Duke may not go bowling, but the Blue Devils could improve on last year's 4-8 record. They'll need a stronger o-line and a better kicker.
Above, Duke running back Jela Duncan (25) congratulates quarterback Thomas Sirk (1) after he scores a touchdown against the Tar Heels. Photo by the News & Observer.
Last year, Duke football scored just 23.5 points per game. The Blue Devil defense allowed 6.3 yards per play. It was a disastrous combination — and a departure from Duke’s last four seasons, which included the program’s first 10-win year and four consecutive bowl appearances.
Head coach David Cutcliffe and company want to rebound from last year’s 4-8 overall record. The Blue Devils hope redshirt rising sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones can build on his promising freshman campaign. Jones threw for 2,836 yards, 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions and also ran for 486 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
Here’s how else Duke can improve:
Veteran receivers T.J. Rahming, Chris Taylor and Jonathan Lloyd — all juniors — should help Jones continue to improve. However, Rahming was the only receiver to catch for more than 400 yards last season. Other receiving targets will need to step up in order for Jones to have the all-ACC caliber season he is capable of in 2017-18.
Duke will also need to improve its offensive line, as it gave up a Cutcliffe-era worst 31 sacks last season (ranked 96th nationally in sacks allowed). An improved o-line could go a long way in opening up holes for the running game, where the Blue Devils struggled last year as well. Duke averaged just 3.89 yards per carry and 153.6 rushing yards per game last season, ranking 89th in the country in rushing offense. Rising senior running back Shaun Wilson will look to improve on his 623-yard and four-touchdown mark on the ground from last year.
Although the Blue Devils’ defense was one of the worst in the ACC last season (ranked 12th in the conference in yards allowed per play), there is some reason for optimism in the 2017-18 campaign. Junior linebacker Ben Humphreys and redshirt sophomore linebacker Joe Giles-Harris both will be back, after leading the team in total tackles with 107 each last season. However, the linebackers unit may be one of the only bright spots on a very cloudy picture defensively. On the defensive line, redshirt senior defensive tackle Mike Ramsay will be the only returning starter.
There are also question marks for Duke in the secondary. Two strong players graduated: safety Deondre Singleton, who led the team in interceptions, and All-ACC third team selection cornerback Breon Borders, who led the team in passes defended. Rising senior safety Alonzo Saxton II will give the Blue Devils some much-needed veteran pass protection. However, he is the only returning starter at safety.
Duke’s special teams play is also an issue. Rising redshirt sophomore punter Austin Parker is a leading candidate to take over the team’s kicking duties. Last year, kicker A.J. Reed converted just three of his 10 field goal attempts. Unless Parker shows significant improvement over Reed, many winnable games could turn to losses.
Even if Jones emerges as one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC, the Blue Devils’ lack of experience on the defensive end could be troublesome. Duke should be better than they were last season, but going bowling in 2017 may be a bit out of reach.
5-7 (2-6 ACC)
Wins: NC Central, Northwestern, Virginia, Army, Wake Forest
Losses: Baylor, North Carolina, Miami, Florida State, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech