Duke football is recruiting better than it ever has. The team is also coming off a losing season.
The convergence of those two facts means Duke fans will see a bunch of first-year players on the field when the Blue Devils open the new season on Saturday at 6 p.m. against N.C. Central at Wallace Wade Stadium.
After going 4-8 last season with a dismal 1-7 ACC record, the Blue Devils are determined to get back to a bowl game. The coaching staff will rely on talented newcomers to help get them there.
“Our freshman class is really good,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “We thought they were good coming in. I think they are better than we thought they were. We have a number of those guys that are ready to play that won’t play. And we have a number of them that are ready to play that will play. But very impressed with the work they’ve put together.”
Duke’s 2017 recruiting class was rated No. 48 nationally and No. 8 in the ACC by 247sports.com. Five members of that class are listed on Duke’s two-deep chart released Tuesday, led by starting defensive end Victor Dimukeje. Defensive end Drew Jordan and defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo are reserves up front, with safeties Marquis Waters and Michael Carter II as top reserves in the secondary.
“You can tell they are extremely talented, just a special class and I look forward to watching what they do going forward,” Duke quarterback Daniel Jones said. “Drew and Victor, Derrick, some of those guys that are playing on the d-line, I’m excited to see what they will do. They’ve come in and worked. They’ve been in a position with their size and development and maturity to make an impact.”
On offense, tight end Noah Gray will help on special teams as well as at tight end behind veterans Daniel Helm and Davis Koppenhaver.
Another first-year player, 6-3, 325-pound offensive guard Rakavius Chambers, will get some playing time, making it two years in a row that Duke has played a true freshman along its offensive line. In Cutcliffe’s first eight seasons from 2008-15, every offensive lineman took a redshirt season before they were ready to play.
“He’s very big for a freshman,” Duke starting center Austin Davis, a redshirt senior, said. “I wish I was that size coming in. He’s very strong and has a good knowledge for the game which is remarkable to see for a guy who has only been in the program for three months.”
Kicker situation settled – sort of
After having the worst place-kicking statistics in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season, Duke has new kickers ready to improve that area of the game this season.
Punter Austin Parker enters the NCCU game as the starting placekicker as well as he is narrowly ahead of William Holmquist, a graduate transfer who kicked three seasons at Division III Tufts before coming to Duke.
“It’s still an ongoing work but right now Austin Parker is No. 1, Willie Holmquist is No. 2,” Cutcliffe said. “Those are the two that the focus lies on. I’m not afraid of kicking either one of them in a game.”
Last season, freshman AJ Reed made just 3 of 10 field goals and Cutcliffe has spent plenty of time and energy in the offseason finding a replacement.
“I believe in my heart of hearts that we will be better,” Cutcliffe said.
Parker will continue to be the team’s No. 1 punter as well.
Gilbert wins a starting job
Fayetteville’s Mark Gilbert learned plenty of lessons – mostly tough ones – playing cornerback as a freshman last season. He started Duke’s final three games: a 28-27 win over North Carolina followed by lopsided losses to Pittsburgh (56-14) and Miami (40-21).
Coming out of spring practice, he was a reserve cornerback. But this month in practices and scrimmages Gilbert surpassed redshirt sophomore Brandon Feamster to earn a starting job for the NCCU game.
“He worked and focused as well as anybody we had,” Cutcliffe said. “Throughout the summer, throughout August, he has been one of those consistent people. I wanted Mark to learn that. You can go a lot of places if you go back to his last game mentally. Remember the Miami game? You can’t let that affect you. So Mark has come full circle in his maturity and his commitment to his trade.”
Redshirt senior Bryon Fields, Duke’s most experienced defensive player, starts at the other cornerback position.