Despite ranking among the nation’s worst offenses, Duke was one goal-line turnover vs. North Carolina away from bowl eligibility in 2019 — a bit of optimism to come from a frustrating season.
In the end, it was the bottom of a four-year trend for a once-efficient attack, leading to coach David Cutcliffe’s decision to take over the offense and assume play-calling duties for the 2020 season.
With a solid group of returners and a graduate transfer quarterback under the command of one of the game’s greatest offensive minds, the Blue Devils should be in line to return to a bowl game behind a defense that figures to become one of the best in the ACC.
Previewing Duke's Offense for 2020
When Duke first broke through under Cutcliffe, it did so with a balanced, unpredictable offense that consistently highlighted its strengths. Lately, the Blue Devils have gotten stale and conservative, often looking to hide their personnel challenges. That will change immediately under Cutcliffe, who will likely turn to Chase Brice, a transfer from Clemson, to run the show.
A former three-star recruit, Brice completed 60 percent of his attempts with nine touchdowns and four interceptions over two seasons. In 2018, Brice was thrust into duty to help the Tigers rally to a victory over Syracuse, helping preserve an undefeated season on the way to a national title.
He figures to have a full cache of weapons at his disposal, led by sophomore receiver Jalon Calhoun (46 rec., 420 yards, four TDs) and senior tight end Noah Gray (51 rec., 392 yards, three TDs).
Cutcliffe, who is known for his work with quarterbacks, won’t have to lean exclusively on the passing game, as running back Deon Jackson (172 carries, 641 yards, six TDs) returns for his senior season, while junior Mataeo Durant looks to take another step after a breakout 2019 when he rushed for 461 yards on 97 carries.
Up front, Duke replaces guard Zach Baker with Maurice McIntyre, but aside from that, four starters return, led by redshirt senior Jack Wohlabaugh. Rakavius Chambers returns at right guard, as do youngsters Jacob Monk and Casey Holman at the tackles, along with senior backup Robert Kraeling.
The Blue Devils also picked up tackle Devery Hamilton, a grad transfer from Stanford, to give them one of their deepest offensive line groups in recent years.
Previewing Duke's Defense for 2020
The Duke defense did an admirable job in 2019, finishing 56th in total defense despite the offense’s ranking of 89th in time of possession. Clearly, the Blue Devils have adjusted their philosophy to get after quarterbacks more, as their 35 sacks were a 10-year high for the program.
The two players most responsible for that rise, defensive ends Victor Dimukeje (8.5 sacks) and Chris Rumph II (6.5 sacks), are back, as is 285-pound tackle Derrick Tangelo, who accounted for 23 tackles up front.
The question along the line is whether anyone can step up to help replace departed seniors Trevon McSwain (35 tackles, four sacks), Tre Hornbuckle (33 tackles, four sacks) and Edgard Cerenord (25 tackles, 1.5 sacks).
DeWayne Carter (6'3", 300) has the size to step in and become a space-eater to free talented ends like redshirt freshman Christian Rorie, who figures to see a bigger role this season.
At linebacker, the departure of leading tackler Koby Quansah creates a massive hole, while backup Xander Gagnon’s decision to enter the transfer portal only compounds things. It’ll be up to Shaka Heyward (68 tackles, 6.5 TFLs) and Brandon Hill (52 tackles, 4.5 TFLs) to lead the unit. Rocky Shelton has the most experience of the remaining linebackers, but it’s possible that Gagnon could also return to Duke.
The loss of safety Dylan Singleton (89 tackles) is a big one, but Duke is equipped to handle it with everyone else in the secondary returning. The Blue Devils figure to get a boost at corner, where in addition to returning starters Josh Blackwell and Leonard Johnson, they’ll have former All-ACC pick Mark Gilbert back from injury.
With that talent at corner, coordinator Matt Guerrieri can be confident in using his safeties to shore up a run defense that struggled in 2019.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2020
Previewing Duke's Specialists for 2020
The kicking game is a question mark after the loss of punter Austin Parker (45.7 yards/punt) and kicker AJ Reed, who hit 15 of his 18 field goal attempts and was a perfect 34-of-34 on extra-point attempts. Damond Philyaw-Johnson has game-changing potential as a kick returner, averaging 32.3 yards on 17 returns last season and taking two to the house vs. Wake Forest.
The offense has to get better, right? Just a little improvement for the Blue Devil attack will go a long way, helping lighten the pressure on a defense that has been asked to carry too much of the load in recent seasons.
Barring complete disaster, Duke should start 3–0 and has a realistic chance to be bowl eligible before November with the possibility of hanging around the Coastal race into the final weeks.
If the Blue Devils aren’t bowling in 2020, Cutcliffe will have to consider making more changes.