The offseason work is done and preparation for the regular season has reached its final week.
On Aug. 31, when Duke plays Army at Wallace Wade Stadium at 7 p.m. on ESPNU, quarterback Daniel Jones and the rest of the Blue Devils offense will be ready to show off improvements they’ve made to a passing game that lagged last season.
Duke’s team completion percentage plummeted to 56.7 percent last season, 10th in the ACC. The Blue Devils had 16 touchdown passes compared to 12 interceptions.
Simply put, that part of Duke’s offense needs a boost.
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The Blue Devils have three senior wide receivers as returning starters in T.J. Rahming, Johnathan Lloyd and Chris Taylor. Junior Aaron Young, who averaged a healthy 13.69 yards per catch last season, is capable of more production.
In practice this month, those experienced players have been pushed by three freshman who appear on their way to playing in their first season.
Dennis Smith, Jarrett Garner and Jake Bobo all arrived at Duke this summer with three-star recruiting rankings from 247sports.com. Smith was considered the top prospect of the three, with Garner next followed by Bobo.
“We’ve got some young, talented people at receiver,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “I like all three young receivers. How much of if they play early we’re still working through.”
Bobo’s been the most impressive so far.
The freshman from Belmont, Mass. is 6-4 and 190-pounds, and he’s worked his way into regular repetitions with the first-team offense. His ability to make tough catches has set him apart.
“It’s been really fun to watch how much he’s improved so quickly in this camp,” Jones, the redshirt junior quarterback, said. “I’m just so excited to see what he can do as we finish camp and get into the season.”
The 6-2, 185-pound Smith hails from football-mad Gaffney, S.C., home of one of that state’s top prep programs for decades. He caught 16 touchdowns over his last two high school seasons playing in South Carolina’s largest classification. So he’s proven against quality competition.
Garner, who’s from Hickory Ridge High School in Harrisburg near Charlotte, is not as well known as Smith and Bobo.
But at 6-3 and 190 pounds, Garner has size and athleticism. A relative newcomer to football, he was highly productive in high school, combining for 24 touchdowns and just over 2,138 receiving yards as a junior and senior.
He missed Duke’s early August practices due to an illness but has come on quickly since then.
“He is big and he is explosively fast,” Cutcliffe said about Garner. “I believe he’s more explosive than we thought. Sure, he has got to learn how to play receiver. He does not have a lot of football experience prior to coming here. But he’s been a sponge so far. That’s what I told him. I doesn’t matter what you know or what you don’t know right now. You just have to soak all this in. He’s trying to take advantage of his opportunities.”
Jones battled an upper-body injury throughout the middle part of last season. Duke dropped six games in a row after starting the season at 4-0. As his health improved, Duke won its final three games of the season -- averaging 36.7 points per game -- to finish 7-6.
Keeping the offense and the passing game at that level has been the Blue Devils’ focus during the offseason. The plethora of wide receiver options, plus trusted players at tight end like redshirt seniors Daniel Helm and Davis Koppenhaver and sophomore Noah Gray, give Jones plenty of options for high-percentage plays.
“That’s something that we’ve focused on this year, more than in recent years, is guys in different spots,” Jones said. “I think that keeps the defense on their toes a little bit recognizing where people are. We have certain people with certain strengths and certain abilities so we are able to put those people in certain positions to really be successful. That makes our offense that much more dynamic, that much more dangerous.”
Army at Duke
When: 7 p.m., Aug. 31
Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham