running backs mentioned above — provide a blend of talent and experience that should combine nicely for Duke's offense in 2021.
5. Can Cutcliffe find playmakers to get Duke back to winning ways?
With its 2-9 finish in 2020, Duke completed consecutive seasons without appearing in a bowl for the first time since 2010-11, which also was the last time Duke finished with fewer than four wins. The national rankings haven't been very kind to the Blue Devils in recent years, with just one season (2018) featuring the Blue Devils in the Top 25 after a three-year stretch from 2013 to 2015 that saw Duke ranked in at least one week each season.
Entering the 100th season of Duke football in 2021, Cutcliffe's career head coaching record sits just a single game above .500 at 118-117. As he prepares for his 20th season at the helm — and 14th in Durham — he'll face an uphill climb to keep his overall tally north of the .500 mark, but discovering some under-the-radar talent could do wonders to aid in that effort.
— 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.