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Duke Blue Devils 2016 Preview and Prediction

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#53 Duke Blue Devils

NATIONAL FORECAST

#53

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: David Cutcliffe , 48-53 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Zac Roper | DEF. COORDINATOR: Ben Albert, Jim Knowles

The Blue Devils didn’t finish the season strong last fall and face another tough schedule in 2016. In November, Duke plays four teams that made a bowl last season, and coach David Cutcliffe's team may need an upset or two to reach the postseason. Expect the secondary to lead the defense with three returners and some question marks up front. However, the big question for Cutcliffe is the quarterback position, as starter Thomas Sirk is recovering from a torn Achilles.

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Previewing Duke’s Offense
 

On the whole, Duke should have plenty of pieces with which to craft a solid offense. But it heads into the fall needing to find answers to some pressing questions first.

The most important is the health of last season’s starting quarterback Thomas Sirk. After throwing for 2,625 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2015 — he also led the team in rushing — the fifth-year senior ruptured his left Achilles tendon during February workouts, and the Duke staff isn’t sure if he’ll be ready by the time preseason camp begins. That means last season’s backup Parker Boehme and redshirt freshmen Quentin Harris and Daniel Jones could by vying for the starting gig.

Whoever has the job will be able to call upon veteran weapons elsewhere as senior Jela Duncan and junior Shaun Wilson headline a deep group of running backs, and sophomore T.J. Rahming and senior Anthony Nash will provide proven targets at receiver. However, there will be holes to fill on the offensive line, with All-ACC right tackle Casey Blaser, left tackle Gabe Brandner and guard Tanner Stone among the few sure things.

Previewing Duke’s Defense
 

The biggest question facing Duke’s defense is how it will replace consensus All-America safety Jeremy Cash. Coach David Cutcliffe says it will take a group effort to replace Cash — who tallied 18 tackles for a loss last season — and he believes he has the group to do it. Senior Corbin McCarthy and sophomore Brandon Feamster will get a crack at Cash’s spot.

With the Blue Devils’ defensive scheme calling for playmakers at safety, junior Alonzo Saxton, senior Deondre Singleton and redshirt freshman Jordan Hayes will be able to play major roles if they’re ready. It also helps that the Blue Devils will have two talented corners in veterans DeVon Edwards and Breon Borders. Senior tackle A.J. Wolf leads a defensive line that will have to replace three starters. There’s a similar amount of flux at linebacker, where sophomore Tinashe Bere, who impressed the Duke staff with his work in the spring, is the most experienced piece.

Previewing Duke’s Specialists
 

New special teams coordinator Jim Bridge, a former Purdue assistant, takes over a unit that just finished a stretch of stability that’s been rare for the Blue Devils. Both kicker Ross Martin and punter Will Monday earned All-ACC honors last season and have since graduated. Redshirt freshman Austin Parker heads into the fall with a good shot at landing the punting spot, while senior Danny Stirt and true freshman A.J. Reed will be in the mix in a relatively crowded field at placekicker. Edwards, who returned three kickoffs for touchdowns last season, and veteran punt returner Ryan Smith should continue to give opposing coverage units trouble.

Final Analysis
 

Despite going to four straight bowl games and earning its first postseason win since 1961, Duke heads into the season with a degree of uncertainty. Cutcliffe’s ninth season in Durham will feature a reshuffled coaching staff, as one longtime assistant retired, one moved to an administrative role and a third, offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery, became the head coach at East Carolina. Throw in Sirk’s injury and the fact that the Blue Devils have been going about their business in a construction zone as Wallace Wade Stadium and the surrounding practice fields have been receiving some overdue upgrades, and the ability to adjust on the fly is something this group should be good at by now.

So in a Coastal Division that’s had four different schools reach the ACC Championship Game in the past five years and features three programs with new head coaches, there’s no reason to think that — if things fall their way — the Blue Devils can’t elbow their way into contention once again.