With the negative frenzy around Alabama’s football team yesterday, I think that this will be a welcome break from our own problems to take a look at the actual upcoming opponent. I got to speak with Jim Sumner from Duke Basketball Report about what we should expect to see from the Blue Devils on Saturday.
1) The biggest question for everyone outside of the Duke program is how they will replace a #6 overall draft pick in Daniel Jones. That’s a tough task for any position, but a 3 year starter at QB? That’s some big shoes. Quentin Harris seems to be slated to be the next man up, and has the seniority. Does he have what it takes to lead Duke to a solid offense in 2019? Or if not, will someone else supplant him?
There’s no question that Jones is a big loss. He passed for 8,201 yards in three seasons, 423 of those in his final game, Duke’s 56-27 win over Temple in the Independence Bowl.
Quentin Harris is Jones’ replacement. He’s a fifth-year senior--actually a graduate student--so he knows the territory. He did get two starts last season when Jones was recovering from a broken clavicle.
The results were mixed. Harris threw for 174 yards in a 40-27 win over Baylor, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. But he hit only 12-of-30 passes. Harris has a strong arm but sometimes struggles with short timing patterns. Duke uses short passes to its running backs as part of its running game and Harris needs to improve in this area.
Harris has eight career TD passes against one interception in 81 pass attempts, most of those passes against Baylor and North Carolina Central.
There’s not much behind him. Duke surprisingly did not sign a quarterback in the prep class of 2019 and did not pursue any of the numerous grad-student options that entered the transfer portal. Duke entered fall with three recruited quarterbacks and lost promising redshirt freshman Gunnar Holmberg to a knee injury. That leaves Harris backed up by Chris Katrenick, who only played mop-up minutes last season.
My best guess is that this will impact Duke’s play-calling. Duke cannot afford an injury to Harris. Look for lots of quick reads and not much run-pass-option.
2) Continuing with the passing game, we know that running back Deon Jackson is actually Dukes leading returning receiver. On top of losing Jones, the Blue Devils lost every single starting pass catcher. Who will be the replacements?
Duke lost 161 of its 187 receiver receptions and 40 of its 60 tight-end receptions from last season.
There is some experience. Redshirt senior Aaron Young had 16 catches in 2017 and began the 2018 season with 114 receiving yards (four catches) against Army. But hamstring issues kept him on the sidelines for much of the rest of the season. Young is 6-4, 205 and is Duke’s best deep threat. He’s been healthy so far this fall.
Scott Bracey is a redshirt junior. He was ranked 67th best recruit by Rivals.com in his class but has not played close to that level. He has only 11 catches in two seasons. But he has apparently upped his game this fall and will start. He’s a possession receiver with enough speed to get yards after catches.
Sophomore Jake Bobo was supposed to be the third starter but he’s out with another broken clavicle. True freshman Jalon Calhoun will start in his place. He played quarterback in high school, so he’s not only a true freshman but a true freshman learning a new position.
Lots of other freshmen on the depth chart, the most promising of whom is 6-4, 205-pound Darrell Harding, who came in early and impressed last spring. But there’s an element of throwing-the-baby-into-the-deep-end-of-the-pool to asking these guys to open their college careers against Diggs, Sutrain, et. al.
Junior tight end Noah Gray has 25 career catches but he’s the only Duke tight end with a college reception.
3) On the Duke defense, which position group (secondary, linebackers, defensive line) do you expect to be the biggest strength? Which group will be the weakest link?
Duke runs a 4-2-5, with three safeties and two cornerbacks. Linebacker is the biggest question mark. Both starters from last season graduated and Koby Quansah-the most experienced returnee--fractured his right thumb last week. He’s been practicing with a cast and is officially day-to-day. But the trend lines suggest he’ll give it a go.
Redshirt freshman Shaka Heyward has the highest ceiling in the linebacker corps. But, again, not much experience.
The defensive line should be a strength. Cutcliffe says it’s the most physical he’s had at Duke and it can go two deep with eight Power-Five-level players with experience. End Victor Dimukeje-he’s 6-2, 265--is the most likely to get Tua’s attention. He’s a playmaker.
Duke is also strong at safety. Junior Michael Carter II is Duke’s best football player, while senior Dylan Singleton isn’t far behind. Junior Marquis Waters is the third starter.
Cornerback is more iffy. All-ACC cornerback Mark Gilbert had six interceptions in 2017 but suffered a serious hip injury in week two last season and isn’t close to getting back. Duke had a woeful four interceptions last season.
Duke moved safety Leonard Johnson--he’s from Hayden--to corner in the spring. He’s an athlete and he had a pick-six against Baylor last season. But it’s still a new position.
Redshirt sophomore Josh Blackwell starts at the other corner and Duke has three true freshmen on the DB depth chart, a fact that I’m sure Steve Sarkisian will try to exploit. Jerry Jeudy on an island against an inexperienced corner is not a look Duke is going for.
4) Either offense or defense, do you have any freshman that have made waves in the preseason and you think might make an unexpected impact?
Two true freshmen should start against Alabama, Calhoun at wide receiver and Monk at right tackle. Monk is 6-3, 300 and came to Duke as a center/guard. But he came in early, moved to tackle and beat out incumbent Robert Kraeling, a player Alabama recruited. Monk’s father Stanley was a running back at Duke and his late uncle Quincy played linebacker at UNC and in the NFL. So, he knows his way around the gridiron. Monk has drawn raves from his coaches and teammates. His ability to keep Alabama’s edge rushers off Harris will go a long way to determining if Duke can make the game competitive.
On the defensive end, Heyward is the eye-opener. He’s 6-4, 230, runs downhill and hits like a ton of bricks. He’s playing ahead of more experienced players and Duke is willing to accept the mistakes of youth for payoffs down the road.
5) Based on your knowledge of Alabama, what position group or individual match-up do you think Duke has the best chance to exploit?
I’ll go with David Cutcliffe here. “There’s no weakness to attack. You’re facing every strength they have.” Perhaps some youthful mistakes, a fumble here or a false start there. But Duke’s take has been to concentrate on what they do well and don’t count on any help from the Tide.
Duke thinks they can run on anybody. Pass protection can be an issue but they really like their run-blocking, especially redshirt junior center Jack Wohlabaugh and true junior guard Rakavius Chambers. Chambers is from Opelika and grew up as an Auburn fan. He calls this game his Superbowl.
Duke has two quality running backs with experience. Redshirt junior Brittain Brown rushed for 701 yards (5.4 ypc) two years ago. He was banged up much of last year, which opened the door for Deon Jackson, who racked up 847 rushing yards (5.3 ypc), 253 receiving yards and 502 kick-off-return yards. Both are strong enough to run through tackles and fast enough to outrun defenders. Jackson had a 75-yard TD run against Miami last season.
One thing to watch for. Duke doesn’t have a fullback. They’ll go with a second tight end in short-yardage situations. But Jackson has great hands and Duke keeps talking about putting Jackson and Brown on the field at the same time, neither as a blocking back, moving them around, one in motion, some basic misdirection. Duke wants to get the ball to Jackson or Brown in space and this might be the way to do it if Harris can get his timing down and has time to throw.
6) Finally, what kind of season do you expect for the Blue Devils.
Duke went to two bowl games from 1961 through 2012. Cutcliffe has taken them to six in the last seven seasons. He’s fond of saying “never forget the way to six.”
Going to a bowl has become the default.
The biggest obstacle to six might be a schedule that has Alabama, Notre Dame, Syracuse (the ACC’s second-best team right now) and Coastal Division rivals like Miami, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh. If Duke stays healthy, the youngsters improve and Harris is solid at QB then a six or seven-win regular season seems achievable. Anything more than that is house money.
A final word, if I may. Most readers know that David Cutcliffe is a Birmingham native and 1976 graduate of Alabama. He’s never made any attempt to hide his affection for his alma mater, at least not at Duke.
Here’s part of what he told the media Tuesday.
”Alabama shapes your passion for college football. When I was there and being privy to coach Bryant and those other great coaches--Mal Moore had a great influence on me--I think that I understood a lot about the right way to go about this coaching business. You’re expected to win and you don’t step away from that. You expect to win and that comes at a price, in off season and a price in preparation. . . . That helped started molding me. That’s not a bad way to learn.”
Man, this was an awesome collection of responses. Significantly more in depth than many of the Q&A’s we do with supposedly more “football” schools. So head over to DBR and send Jim your thanks for bringing us the great content.