Questions surround Duke’s football team that go far beyond its ability to end its current two-game losing streak.
Thursday’s Independence Bowl game could be Daniel Jones’ final game in a Blue Devils uniform since NFL scouts have a high enough opinion of the redshirt junior quarterback that he could enter the 2019 draft.
Redshirt junior Joe Giles-Harris, an all-ACC pick at linebacker the past two seasons, could also enter the NFL a year early. The larger question about Giles-Harris is will he play at all against Temple in the last game of his junior season?
Giles-Harris suffered a knee injury during Duke’s 20-12 win at Miami on Nov. 3. He missed Duke’s last three regular-season games, including back-to-back losses to Clemson and Wake Forest.
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Duke coach David Cutcliffe said Giles-Harris has practiced some over the last two weeks but the Blue Devils have prepared other players, most notably junior Koby Quansah, to play.
“We’re right down to the final hour,” Cutcliffe said Wednesday. “The big part of that with veteran players is they have to feel right about their bodies, be in position to protect themselves. He’s given everything he can to get himself ready, but it’s been a challenge.”
The Blue Devils (7-5) started the season 5-1 but have been hit hard by injuries. Senior linebacker Ben Humphreys has also dealt with a knee injury that’s limited him since late October. His status for the Independence Bowl is as uncertain as Giles-Harris’.
Starters Mark Gilbert (cornerback), Dylan Singleton (safety) and Edgar Cerenord (defensive tackle) all needed surgeries that ended their seasons.
They are among 15 starters who have missed three or more games this season.
Duke started the season by beating Army, 34-14 at home before a 21-7 road win at Northwestern the following weekend. The only other loss Army (11-2) suffered was in overtime at Oklahoma. Northwestern (8-5) won the Big Ten West Division and is playing Utah in the Holiday Bowl on Monday.
“How do you end up playing as well as we did at times?” Cutcliffe said. “It’s tough. But this football team is tough, it is talented still. It’s fast. I felt in August we did have a championship team. Now we have one game left. One game to play like a champion. That is the focus of our team right now.”
Jones has that same focus although he’ll be making a big decision in the days following the bowl game. Cutcliffe has gathered information from NFL general managers and met with Jones and his father last Thursday.
“He’ll be a first-round draft choice if he does comes out,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s so accurate. He’s big. He’s fast. He’s athletic. He understands the game. He’s got a fast-twitch mind to go with that fast-twitch body. He’s got impeccable character. You don’t get many chances to draft a guy like that.”
All that said, Jones hasn’t finalized the choice. He could return to Duke for his senior season in 2019.
“I’m not sure yet,” Jones told reporters when the team arrived in Shreveport on Saturday. “I’ve still got a little time to figure it out. I’m looking forward to taking care of business on Thursday. It should be a lot of fun.”
Cutcliffe said the general managers he has spoken to know there’s a chance Jones could stay at Duke one more season.
Either way, Cutcliffe said he’ll be happy with Jones’ decision.
“He is a smart, smart young man,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m certainly going to support whatever he does. And be happy for him. That really is the only emotion. Even if he decides to go early, my feeling will be a feeling of joy because he’s earned that opportunity. He’s a great person.”
Jones and Cutcliffe both talked Wednesday about how well the Blue Devils have practiced in preparation for the Independence Bowl. Duke lost 35-6 at No. 2 Clemson and 59-7 at home to Wake Forest in its last two games,
“That last game was nothing like we wanted,” Jones said. “I think it helped our team a lot in preparations for this bowl game – both at home before we left and since we have been here practicing. Having this last game with our team is really important to all of us.”
Inconsistency has marked this Duke season. The Blue Devils started the season 4-0 and were in the top 25 before losing 31-14 to what proved to be a mediocre 6-6 Virginia Tech team.
Duke won 28-14 at Georgia Tech but lost back-to-back games to Virginia, 28-14, and Pittsburgh, 54-45.
The Blue Devils bounced back with wins at Miami and at home over rival North Carolina, 42-35.
Then came the blowout losses to Clemson and Wake Forest.
Duke hopes to be at its best against Temple.
“If I had to pick one theme for us going into this particular game it’s our consistency,” Cutcliffe said. “We need to put 60 minutes together that blends our offense, defense and certainly our special teams. Temple is outstanding in all three areas, but they certainly provide a challenge in the area of special teams.”