The rumors are true—Duke has a football team! Since this is the first I’m hearing of it, I am eager to learn more. Fortunately, Julian King and Jim Sumner from DBR are here to oblige. (Please bear in mind that the below piece, like all of these, was written in the preseason.)
- Austin Parker, P
- AJ Reed, K
- Quentin Harris, QB
- Trevon McSwain, DT
- Tre Hornbuckle, DE
- Edgard Cerenord, DT
- Koby Quansah, LB
- Xander Gagnon, LB
- Dylan Singleton, S
- Mark Gilbert CB
- Jake Bobo WR
- Noah Gray TE
- Deon Jackson RB
- Victor Dimukeje DE
- Chris Rumph II DE
- Shaka Heyward LB
- Marquis Waters RB
- Damond Philyaw Johnson WR
- Chase Brice, QB
- Malik Bowen-Sims WR
- Addison Penn OC
- Devery Hamilton OT
Give us an overview of the 2020 Duke team:
Duke football was riding high the evening of October 12, 2019. After defeating Georgia Tech 41-23 Duke was 4-2 overall, 2-1 in the ACC. A Coastal Division title seemed like a realistic goal, a bowl season an almost certainty.
Then the wheels came off. Suddenly Duke couldn’t get the ball in the end zone, couldn’t get stops. Duke lost five straight, four by a combined score of 174-54. The close loss was a seize-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory 20-17 loss to North Carolina when a trick play from the Tars Heels two with seconds left backfired.
Duke finished the 5-7 season with a 27-17 win over Miami. Something to build on?
Not without fixing the offense. Duke turned the ball over 28 times in 2019, 127th of 130 NCAA teams. The Blue Devils averaged an ACC worst 3.6 yards per carry and were 12th in passing yards per game.
It’s tempting to blame this on inconsistent graduated quarterback Quentin Harris. But there were deficiencies in running, blocking, catching and even coaching.
David Cutcliffe took over the offensive-coordinator spot in the off-season. Cutcliffe’s successes in that role at Tennessee are well known. Can he duplicate that success at 66, combining that role with that of head coach?
A veteran offensive line should help Cutcliffe sleep at night. Center Jack Wohlabaugh suffered a season-ending knee injury in late August but backup Will Taylor has starting experience. Stanford grad-student transfer Devery Hamilton will take over at right tackle, enabling Jacob Monk to move to his natural guard spot, where he should start alongside incumbent Rakavius Chambers. Casey Holman is the incumbent at left tackle. Duke even has some experienced backups.
New offensive line coach Greg Frey—previous stops include Michigan and Florida State- might be the biggest upgrade. He’s a born teacher.
Cutcliffe also has an experienced quarterback in Clemson grad-student transfer Chase Brice. Brice spent his Clemson tenure backing up first Kelly Bryant and then Trevor Lawrence. But he came off the bench against Syracuse in 2018 when Lawrence went out with a head injury and led the Tigers back from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to preserve an undefeated season that ended with a national title.
“He has great arm talent” Cutcliffe says of Brice. “He’s a natural thrower. His accuracy level in really high. Great football IQ.”
Brice has some weapons. Senior tight end Noah Gray had 51 receptions last season and was a second-team Walter Camp All-American. Former prep quarterback Jalon Calhoun caught 46 passes last season as a true freshman. Senior running back Deon Jackson has 2,034 career rushing/receiving yards. But he averaged 5.3 yards per carry in 2018, 3.7 last season. Duke needs a rebound.
Duke also needs some youngsters to step up. Grad-student transfers, injuries and opt-outs have reduced Duke’s experienced depth at the skill positions. Gray is the only tight end with more than one career reception. Calhoun and junior Jake Bobo are the only wide receivers with more than eight career receptions. Jackson and Mataeo Durant are the only healthy running backs with more than two carries at Duke. Brice is the only quarterback with more than 25 pass attempts.
Coaches and program insiders cite wide receivers Darrell Harding and Eli Pancol, tight end Matt Smith and running back Jordan Waters as underclassmen with the potential to step up.
They’ll need to.
How about defense?
First the good news. Duke has talent, depth and experience at defensive end and the secondary. Senior defensive end Victor Dimukeje (8.5 sacks in 2019) and redshirt junior Chris Rumph (13.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks in 2019) have garnered pre-season All-America nods while senior Drew Jordan has 18 career starts.
But Duke graduated both defensive tackles from last season and two other presumptive 2020 rotation defensive tackles left the program.
Derrick Tangelo is a 310-pound senior with experience while Ben Frye has battled injuries. Frye is listed at 255, very small for a tackle. It might make sense for Duke to move the 270-pound Jordan inside.
Duke has eight recruited redshirt or true freshmen defensive ends and/or tackles trying to make a case to see the field. Several of them have to make the leap. True freshman tackle Aeneas Peebles is the name most-often mentioned.
Duke runs a 4-2-5 defense, thus needing only two linebackers. Redshirt sophomore Shaka Heyward has star potential but Brandon Hill is a COVID-19 opt out. Redshirt sophomore Rocky Shelton has contributed on special teams and is the second starter.
But they are the only linebackers with appreciable experience at the college level.
Duke hopes its secondary can cover up the inevitable mistakes of inexperience. The best news of the off-season is the return of cornerback Mark Gilbert. Gilbert was a first-team All-ACC selection in 2017, when he had six interceptions and 15 PBUs, leading the ACC with 21 passes defended.
Gilbert suffered a dislocated hip in the second game of the 2018 season and missed the remainder of that season and all of last season. Gilbert, his coaches and his teammates say he’s as good as new, a little rusty but he was a preseason All-America back in 2018.
Josh Blackwell and Leonard Johnson have starting experience at cornerback.
Duke starts three safeties and Marquis Waters, Michael Carter, Lummie Young, Jalen Alexander and Michigan grad-student transfer J’Marick Woods are in the mix.
Duke thinks Waters as star potential. He’s a senior with 24 career starts, 163 tackles and three interceptions.
Duke had four interceptions in 2018, nine last season. A return to 2017 form by Gilbert would go a long way to improve that.
“I like the fact that if you look at us up front we have disruptive people that are going to be difficult to deal with,” Cutcliffe says. He adds that his linebacking corps is the quickest he’s had at Duke and his secondary group “is the best secondary group we’ve had.”
Damond Philyaw-Johnson is one of the nation’s top kick-off returners. He averaged 32.3 yards per return last season, with two touchdowns, both against Wake Forest. But Duke will have two new kickers and punt returner is unsettled.
A word about COVID-19. As a university and as a program Duke has been aggressively proactive in testing and has thus far avoided the rash of positive tests that have plagued other programs. Duke is practicing lots of people at multiple positions and hopes its versatility will pay dividends should the necessity arise.
There’s certainly a glass-half-full scenario in which Duke wins more than it loses, maybe a lot more than it loses. Gray, Dimukeje, Rumph, Gilbert (if healthy) and Philyaw-Johnson have all garnered All-America mentions. That’s a lot of star power for a presumed second-division team. If Cutcliffe still has the play-calling magic, if Brice is the real deal, if Jackson can return to 2018 form, if Duke can stay relatively healthy, if there are more than a few 19-year-old prodigies ready to augment the depth chart, then Duke could be very good.
But that’s a lot of ifs. The ACC can and will punish youthful mistakes and Duke’s two deep has a lot of youthful mistakes waiting to happen. If Duke cannot minimize those mistakes or find ways to work around them, it could be a long season.
Who are the key players to know on offense (name and provide some details as to why they’re important):
Chase Brice. Clemson transfer is highly valued by coach David Cutcliffe for his arm strength and football IQ.
Deon Jackson. Durable and outstanding running back.
Jack Bobo. Talented WR is capable of game breaking plays
Mark Gilbert. Finally healthy after two years, is All-America level talent at CB.
Who are the key players to know on defense and special teams?
- Mark Gilbert. Out for two years with a hip injury he’s back at full strength and he’s a real asset at CB. Should lead Duke’s defense.
- Victor Dimukeje. A powerful defensive end, Dimukeje had 8.5 sacks last season.
- Chris Rumph II. Son of an NFL position coach, Rumph has developed into an outstanding defensive end.
- Damond Philyaw-Johnson. Averaged 32.3 yards per return last year, second in nation.
- Porter Wilson and Jackson Hubbard. Trying to replace Austin Parker, both punters have really impressed the staff. Punter controversy!
What is Duke’s biggest strength?
Offensive line, special teams and possibly (transfer) quarterback
What is Duke’s biggest weakness?
Inexperienced defense. Also lost experienced and highly regarded center Jack Wohlabaugh, most likely for the season.
Who is your team MVP?
Mark Gilbert, Chase Brice or Damond Philyaw-Johnson