With five games left, this part of Duke’s football team is among the ACC’s worst

Cutcliffe says building depth is one of secrets to Duke program

Duke coach David Cutcliffe explains Duke's approach to depth that has allowed the Blue Devils to start 3-0 despite injuries to seven starters.
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Duke coach David Cutcliffe explains Duke's approach to depth that has allowed the Blue Devils to start 3-0 despite injuries to seven starters.

Even a football team with the best skill players who throw, catch and run the ball can be disrupted by poor offensive line play.

Duke redshirt junior quarterback Daniel Jones is projected to be among the top five quarterbacks eligible to enter the 2019 NFL Draft, however, the Blue Devils have proven inconsistent offensively.

The team’s offensive line, battling injury and inconsistent play, remains a major reason Duke has yet to reach its potential on offense.

According to an analysis by Pro Football Focus College, Duke’s offensive line is 12th among 14 ACC teams over the season’s first eight weeks. The rankings are based on PFF’s overall grades for each game and pass blocking efficiency.

Only Florida State and Louisville are listed behind the Blue Devils. It’s a testament to the other areas of Duke’s game that the Blue Devils (5-2, 1-2 in ACC) have a better record than Florida State (4-3, 1-3) and Louisville (2-5, 0-4).

“We’ve had some challenges there,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said of his offensive line.

The problems show up in Duke’s passing and running games. Duke quarterbacks have been sacked 15 times in seven games. Only four other ACC teams have allowed more.

The Blue Devils average 4.05 yards per carry, which is 11th in the ACC. Statistical analysis by Inside Edge that determines rushing yards gained prior to contact shows how little the line is helping Duke’s running backs.

The Blue Devils have just 182 yards before contact on running plays, which is No. 120 in the country. Clemson, which has the ACC’s second-best offensive line according to PFF, leads the country with 1,078 yards prior to contact.

Duke has been unable to field a consistent starting five on its line this season, using four different starting offensive line combinations over the first seven games. Neither of its most experienced linemen, both starters when the season began, have been available for every game.

Redshirt senior center Zach Harmon, the team’s top-rated offensive lineman according to PFF with a 65.8 grade, missed three games with an ankle injury and remains less than 100 percent healthy. His status for Saturday’s games at Pittsburgh remains uncertain.

Sophomore Jack Wohlabaugh started at center when Harmon was out. He played well enough that the coaches believe the line could be stronger with Wohlabaugh at center and Harmon, when healthy, at left guard. Junior Julian Santos has started every game at left guard but hasn’t been impressive.

Redshirt senior left tackle Christian Harris started the first four games but shared time at the position with redshirt sophomore Jaylen Miller. The coaches decided Miller had played well enough to take over the starting job prior to the 31-14 loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 29.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe calls Virginia Tech's upset loss an "outlier" that would only happen once in a thousand games between the two.

Last Saturday during a 28-14 loss to Virginia, Miller suffered a broken right ankle that will keep him out for the rest of the season.

That means Harris regains his starting position by default. His backup is now redshirt freshman Patrick Leitten, who had knee surgery last March 30 and has yet to play a college game.

At right tackle, redshirt sophomore Robert Kraeling has started all seven games. But his performance has been lackluster. According to PFF, only two ACC starting linemen have a worse overall grade than Kraeling’s 50.

His 24 quarterback pressures allowed on 242 snaps in pass protection are the most in the ACC.

Duke changed offensive line coaches in the offseason when Marcus Johnson left last December to coach that unit at Mississippi State. Jim Bridge moved from special teams and tight ends to coach the line for Duke’s 36-14 win over Northern Illinois in the Quick Lane Bowl and took over the job full time.

Bridge previously coached offensive linemen at Purdue (2013-15), N.C. State (2011-12), Eastern Michigan (2002) and The Citadel (1996-99).

While Cutcliffe called Bridge “a great teacher and a great coach”, the line’s play remains an area of concern. Practice this week has featured plenty of teaching.

Duke senior linebacker Ben Humphreys said the Blue Devils "got our butts kicked" last season at Virginia Tech and Duke must play better when the teams meet on Saturday night at Wallace Wade Stadium.

“It’s steps,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s footwork. It’s hand placement. It’s alignment. It’s not knowing just what to do but you have to know how to do it and it’s best if you know why you are doing it.”’

The linemen themselves know they need to perform better and attention to technique will go a long way toward improvement.

“We don’t think we’ve been getting beat by other teams,” Harris said. “We think we’ve beaten ourselves. We’ve been coming out slow, stuff like that. So it is on us to kind of pick that up moving forward and know what we can do. Keep that faith in ourselves and not waver from our plan.”

Duke at Pitt

When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday

Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh

TV: Fox Sports South

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Duke quarterback Daniel Jones discusses his rapid recovery from a broken collarbone and his play during a 31-14 loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018 at Wallace Wade Stadium.