After years, nay, decades of program obscurity (averaging under 2 wins per season), Alabama alum David Cutcliffe took the head coaching job at Duke 11 years ago and has slowly worked the program up into a football team that is annually in the mix for getting 8-10 wins — capable of pulling an upset on a sleeping ACC team.
The 2018 Blue Devil offense featured QB Daniel Jones, who wound up being a (somewhat controversial) first round draft pick— their highest since 1987— and a core of receivers that amounted to a solid 246 yards per game. That said, they weren’t the most consistent lot out there. Jones had some unbelievable performances, but also had nearly as many games with plenty of stink. They were only the 62nd ranked passing offense by S&P+. While Jones often did well on 3rd down (particularly 3rd and medium), he was set back by decently pathetic sack rates and completion percentage.
In other words, it was a boom-or-bust passing offense.
And all that is gone now. The Blue Devils lost Jones at QB and their top 6 receivers and tight ends. So the passing game is going to be totally new. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Often times, a back up QB taking over as the starter with the entire group of receivers he’s always practiced with (think Tua Tagovailoa with Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, and DeVonta Smith) will allow him more comfort and timing than if he was suddenly thrown in with guys who were used to the previous year’s QB.
The man at QB is Quentin Harris. The senior has been Jones’ backup for years and played well in his absence a couple of times last season. In fact, he dispatched Baylor and NC Central while throwing for nearly 400 yards, 6 touchdowns, no picks, no sacks, and 150 yards rushing. Harris also played in goal line packages last year as a dual-threat QB and can make plenty of plays with his legs.
His top two receivers would have been the 6’3” Jake Bobo and explosive senior Aaron Young. Unfortunately, Bobo broke his collarbone a couple of weeks ago and will likely miss most, if not all, of the season. Two years ago, Young looked like the best receiver on the team but has since been limited by injuries. Finally healthy as a senior, he’ll look to prove that he’s the team’s go-to receiver, and not just a deep threat.
There’s also former 4-star receiver (one of Duke’s highest rated recruits ever... in the top 125 of his class) Scott Bracey. He’s struggled with a myriad nagging injuries, gimpy hamstrings, and general depth chart Houdini performances. If he still can’t put things together this year, Damond Philyaw-Johnson was a constant reserve for the Blue Devils last year.
Though Duke graduated their top 2 tight ends, they return Noah Gray, who was absurdly efficient as a receiver. He caught 20 of his 24 targets for a 70% success rate.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Duke’s running game and offensive line return pretty much everyone. Again, ranked 64th in S&P+ while having a stuff rate ranked 89th highlights the boom or bust nature of their offense.
Running back Deon Jackson won first-team All-ACC in 2018 as an all-purpose back. He had over 800 yards rushing and 250 receiving while adding another 700 or so in the return game. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry, despite a paltry 39% success rate. Jackson is an explosive playmaker (and the team’s leading returning receiver), but, again, has been a feast-or-famine player.
In rotation with Jackson is 205-lb junior Brittain Brown, who averaged 4.6 yards per carry on a 48% success rate. He’s a much more steady runner than Jackson and operated in about a 66/33 split with the carries last year.
On the offensive line, Duke returns pretty much every starter, though there is some competition at the tackle spots. They probably will improve over last season, but they weren’t exactly world beaters. They did fairly well on passing downs most of the season, but the 69th in standard down sack rate, 89th stuff rate, and 98th ranked success rate in short yardage situations were all rather disappointing. It remains to be seen if the continuity will allow for a significant improvement, or if it just signals more of the same.
With all that said, it’s unlikely they move the ball very much against Alabama.
Jackson will be the biggest threat, and it will be particularly interesting to see how Dylan Moses and his other inside linebacker (be it Kaho, Harris, Benton, or Lee) handle covering Jackson in the passing game and making tackles in space.
The Alabama secondary should absolutely feast on an inexperienced Duke receiving core, though, again, the linebackers (or safety) covering tight end Noah Gray will be a matchup to watch.
The other big question mark will be how the Alabama pass rush performs against a Duke offensive line that struggled with giving up sacks last year. The Tide is looking to get Chris Allen and Terrell Lewis going after their season-ending injuries last season, so this will be a test for their progress. Lewis and Allen are expected to be explosive pass rushers, but if they don’t make some waves against an O-line with known issues in pass protection and a new starter at QB, then they may not be the phenoms Alabama fans are hoping for.
But yeah, this is overall a major mismatch and should be a game where Alabama gets to work out some defensive kinks. Particularly, whichever middle linebacker does the best at covering Jackson and Gray will stand a very good shot at winning the starting role alongside Moses in 2019.