With Alabama looming, Duke’s offense takes important steps toward improvement

With two weeks to go until opening the season against Alabama, Duke’s football team took time Saturday to pose for a group photo with season-ticket holders and later hold a two-hour autograph session with its fans.

The Meet the Blue Devils event followed the team’s morning practice session and offered a brief respite from preparations for a challenging season-opening game in Atlanta.

“You never better forget that these are your most loyal fans,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “Pictures. Greetings 12 years in a row. It’s a nice break for our players.”

Playing the Crimson Tide is rarely nice, though. Coach Nick Saban’s team is 55-4 over the last four years, winning two national championships and finishing as the national runner-up in the other two seasons.

Part of getting ready for that challenge meant the Blue Devils held their second preseason scrimmage at Wallace Wade Stadium on Friday night. Unlike the first scrimmage six days earlier, this follow-up was closed to the media.

But Cutcliffe and his top assistants -- offensive coordinator Zac Roper and co-defensive coordinator Matt Guerrieri -- said Saturday they saw plenty to be happy about from the team Friday night.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe gives instructions as Duke holds its first football practice of the season Friday, August 2, 2019. Scott Sharpe

“We stayed healthy,” Cutcliffe said with a smile. “That’s a good thing. This team is getting better every time it takes the practice field. We’ve just got to continue that.”

Here are some updates on the Blue Devils as the opening game draws closer:

Offense on an upswing

The Blue Devils offense, replacing seven starters, struggled in the first scrimmage but looked much better on Friday night.

Cutcliffe said the first-team offense, working against the second-team defense, scored 24 points. That included more explosive plays for big yards and solid work in a two-minute drill.

“They took the ball about 60 yards in 1:30 with only one time out,” Cutcliffe said. “I made the decision to kick a field goal with 11 seconds left. Took the conservative side.”

After penalties and turnovers in the first scrimmage, Roper liked the cleaner play.

“There needed to be,” Roper said. “The quality of play in scrimmage one did not go the way that we wanted it to go. We got what we earned in that first scrimmage. Guys went back to work and the quality of the work was really, really high. The execution level was really high. You could tell the learning was taking place in the meeting room. But more importantly they took it to the grass.”

In the second scrimmage, it helped that starting quarterback Quentin Harris had junior running back Deon Jackson participating. Jackson, a first-team all-ACC selection as an all-purpose player, was held out of last Saturday’s initial scrimmage.

Duke will be counting on Jackson and redshirt junior Brittain Brown to form a strong running game this season.

“It definitely starts with Brittain and Deon,” Roper said. “Having those two guys together either as a combo and change ups for each other or on the field together, we definitely feel we can put those guys in position to be successful. They are both very versatile and we feel like we can do a lot with them.”

Freshman tackles looking good

Duke’s offensive line includes returning starters in Jack Wohlabaugh at center and Rakavius Chambers at right guard. Redshirt freshman Casey Holman and freshman Jacob Monk are on first team at left and right tackle.

“We are young at the tackle spots and that’s OK,” Roper said. “We aren’t just playing young players. We feel like we are playing young, talented players.”

Redshirt senior Zach Baker is currently the starting left guard with Julian Santos battling him for that starting job.

Bobo doubtful for opener

Sophomore wide receiver Jake Bobo, out with a broken right collarbone, isn’t close to getting back on the field and is unlikely to play against Alabama.

Bobo was injured in practice and had surgery on Aug. 9. Duke hasn’t established a timetable for his return. Bobo was present at the autograph signing Saturday with his right arm immobilized in sling-type medical device.

Defense playing well

Duke’s experienced defense continues to look like a strong point for the team.

The first-team defense held the second-team offense scoreless during Friday night’s scrimmage. The emphasis on creating turnovers continued to pay off.

“We were able to create some takeaways,” Guerrieri said. “That’s going to be something that we have to do. We win football games when we take the football away. When we don’t, it’s hard to win football games. We created some (Friday) night and it was good.”

Junior defensive end Victor Dimukeje, a returning starter who sat out the first scrimmage, was back on the field Friday night.

Duke’s starting defensive backs -- safeties Dylan Singleton, Michael Carter and Marquis Waters plus cornerbacks Josh Blackwell and Leonard Johnson -- continue to look good against the pass and the run.

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.