Duke redshirt senior left tackle Christian Harris on his improved play
With Duke opening the season Friday night at 7 p.m. against Army on ESPNU, let’s take a look at three areas of strength and three areas of concern for the Blue Devils.
Entering David Cutcliffe’s 11th season as head coach, Duke is coming off a 7-6 campaign last season. The Blue Devils went 3-5 in the ACC before beating Northern Illinois, 36-14, in the Quick Lane Bowl at Detroit.
Duke has played in bowl games in five of the last six seasons, winning its last two postseason appearances.
Here are some things to watch early this season:
Duke’s dynamic linebacker duo of Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys gives the Blue Devils one of the top such groups in the ACC. This is their third season starting together.
Giles-Harris made first-team all-conference as a redshirt sophomore last season and is a preseason all-league pick as a junior. He’s a force, having led the team with 125 tackles last season, including 16 tackles for loss with 4.5 sacks.
NFL scouts have their eyes on him. Eligible to go pro after last season, he never considered it because he wanted to finish his degree. But that won’t stop him from leaving after this season.
Humphreys established himself as a big-play guy when he played as a true freshman in 2015. He’s followed that up with two more solid seasons, including 106 tackles as a sophomore and 70 tackles last season.
Duke’s defense as a whole will be strong. The linebackers are the best part of it.
This position group has improved further and faster than any other part of Duke’s team. Once a team weakness, improved recruiting means this group is more capable of winning battles at the line to disrupt plays.
Redshirt senior Edgar Cerenord anchors the middle at defensive tackle. A strong group of sophomores surround him with Victor Dimukeje and Drew Jordan at defensive end and Derrick Tangelo at the other defensive tackle slot.
Behind them, the Blue Devils have depth that will allow the staff to keep fresher players on the field. Junior defensive end Tre Hornbuckle had 9.5 tackles for loss last season. Trevon McSwain played 13 games at defensive tackle and now is out of the starting lineup.
Freshman defensive tackle Tahj Rice arrived as a four-star recruit and is ready to help in the middle. Axel Nyembwe, a 310-pound sophomore defensive tackle, will be the rotation too.
Allow me to cheat a bit here. I strongly considered listing the tight ends here because Duke has three experienced, talented players in Daniel Helm, Davis Koppenhaver and Noah Gray. Expect all three to make big plays this season.
However, I went with the running backs group as the top strength on offense because it includes depth and top-level talent.
Sophomore Brittain Brown rushed for 701 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman reserve last season. He’s big, shifty and fast. He’ll be Duke’s main ball carrier this year.
Behind him are sophomore Deon Jackson and redshirt freshman Marvin Hubbard. At 6-0 and 200 pounds, Jackson is sturdy. He gained valuable experience with 32 carries as a freshman. The 5-9, 185-pound Hubbard, a quicker back who offers a change-of-pace look, dealt with a bruised shoulder in August but had a good camp overall.
What sets the group apart is freshman Mataeo Durant. While Duke would like to have him take a redshirt season, the 6-1, 190-pound Durant has caught the coaching staff’s attention both running and catching passes during August camp. Cutcliffe said he has “unique ability.”
So even if injuries occur, this group has the depth and talent to be strong all season.
In the final game of his senior season, kicker Ross Martin’s 36-yard field goal delivered the game-winning points when Duke beat Indiana 44-41 in the 2015 Pinstripe Bowl.
The three different seasons have started with a different Blue Devils placekicker since then.
After Austin Parker was dismissed from the team in December, walk-on kicker Collin Wareham won the job during spring practice. Even after Parker was reinstated to the team in May, Wareham maintained his hold on the job as Duke opted to have Parker focus solely on punting.
When Wareham kicks against Army, it will be his first time doing so in a college game. So no one knows if he can do it until he does it.
This unit is rebuilt from last season, which is good because Duke’s quarterbacks absorbed 29 sacks in 13 games. With so many guys in new places, there’s concern over how strong this group can be.
Redshirt senior Zach Harmon, a starter at right guard last season, is now the starting center. Powerful sophomore Rakavius Chambers takes over the right guard position while junior Julian Santos is at left guard. Santos is the only starting offensive lineman returning to the same position.
The new starting tackles are redshirt senior Christian Harris (left) and redshirt sophomore Robert Kraeling on the right side.
The group stayed healthy during August camp, an important first step toward a strong season.
That’s good because Duke is thin behind the starters, particularly at the tackle positions. Redshirt sophomore Jaylen Miller and true freshman Casey Holman are the top reserve tackles. Miller played in two games last season. Another inexperienced redshirt sophomore, Liam Smith, is behind them.
Ohio State transfer Jack Wohlabaugh is Duke’s backup center. He’s never played in a college game. Redshirt freshman Jacob Rimmer is one backup guard. Zack Baker, a versatile redshirt junior who does have game experience, is the other
True freshman Maurice McIntyre could very well get playing time as a reserve guard this season if needed.
Duke has the skill position players to be strong via the pass and run this season. The offensive line is the key to making it all happen.
This will never be a true weakness for Duke because the Blue Devils have a proven history of strong players here during Cutcliffe’s first 10 seasons.
Junior Mark Gilbert, a first-team all-ACC player, anchors one cornerback position. He’ll likely be playing in the NFL this time next year.
Duke also returns a starting rover safety in junior Dylan Singleton.
The rest of the defensive backfield starters are newcomers, which adds some intrigue. Sophomore Marquis Waters takes over at bandit safety. He played 285 snaps as a freshman reserve but really impressed in spring and August practices.
Senior Jeremy McDuffie, a third-team, all-ACC player last season, is coming back from a torn ACL suffered last November. While he’s been active and practicing throughout August camp, McDuffie isn’t back to his usual level of effectiveness. So redshirt freshman Leonard Johnson figures to be the starter when the season opens.
The cornerback who starts opposite Gilbert will be under pressure because few teams will choose to throw to Gilbert’s side. Redshirt freshman Josh Blackwell and sophomore Michael Carter II, a reserve safety last season, will get the playing time there.
This group has loads of athletic ability and talent. It very well could wind up being a strength for Duke. But there is some inexperience here, so the play back there needs to be monitored.
“We have a lot of combinations we can play,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re trying to work more than just a few people at corner as well. I’m excited. I know there are a couple of new faces but it’s the most athletic secondary that we’ve had.”