Countdown to Kickoff: 21 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.
David Cutcliffe came to Duke in 2008 and struggled a bit out of the gate. Sure, the Blue Devils were more competitive than they had been before Cutcliffe but after back-to-back 3 win seasons in 2010 and 2011 it seemed like Duke would never rise out of the basement. The breakthrough came in 2012, when Cutcliffe lead the Blue Devils to their first bowl game in 18 years. In 2013, they won 10 games and the Coastal Division. In 2014, they won 9 and in 2015 they won 8 including their first bowl championship since 1961. No longer the joke of the conference, Duke looked they might have established a new normal but last year it came crashing down. The Blue Devils ended the season at 4-8. Was the four season run between 2012 and 2015 just a blip on the radar? Or can Duke get back into bowl territory this season?
Thomas Sirk was projected to be Duke’s starting quarterback last season but tore his left Achilles tendon about a week before the season started. He missed the year recovering from the injury before transferring to East Carolina for his final year of eligibility. Sirk wasn’t the only key offensive player to have his Duke career shortened by injury. RB Jela Duncan and WR Anthony Nash were both important contributors before suffering season ending injuries against Georgia Tech and Louisville, respectively. RT Casey Blaser and RG Tanner Stone made it through 2016 without incident but have both run out of eligibity and graduated. Blaser and Stone were solid, multi-year starters on the offensive line and could be difficult to replace.
In 2016, Duke boasted an experienced secondary loaded with senior starters. CB Breon Borders led the Devils with 11 pass breakups and made third team All-ACC despite missing the last three games of the season with a hip injury. In addition to Borders, the defense loses its top 3 safeties, all of whom start in defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ system. Deondre Singleton led the team in turnovers with 3 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles. Corbin McCarthy was a force in the run game, leading the team with 12.5 tackles for loss. DeVon Edwards suffered a season ending injury early in the season against Notre Dame but was a solid defender and one of the best returners in the country. Outside of the secondary, the teams’ best pass rusher, DT A.J. Wolf, also graduated.
Redshirt-sophomore QB Daniel Jones has been the focus of a lot of hype leading up to this season. At times it’s seemed like he might be in danger of getting overrated but it’s hard not to be excited about Jones’s future after his freshman campaign. Despite being thrust into the fire from game 1, Jones put together a really good season, completing 62.8% of his throws for 2,836 yards and 16 TDs to 9 interceptions. His development will be the thing to watch for Duke fans this season. With Cutcliffe coaching him up, he could be among the ACC’s best sooner rather than later.
Jones will have plenty of weapons to work with, including top receiver T.J. Rahming. The junior led the team with 70 receptions and 742 yards a year ago and finished the season really strong, catching at least 8 passes for at least 100 yards in each of the last three games. Slot receiver Johnathan Lloyd also returns after starting 11 games last season. Lloyd isn’t a burner but he is very sure handed and will be a nice weapon for Jones across the middle of the defense. TE Daniel Helm, who put up a monster 6 catch, 72 yard, 2 TD day against Georgia Tech last season, is also back and should have a larger role in the offense in 2017. Top RB Shaun Wilson struggled on the ground last season but is back for his senior season and will look to recover the explosiveness he showed early in his career.
The Duke defense faces a lot of turnover up front and in the secondary but the middle will be rock solid. Sophomore Joe Giles-Harris and Junior Ben Humphreys were wrecking balls for the Blue Devils last season, combining for 213 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss, and 8.5 sacks. They’ll have to repeat that and then some for Duke to have a solid defense in 2017. Aside from them, there’s just not much returning experience. Only one starter, DT Mike Ramsay, returns on the defensive line. Ramsay is a fine lineman but stepping into A.J. Wolf’s shoes will be difficult. The secondary might be worse off. CB Bryon Fields Jr. is a pretty good cover corner that QBs tend to avoid throwing at and S Alonzo Saxton II filled in well when Edwards went down for the season, but that’s all that returns.
Former Ohio State offensive lineman Evan Lisle is likely to step into the starting RT spot from day one. The graduate transfer was largely a backup for the Buckeyes but he was a 4-star recruit and cuts an imposing figure at 6’-7”, 310 lbs so there is plenty of potential there.
Shaun Wilson is only returning RB with significant experience which leaves plenty of room for one or more of Duke’s stable of 3-star running backs to claim a role in the offense. Redshirt freshmen Brittain Brown and Elijah Deveaux probably have the inside track but don’t count out true freshmen like Deon Jackson or Marvin Hubbard.
The jewel of Duke’s 2017 recruiting class was 4-star DE Drew Jordan. Given the lack of experince at end there’s a good chance he forces his way into playing time, if not a starting role, early on.
Last season was a step back for the Blue Devils. After making four straight bowls, they dropped to four wins and missed the post season. At the same time, they upset a good North Carolina team and stole a win on the road against Notre Dame. This team has a lot of potential with young studs like Daniel Jones, T.J. Rahming, Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys. If that young core continues to develop and newcomers step up, the Blue Devils could make some noise in the Coastal. That might be a bit much to ask for this season, but they seem to be moving in the right direction.
One thing potentially going in Duke’s favor this season is their schedule. They get both P5 non-conference opponents at home (Baylor and Northwestern) as well as Miami, Florida State, Pitt, and Georgia Tech in conference. All of those teams project to be better than Duke but if home field can help a few bounces to go their way they might be able to swing a game or two. If they can, they’ll be back in a bowl game. As is, I think they’ll fall just short but set themselves up well heading into 2018.
Projected Record: 5-7 (2-6)