Countdown to Kickoff: 31 Days
As our 100 Days to Kickoff continues on, we begin our opponent previews to provide a quick look at each of the teams coming up on our schedule this season. Each team has changed and provides new challenges than in years past, so this week is all about learning about those changes and learning exactly what Georgia Tech’s opponents have to offer.
2016 Opponent Previews - Duke Blue Devils
S Jeremy Cash - Jeremy Cash is one player Georgia Tech fans are not sorry to see graduate. The Unanimous All-American and ACC Defensive Player of the Year absolutely destroyed the Yellow Jackets during his career, tallying 12 tackles, including 3 for a loss, 1 sack, and forcing 2 fumbles in 2015. On the season, Cash was tied for second on the team with 101 tackles and led the team with 18 tackles for loss. Cash signed with the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent, but how he fell out of the draft is beyond me.
LB Dwayne Norman - Cash was the Blue Devil’s Defensive MVP last season, but the loss of Norman also looms large. The safety-turned-linebacker led the team with 114 tackles on his way to earning second team All-ACC honors. He was not drafted, but is in camp with the Denver Broncos.
LG Lucas Patrick and C Matt Skura - Patrick and Skura both started every game for an offensive line that was remarkably good at keeping the QB clean in 2015, ranking 4th nationally in adjusted sack rate. The loss of Skura, a second-team All-American, will be especially difficult to overcome.
WR Max McCaffrey - The older brother of Stanford star Christian McCaffrey, Max made his own mark in 2015, finishing the year as Duke’s leader in receptions (52), yards (643), and receiving touchdowns (5). The elder McCaffrey went undrafted, but is competing for a roster spot with the Oakland Raiders.
K Ross Martin and P Will Monday - A hallmark of the David Cutcliffe era at Duke has been an exceptional kicking game. That trend will be challenged in 2016, as both starting specialists have graduated. Martin, an honorable mention All-American, finished his career as the all-time Duke leader in field goals made, field goals made beyond 50 yards, and field goal percentage. Monday, who made third-team All-ACC in 2015, had the highest career punting average in Duke football history. The kicking game may not get a lot of headlines, but breaking in two new specialists is a cause for concern heading into 2016.
QB Thomas Sirk - ...maybe. Duke’s QB situation entering the 2016 season is one of the most interesting ones in the ACC. Sirk played pretty well last season, throwing for 2,625 yards, 16 TDs, and 8 interceptions, while leading the team with 803 rushing yards and 8 rushing TDs. However, Sirk ruptured his left Achilles tendon in a conditioning workout in early February. Sirk previously ruptured his right Achilles tendon in April 2013 and missed the full season, though he likely would not have played that year regardless of the injury. This time, Cutcliffe and Sirk are both optimistic that he will be under center on September 3rd, which would be in line with a best-case recovery. If Sirk is not ready to start the season or reaggravates the injury, the Blue Devils will turn to junior Parker Boehme, who threw for 248 yards and 1 interception, while adding 80 yards and a TD on the ground in one start last season (vs Pittsburgh).
RBs Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson - Duke loses its top running back from 2015 with the graduation of Shaquille Powell, but Duncan and Wilson were arguably better than Powell in supporting roles. Duncan ran for 460 yards on an astonishing 6.9 yards per carry. Wilson was similarly explosive, contributing 631 total yards on 6.1 yards per touch. Powell, in comparison, averaged 4.8 yards per touch - not bad by any means, but the combination of Duncan and Wilson could be special.
LT Gabe Brandner, RT Casey Blaser, and RG Tanner Stone - paving the way for the RBs will be this trio of returning starters on the offensive line. All three lineman started every game last season, so they will bring plenty of experience to help bring along the new starters. Blaser in particular is someone to keep an eye on, as the senior was one of the stars of the Blue Devil offseason condition program.
CB Breon Borders, CB/S DeVon Edwards and S Deondre Singleton - On defense, Duke runs a 4-2-5 system that emphasizes play making in the secondary. While they lose a lot on that side of the ball, the return of Borders, Edwards, and Singleton will go a long way to anchoring the secondary and setting the tone needed for the defense to be successful. Borders played more snaps than any other Blue Devil in 2015 and led the team in interceptions for the third consecutive season. Singleton started all 13 games last season at “Bandit” safety slot, recording 79 tackles and 4 pass breakups. Edwards has moved back and forth between safety and cornerback throughout his career, though he is currently projected to start opposite Borders at cornerback. In 2015, he tied with Cash for second on the team with 101 tackles. Edwards is also an electric kick returner, scoring 3 return TDs on his way to a All-American specialist honors.
WR Scott Bracey - Duke’s 2016 recruiting class was one of the best in school history and was headlined by the 4-star Bracey. The athletic receiver was Duke’s first commitment and big factor in bringing in the rest of a highly regarded class. A player of Bracey’s caliber is going to find his way into playing time and should make an immediate impact for the Blue Devils.
DB Dylan Singleton - The younger brother of Deondre Singleton, Dylan was Duke’s second highest rated recruit, and held strong to his commitment despite late charges from Georgia and Ohio State. The younger Singleton has the ability to play anywhere in the secondary, which could help him find early playing time.
K A.J. Reed - As I mentioned earlier in this piece, Duke will need to replace both specialists this season and, as the only scholarship placekicker on the roster, Reed has the inside track to the kicker job.
Under Head Coach David Cutcliffe, Duke football has risen up out of the ACC basement and established itself as a program that has to be taken seriously. They’ve never really been a flashy team, and this season will be no different, but they’re well coached, well disciplined, and aren’t likely to beat themselves. That being said, there are some very real concerns for Duke in 2016. The defense that looked elite in the first half of the season completely and totally fell apart down the stretch, and many of the best players on that defense do not return this season. There is not a lot of experience in the front seven and finding high-level contributors there will be critical to the Blue Devils’ chances of success in 2016.
On offense, a lot rests on the health of Thomas Sirk. Sirk is somewhat underappreciated by Duke fans and ACC fans at large, but he was the engine that made Duke’s offense go last season. If he misses significant time, that could spell trouble. With or without Sirk, the running game should be solid and has a chance to be very good behind an experienced offensive line. The passing game has more question marks with the loss of top target McCaffrey.
On the whole, it feels like Duke has more questions than answers right now. Their ceiling is probably 8 wins, as the schedule has very few games they can’t win. However, I think a scenario where Sirk doesn’t come back at 100%, the defense looks more like the second half of 2015 then the first half, special teams takes a step back trying to replace both specialists, and the Blue Devils sink towards the bottom of the Coastal is slightly more likely.
Projected Record: 5-7 (3-5)