In week 4 of last season, hopes were at an all-time high in Durham, North Carolina. The Duke Blue Devils had just beaten, NCCU, Northwestern, Baylor, and arch-nemesis North Carolina. They were able to beat each of those opponents by 10 points or more. However, once the season reached week 5, everything went downhill. The Blue Devils dropped their next 6 games to Miami, UVA, FSU, Pitt, VT, and Army. When you think about Army being a 10-win team, that is a tough 6-game stretch. Unfortunately for Duke, none of those games fell their way. They were now sitting at a 4-6 record.
At that point, the Blue Devils had to win their final 2 games in order to qualify for post-season play. Luckily, they were able to beat GT and Wake Forest in order to put them at the 6-win mark. And not only did they get a bid to the Quick Lane Bowl, they got a 36-14 W over 8 win Northern Illinois.
QB Daniel Jones returns for his RS junior season, and Duke fans have to be excited. This will be Jones’ 3rd year at the helm of this offense, and he continues to get better. Even though he has been sacked 57 times the last 2 seasons, he has been able to put up very impressive numbers. As a freshman and sophmore, Jones was able to throw for more than 2,500 yards each year. Coach David Cutcliffe will be expecting his now-veteran QB to take the next step. And with Cutcliffe’s history of developing QBs, that scenario is definitely possible.
Luckily for Jones, the majority of the Blue Devils’ WR production will be returning this upcoming season. Twelve out of Jones’ 14 TD passes were caught by receivers that will be on the roster in 2018. The experience at the receiver position will be of big help in the passing game. All 3 of the projected starters in the Duke receiving corp are seniors. Those 3 receivers are Chris Taylor, Jonathan Lloyd, and TJ Rahming. Rahming was the leading receiver for the Blue Devils last year with 795 yards.
Although leading rusher Shaun Wilson will not be returning for the 2018 season, the running game should not miss a beat. Sophomore Brittain Brown is more than up for the challenge of filling Wilson’s shoes. Brown rushed for 701 yards as a freshman last year, and averaged more yards per carry than Wilson at 5.4 yards per carry. Brittain also scored 7 TDs, which was the most on the team.
Offensive Line with Something to Prove
Although the Blue Devils are lost 3 starters along the offensive line, they do seem to have a lot of depth. In the 2-deep Duke will have 2 seniors, 4 juniors, and 4 sophomores. Combined that is a lot of time spent in this offense. Cutcliffe believes that this line could be one of the best they have had in years, but only time will tell. Giving up 57 sacks in the past 2 years is hardly setting the bar high though.
The Blue Devil defense will be headlined up standout linebacker Joe Giles-Harris. Giles-Harris had 125 total tackles last season and 16 of those were for a loss. If he can increase his turnover production, the talented Junior could end up being an All-American. Including Giles-Harris, Duke returns 6 out of their 7 starters from the front 7 last season. We fully expect for Duke to be much improved in the run-defense this year as they were ranked 48 in the nation and 7th in the ACC last year.
There are many questions in the Duke secondary, as they are expected to start 2 freshman and are without a senior in their 2-deep. However, the secondary will have strong leadership as junior CB Mark Gilbert will lead by example. Gilbert was a first team All-ACC last season and will be looking to repeat this year. The talented CB recorded 6 interceptions in 2017 and also had 15 PBUs. Watch for Duke’s defensive coordinators Ben Albert and Matt Guerieri to turn up the heat in order to help out the young DBs.
Although Duke seems to be heading in the right direction, we’re not sure that they will be able to take that “next step” quite yet. In that case the offensive line will have to be as good as Cutcliffe hopes. This seems to be unlikely as there have been no real signs of improvement. It is one thing to look good in practice, but another to play well in a game. However, with the talented skill positions and good QB play the offense should be able to put up a lot of points. Expect for this defense to be better than past years in Durham. Linebacker and D-line personnel may be the best that Cutcliffe has had during his time at Duke. We predict that Duke will make a bowl game, but don’t quite see them competing for an ACC title this year.