Duke has its quarterback for the present and future in Daniel Jones.
The job now is to develop a deep, fast and, most importantly, trusted group of receivers to give the redshirt sophomore plenty of options in the passing game.
The team’s spring practices have been a workshop for that area of Duke’s attack as the Blue Devils seek to return to a bowl game in 2017.
“I love, I don’t like, I love our competition at wide receiver right now,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “This is the best receiving corps that we’ve had. We’ve had a lot of playmaking going on this spring. It has been fun to watch.”
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On Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium, the players making up that receiving corps got a chance to show what they’ve been working on. With construction still on-going as the stadium renovation project continues, Duke doesn’t have a formal spring game that’s open to the public.
But the team held a two-hour spring showcase event that was broadcast via the internet on the ACC Network Extra app. It signals that Duke’s spring work is drawing to a close even though the Blue Devils will have two more spring practices this week to finish it off.
Aaron Young, who will be a redshirt sophomore this season, caught two passes for 79 yards in Duke’s controlled scrimmage that included 65 snaps. Jones completed 4 of 8 passes for 65 yards while reserve quarterback Quentin Harris completed 4 of 9 passes for 92 yards, including the strikes to Young covering 38 and 41 yards.
Young caught 11 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns in 10 games last season when Duke went 4-8 and missed a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
He’s played so well this spring that Cutcliffe honored him Saturday morning with one of two Most Improved Offensive Player awards. Running back Shaun Wilson was the other winner.
“You saw what we thought about Aaron Young’s development,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s one of the most improved players on our team.”
Young called the award “special,” and he looks forward to being part of an improved Duke offense this season. While Jones completed a healthy 62 percent of his throws as a redshirt freshman last season, Duke averaged just 23.3 points per game. It’s the first time Duke failed to average 30 points a game since the 2011 season.
“Daniel Jones is one of the best ball spinners that we’ll see,” Young said. “We’ve worked a lot on the downfield balls. D.J. can get the ball there. We can make plays. We can get off the line. We can run downfield. We can go up top if we need to. We can run past defensive backs if we need to. That’s the thing that we did a lot this spring is start throwing the ball downfield.”
Duke returns T.J. Rahming, a speedy wideout who led the team in receptions (70) and receiving yards (742) as a sophomore last season. He’s clearly the most experienced, productive receiver Duke has.
“We know we’ve got a guy that’s a big-time playmaker in T.J.,” Cutcliffe said. “T.J. Rahming has done it time and time again.”
It’s the depth behind Rahming that has Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils thinking big in that area for the upcoming season. Johnathan Lloyd also offers a large dose of experience after catching 34 passes as a redshirt sophomore last season.
In addition to Young, Cutcliffe sees improvement from Chris Taylor, who’ll be a redshirt junior this fall. A leg injury kept Keyston Fuller out all last season, and he’s looking to finally make an impact as a redshirt sophomore this season.
And there’s Scott Bracey, the heralded four-star recruit from Richmond who redshirted as a freshman last season due to an August hamstring injury.
Both Fuller and Bracey have been healthy and getting important practice time this spring.
“I see progress from all of them,” Cutcliffe said. “I see depth. Any number of combinations of them could start.”
Bracey, at 6-2 and 200 pounds, has the build and athleticism to be a major factor in a Duke passing game that will look to be more effective throwing downfield this season.
“It’s been refreshing to be back on the field,” Bracey said. “It feels good to be working with my teammates and receivers. They’ve been helping me out this spring because I need to grow. I didn’t get many reps during fall camp last year so this was a big time for me to grow.”
With Thomas Sirk, Duke’s starter in 2015, transferring away from Duke to play his final season of college football, Jones is set to be Duke’s starting quarterback for the next three seasons.
The work he’s seen from his receivers this spring has him confident Duke’s offense can be more productive this season.
“I think they’ve been great, a big bright spot for us this spring,” Jones said. “Scott and Aaron, in particular, haven’t had as many reps in the past, have really improved this offseason. Those two, along with Chris and T.J., Johnathan Lloyd and Keyston Fuller are weapons in the slot. So we certainly have the talent and the playmakers to be an explosive passing game.”