Spring practice important for rebuilding Duke

Duke’s David Cutcliffe on his new-look team

Duke football coach David Cutcliffe discusses what his team needs to accomplish during spring practice after losing staring quarterback Daniel Jones and starting linebacker Joe Giles-Harris early to the NFL Draft. Friday, March 1, 2019.
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Duke football coach David Cutcliffe discusses what his team needs to accomplish during spring practice after losing staring quarterback Daniel Jones and starting linebacker Joe Giles-Harris early to the NFL Draft. Friday, March 1, 2019.

When Duke started spring practice on Friday, two players who could have played major factors for the Blue Devils this fall were in Indianapolis at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Quarterback Daniel Jones and linebacker Joe Giles-Harris both bypassed their final seasons at Duke to enter the NFL Draft pool a year early.

Their absences, after starting and starring for the Blue Devils the last three seasons, create plenty of question marks on offense and defense as Duke prepares for its 12th season under head coach David Cutcliffe.

The Blue Devils went 8-5 last season, completing their campaign with a bowl victory for the third time in the last four seasons. After not making a bowl from 1995-2011, Duke has played in bowl games in six of the last seven seasons -- averaging 7.4 wins per season.

The task of maintaining that level of success begins with the 15 spring practice sessions the team will complete.

“We have a lot of work to do to figure out who we are,” Cutcliffe said.

Duke’s work to prepare for the season carries extra importance considering its non-conference schedule. The Blue Devils open the season on Aug. 31 against Alabama at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Notre Dame, a College Football Playoff participant along with Alabama, comes to Wallace Wade Stadium to play Duke on Nov. 9.

Every team on Duke’s schedule, with the exception of North Carolina, played in a bowl game last season. That includes N.C. A&T, Duke’s opponent on Sept. 7 in Durham that went 10-2 to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title and claimed a Celebration Bowl win.

So the Blue Devils need to have a solid team if they are to return to the postseason.

Here are five things to watch between now and Duke’s spring showcase event on April 5:

Who will play quarterback?

Redshirt senior Quentin Harris served as Jones’ understudy the past three seasons, making two starts last fall when Jones was out with a broken collarbone. While Jones is projected as a first-round pick in the NFL Draft on April 25, Harris starts the fall at No. 1 on the depth chart at Duke.

Duke has redshirt sophomore Chris Katrenick and redshirt freshman Gunnar Holmberg in the running as well. All three took snaps in games last season, including Holmberg, who took advantage of the NCAA’s new rule that allows players to play up to four games and still take a redshirt season.

Cutcliffe said the loss of Jones, plus the team’s top three wide receivers and two tight ends to graduation, means adjustments to Duke’s offense.

“I’ve been fortunate in my career to have to play offense the year after losing a first-round draft choice at quarterback,” Cutcliffe said, referencing his time at Tennessee and Mississippi. “No offense to our other quarterbacks but right now they are not imminent first-round draft choice quarterbacks. So we will adjust.”

Time for new linebackers

Giles-Harris and his roommate, Ben Humphreys, were Duke’s starting linebackers for the last three seasons. Humphreys completed his eligibility while Giles-Harris is hoping for NFL success.

“Joe and Ben were great players and together they were maybe phenomenal players,” Cutcliffe said. “They knew each other.”

Koby Quansah and Brandon Hill are next in line to replace them. They started Duke’s final two games last season while Giles-Harris and Humphreys were injured, so that gave them a head start.

“The competition is good,” Cutcliffe said. “Right now Koby and Brandon HIll are the top two but we’ve got some people who are going to fight, scratch and claw. I’m excited about it.”

Strong running backs

While Duke lost its production in the passing game, it has plenty of talent and experience back at running back.

Brittain Brown averaged 4.6 yards per carry during an injury-plagued season in 2018. He played in just nine games, starting five. The 6-1, 205-pound junior ran for 701 yards and seven touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2017 and having him healthy is important for Duke.

Junior Deon Jackson burst on the scene in Brown’s absence last season, rushing for a team-best 847 yards while also catching 26 passes for 253 yards. He was named second-team All-ACC in the all-purpose back category.

Marvin Hubbard is still recovering from the ruptured Achilles’ tendon he suffered last October. Sophomore Mateo Durant showed promise in limited action in nine games and should provide solid depth.

Strength up front on defense

The Blue Devils return four starters in defensive ends Victor Dimukeje and Drew Jordan, plus tackles Trevon McSwain and Derrick Tangelo.

Dimukeje recorded 8.5 tackles for losses last season while Tangelo led the linemen with 46 tackles.

The group will also have the extra benefit of redshirt senior tackle Edgar Cerenord having been awarded a sixth season of eligibility after he ruptured an Achilles tendon last season. Cerenord has played in 41 career games.

Tahj Rice, another athletic defensive tackle, played in 12 games as a true freshman last season and will play a key role this season as well.

Who will catch the passes?

With starting wide receivers TJ Rahming, Johnathan Lloyd and Chris Taylor having used up their eligibility, plenty of playing time is available at that position. The same goes for tight end, where Daniel Helm and David Koppenhaver completed their careers.

With a new wide receivers coach in Trooper Taylor, Duke will look for its younger receivers to grow up quickly.

Sophomore Jake Bobo caught 10 passes last season, including a touchdown reception in the Independence Bowl. His ability to make catches in contested situations has been impressive.

Redshirt sophomore Damond Philyaw-Johnson and redshirt freshmen Jarett Garner and Dennis Smith have size and speed.

Duke hopes to get a full and productive season out of redshirt senior Aaron Young, who played in just two games due to a hamstring injury last season. He amassed 117 yards in a season-opening win over Army before suffering the injury.

At tight end, junior Noah Gray is primed to step in for Helm and Koppenhaver after he caught 20 passes for 234 yards and a touchdown last season.

An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.