Duke’s players will gather Thursday morning a little after 7 a.m. for the first practice of the new football season.
They’ll practice 24 times over the next 29 days before opening the season on Aug. 31 against Army at Wallace Wade Stadium.
The Blue Devils enter the new season with plenty of experienced players returning from last season’s 7-6 team that defeated Northern Illinois, 36-14, in the Quick Lane Bowl. Duke has seven starters back on offense, with quarterback Daniel Jones entering his third season as a starter. On defense, Duke’s eight returning starters include a pair of first-team, all-ACC selections in linebacker Joe Giles-Harris and cornerback Mark Gilbert.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t key positions to watch during preseason practices as Duke seeks to put its best 11 on the field on both sides of the ball. The Blue Devils have been to bowl games in five of the last six seasons, averaging 7.3 wins per season, and have sights on even more success this season.
Here are three positions where things will get settled between now and kickoff on Aug. 31 against Army:
By design, this is annually Duke’s strongest position on defense.
“You are only as good as your secondary,” said Matt Guerrieri, Duke’s co-defensive coordinator. “That’s the reality of college football. If a guy goes down, you’ve got to have a guy ready to step up and make plays.”
The group has three starters returning with safeties Jordan Hayes and Jeremy McDuffie joining Gilbert.
But there are questions even among those three. A third-team all-ACC selection last season, McDuffie is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in November. He reports being healthy and ready to go for the start of practice, and the coaching staff is confident he’s on the right track.
Still, until the knee makes it through the next four weeks with no setbacks, McDuffie’s status will be somewhat uncertain.
But that’s not necessarily bad for Duke. Michael Carter II saw extra playing time in Duke’s final three games last season as a freshman after McDuffie was hurt. He impressed and continued his strong play in spring practice.
“A talented guy,” Guerrieri said. “Smart, focused, tough, physical. He’s a total package type guy.”
A redshirt junior, Hayes started nine games and played in all 13 games for Duke last season at bandit safety. But he exited spring practice as a reserve at that position behind sophomore Marquis Waters.
That says more about Waters than it does Hayes, though. Duke’s coaching staff believes the 6-foot, 205-pound Waters is ready to be a star. Still, he’ll be doing so as a first-time starter.
Entering camp, Waters is listed as a starter with junior Dylan Singleton and either McDuffie or Carter as starters at the other two safety slots in Duke’s 4-2-5 formation.
With Gilbert returning at one cornerback position, redshirt sophomore Myles Hudzick and redshirt freshman Josh Blackwell are competing for the other starting cornerback position.
The 5-10, 170-pound Hudzick played in 13 games as a reserve last season. He excelled during spring practice, receiving the team’s most improved defensive player award along with Waters and reserve linebacker Koby Quansah.
Though he has less experience, Blackwell is expected to push Hudzick for playing time during August camp.
But don’t look at these camp battles as a sign Duke is weak back there.
“The best part about what’s happened for us defensively is we’ve built depth,” Guerrieri said. “The competition every single day is at a more intense level than it’s been in the past.”
Duke is replacing its two senior starters at tackle from last season as Gabe Brandner and Evan Lisle completed their careers.
Redshirt senior Christian Harris played in only 103 snaps over his first three seasons on campus, including his redshirt season. Last season that number jumped to 299 as he saw extra playing time when Brandner was injured.
His playing time figures to triple to nearly 1,000 this season as he’s the starting left tackle entering August camp.
On the right side, redshirt sophomore Robert Kraeling is in line to start. At 6-7 and 310 pounds, Kraeling is thought to have a high ceiling with the potential to be dominant. But he’s inexperienced, having played in just 136 snaps last season.
So Duke is going with unproven players at those important positions. But there’s no one behind them with any experience either. Redshirt sophomores Liam Smith and Jaylen Miller are the top reserve tackles. Miller played in two games while Smith played in one last season. They’ve combined to play in 23 career snaps.
The Blue Devils return three starters here in redshirt seniors Johnathan Lloyd and Chris Taylor plus senior T.J. Rahming.
That’s an experienced bunch. But it’s also a bunch that’s shown vulnerability over the last two seasons, particularly when it comes to turning contested passes into catches and touchdowns.
Rahming was Daniel Jones’ top target last season. Jones threw 113 passes to Rahming, nearly twice as many as any other player. He threw 57 to Lloyd and 54 to Taylor. Rahming caught a team-best 65 passes with Lloyd catching 39 and Taylor 25.
But those three players combined for only four touchdowns.
Keyston Fuller, Aaron Young, Scott Bracey and Damond Philyaw-Johnson will all have a chance to demand more playing time if the can show they are reliable during August camp.