Prepping for Alabama: Five things to know about Duke football after spring practice

Duke running back Brittain Brown (8) runs with the ball during the Blue Devils’ spring showcase scrimmage on Friday, April 5, 2019, at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Duke running back Brittain Brown (8) runs with the ball during the Blue Devils’ spring showcase scrimmage on Friday, April 5, 2019, at Wallace Wade Stadium. Duke athletics

Personnel losses and injuries limited Duke’s ability to get as much work done as it hoped during spring football practice.

With the Blue Devils scheduled to open the season Aug. 31 against Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic at Atlanta, that’s hardly a promising situation.

Yet Duke soldiered on throughout March and early April as the program chases its seventh bowl appearance in eight seasons this fall.

When coach David Cutcliffe led the team through a controlled scrimmage in a steady rain last Friday night at Wallace Wade Stadium, 13 players listed on the team’s two-deep depth chart were sidelined due to injury.

“I think all and all I’m anxious to see what a healthy Duke football team looks like,” Cutcliffe said. “We haven’t known that since about game three of last year. I’m going to knock on wood all summer that we have a healthy summer and hopefully start off as a healthy team in August.”

Duke’s offense must replace three starting wide receivers and its top two tight ends, who have all completed their college careers. Starting quarterback Daniel Jones left the program with a year of eligibility remaining to enter this month’s NFL Draft, where he’s a projected first-round pick.

Its defense will be counted on for a strong season even with new starting linebackers.

After going 8-5 last season, the Blue Devils have a lot of questions as they seek their third consecutive winning season and sixth this decade.

Here are five key areas to watch coming out of spring practice:

The search for playmakers

Duke’s offense, from new starting quarterback Quentin Harris to the wide receivers and tight ends, is going through a revamp.

“We’ve still got to prove we’ve got playmakers,” Cutcliffe said. “We lost a lot of playmakers on offense. So that’s a question you want to answer.”

Redshirt senior Aaron Young has the most experience among the wide receivers even though he was limited to just two games due to a hamstring injury last spring. Now wearing No. 81 (after previously wearing No. 8), Young made an impressive diving catch during the team’s spring showcase scrimmage last Friday night.

Sophomore wide receiver Jake Bobo continues to display the best hands of the group. Freshman Darrell Harding, Jr., a 6-foot-4, 200-pound receiver who enrolled in January and took part in spring practice, already looks good. The coaches awarded him the team’s most improved offensive player award for spring, along with guard Julian Santos.

Junior Noah Gray is currently Duke’s best tight end, just ahead of redshirt junior Mark Birmingham.

Harris is taking over as the starting quarterback after backing up Jones the last three years. Cutcliffe is confident the Blue Devils will have a potent passing game.

“We can throw the football,” Cutcliffe said. “All of our quarterbacks have good arms. They’ve played behind a guy who is a spectacular player.

“We’ve got people that can catch it. We have a big wide receiver corps who have a lot of range running but they also have a lot of range in catching the ball. I think both of those things blend in well.”

Health questions on defense

Duke played this spring without cornerback Mark Gilbert and safety Dylan Singleton, both projected starters who are still recovering from injuries suffered last season. If healthy they’ll be two of Duke’s better defenders in the secondary this season.

Senior defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord will be a major factor in the middle of Duke’s defense but he didn’t work this spring since he’s recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon that ended his season last October.

The Blue Devils lost starting linebacker Brandon Hill to knee surgery during the spring.

Despite all that, Duke’s defensive unit looked “disruptive,” in Cutcliffe’s opinion, during the spring showcase scrimmage.

Junior defensive end Victor Dimukeje had two tackles for losses with a pass breakup in the scrimmage. He and junior Drew Jordan give Duke plenty of explosiveness at the end positions.

Sophomore end Chris Rumph did the same while working with the second-team defense at end.

The ability for the injured players to achieve full health by the season will determine how well Duke’s defense will play this season.

Finding protection up front

As was the case last season, Duke is solid in the middle of the offensive line but has questions at tackle.

Center Jack Wohlabaugh is terrific at center with Santos and Rakavius Chambers the team’s top guards.

“I thought Jack Wohlabaugh had a great spring,” Cutcliffe said. “Juian Santos had a great spring. Everything works inside out. Rak Chambers had a really good spring.”

But Duke is so thin at tackle that Cutcliffe said freshman Jacob Monk, who just enrolled in January, would be a starter at that position if Duke had to play a game this month. Redshirt freshman Casey Holman moved from guard to tackle in the spring.

Health issues with redshirt junior tackles Jaylen Miller and Robert Kraeling forced Monk and Holman into more playing time this spring. The veterans are expected back for the fall and Duke will need them playing well for its offense to excel.

“I think with that group, we’ve had scrimmage work where I think we’ve been the best we’ve been in a couple of years during scrimmages,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m anxious to see when we bring them all together what ends up happening.”

AJ Reed career resurrection?

It’s been nearly three years since AJ Reed scored a point for Duke and even when he did those moments were fleeting.

In 2016, Reed made 3 of 10 field goals but was successful on 37 of 38 extra-point kicks as a freshman.

Reed’s struggles caused the coaching staff to have punter Austin Parker add place kicking to his duties in 2017.

Last season, senior walk-on Collin Wareham kicked extra points and field goals and Reed kicked off 34 times while Parker focused solely on punting.

Now a redshirt junior, Reed worked this spring as Duke’s top kicker. He made four extra-point kicks in last Friday’s controlled scrimmage while also booting field goals covering 28 and 30 yards.

The Blue Devils have a freshman kicker arriving this summer in Charlie Ham. A three-star prospect from Atlanta, Ham will battle Reed for the job when practice starts in August.

But, for now, Reed has put himself in a good position to regain the job he held in 2016.

Running backs getting ready

Brittain Brown started last season at Duke’s starting running back but leg injuries limited him nine games and 80 rushing attempts.

Having changed numbers from 22 to 8, he was a strong and healthy runner this spring. Brown rushed for 51 yards on eight carries in the spring scrimmage.

Deon Jackson led Duke in rushing last season with 847 yards and seven touchdowns. He and Brown should give Duke a solid 1-2 punch this season.

Duke hoped to see sophomore Mataeo Durant more a running back this spring but his work was cut short when he needed shoulder surgery last month.

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.