Depending on perspective, Duke's 2018 season can be viewed as a glass half-full or a glass half-empty scenario.
On one hand, the Blue Devils won eight games for just the eighth time since 1960 and played in the program's sixth bowl game in the past seven years — easily Duke's most consistent run of success in history. On the other, Duke couldn't maintain momentum from a 4–0 nonconference start in the ACC's weak Coastal Division, squandering key home games on its way to a sixth-place finish as injuries and inconsistency ultimately kept the Blue Devils from achieving what could have been a 10-win season.
Previewing Duke's Offense for 2019
Losing a quarterback like Daniel Jones to the NFL Draft will certainly be a challenge, but it might not be the hurdle some are expecting as the Blue Devils turn to fifth-year senior Quentin Harris, who coach David Cutcliffe says took the reins in the spring.
"You can either be handed the reins or take them," Cutcliffe says. "Quentin is accomplished, right now, in running our offense, knows what he's doing, knows how to do it, and he has taken command of that operation, throwing the ball really well."
Harris not only thrived in Duke's red zone package last season, but he was also 2–0 as a starter and helped finish a road victory at Northwestern when Jones was injured.
The weapons he'll have are a little more uncertain, as sophomore Jake Bobo (10 catches, 167 yards) and senior Aaron Young (seven catches, 139 yards) are the only proven wideouts. Luckily for Duke, Cutcliffe was able to bring in a proven receivers coach in Trooper Taylor.
Look for Duke to lean on the run more than in recent years, with Deon Jackson and Brittain Brown back and Harris more than capable of succeeding as a dual-threat.
After allowing 30 sacks last season (78th nationally), the offensive line should hold up better. The unit is anchored by Jack Wohlabaugh at center and Robert Kraeling at right tackle.
Previewing Duke's Defense for 2019
This could be a bumpy ride. After ranking 72nd in scoring defense and 77th in total defense last season, the Blue Devils lose three of their top four tacklers. That’s not to say that Duke doesn’t have talent on defense, but there’s little margin for error without much depth.
The strength of the unit is up front, starting with junior end Victor Dimukeje, who totaled 42 tackles, including 8.5 for a loss. Drew Jordan will hold down the other end, looking to build on a season that saw him record 33 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Chris Rumph II, a Freshman All-American last season, will be the defense's X-factor after showing off his versatility with 25 tackles, eight for a loss, and three sacks. Given Rumph's ability, defensive coordinator Matt Guerrieri will get him on the field in multiple positions.
The middle of the defense is the biggest question, with Koby Quansah, Xander Gagnon and Brandon Hill battling for the spots vacated by three-year starters Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys.
As the defense struggled with injuries last season, one positive came out of the constant lineup shuffling. "The fortunate thing is you probably saw the defense that is going to play this year and the year after that," Guerrieri says.
That's the case in the secondary, where eight players who have started at least two games will return. Included among that group is standout corner Mark Gilbert, who is returning from a season-ending hip injury that required surgery in September. Sophomore Josh Blackwell and junior Michael Carter II stepped up as veterans went down, and Carter could be especially valuable this season with the versatility to play all five spots in the Duke secondary.
Previewing Duke's Specialists for 2019
Austin Parker will likely handle all of the Blue Devils’ kicking duties again after sticking to punting in 2018, when he averaged a solid 41.4 yards per attempt. In 2017, Parker converted 17-of-21 field goal attempts, with a long of 45 yards.
The Blue Devils will kick off the 2019 season with a number of questions, and due to a brutal schedule, there won’t be many opportunities to work out the answers.
Not only do dates with Alabama and Notre Dame await, but a trip to Middle Tennessee will also provide a challenge. Even the conference schedule gets tougher with a crossover game against fast-rising Syracuse.
There's no doubt Harris will be ready to lead the offense, and while he'll have a talented rotation of running backs, there will be a major learning curve at receiver, allowing opponents to load the box against an offensive line that still must prove itself.
Duke will have an opportunity to control the line of scrimmage on defense, but that could be negated if the other seven players on the field don’t get up to speed quickly.
With so many questions, it's difficult to project a seventh bowl appearance in the past eight seasons, but the Blue Devils should have a shot if the secondary lives up to its potential.
At the least, the ever-optimistic Cutcliffe expects to have a team capable of making a run in November. "The identity is going to be conditioned. We're going to be fit," he says. "We haven't run like this since our first year at Duke."