Because its players and coaches showed resolve to turn around a losing season, Duke football leaves 2017 on a high note.
The team rebounded from a six-game losing streak to finish the 7-6 season with three wins in a row. The majority of the players on this team still have eligibility remaining, meaning the Blue Devils program is poised for even better things in 2018.
The Duke defense that allowed just 20.2 points per game, the lowest per-game average in coach David Cutcliffe’s 10 seasons at the school, started only three seniors.
The offense that slumped at midseason, only to average 36.7 points per game over the season-ending, three-game winning streak, loses only senior running back Shaun Wilson among its skill position players.
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Yes Duke has to rebuild its offensive line, which featured senior starters at center and both tackle positions. The special teams will need a new punter, kicker and holder.
So work remains to be done. But the Blue Devils carry plenty of hope to keep their era of being a perpetual bowl team.
“You’re asking about returning players, don’t you know I’m going to be in their face and in their ear about, ‘This is how you play football and what we expect here,’ ” Cutcliffe said. “So I’m anxious, I’m already ready for January, but mostly February when we get our hands on our players again and get through recruiting. And we’re going to bump our spring practice back. I’ll tell you now all the way to April, very end of March and April for the first time. We’re going to get our team kind of tuned in and geared up before we go back out on the practice field.”
Duke’s defense has a chance to be a dominant unit next season even after losing senior starters Bryon Fields (cornerback), Alonzo Saxton (safety) and Mike Ramsay (defensive tackle).
The Blue Devils return two first-team all-ACC players in linebacker Joe Giles-Harris and cornerback Mark Gilbert. Ben Humphreys is also back at linebacker, starting opposite his roommate and best friend Giles-Harris for the third consecutive season.
Duke returns five of its top six tacklers, with only Saxton departing. The secondary will have two new starters. But that’s consistently been an area of strength for Duke in recent seasons. Players like sophomore safety Dylan Singleton, redshirt sophomore safety Jordan Hayes, freshman safety Michael Carter II and redshirt sophomore cornerback Brandon Feamster will get their shots at shining.
Duke has recruited well up front in recent years, so Cutcliffe and his staff will have plenty of players to help replace Ramsay. Keep an eye on defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo, who played 11 games as a true freshman this season, and 320-pound redshirt freshman tackle Axel Nymbwe.
The top-rated freshman coming in for next season is Tahj Rice, a four-star defensive end from Louisville, Ky. He’ll join Victor Dimukeje and Drew Jordan, two freshman who played well this season, among Duke’s solid stable of young defensive ends.
“We will be the fastest defense we’ve had next year,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re going to have some competition in depth on defense.”
The offense returns Quick Lane Bowl MVP Daniel Jones at quarterback plus eight of the top 10 reception leaders. Tight ends Daniel Helm and Davis Koppenhaver became key parts of the passing game during Duke’s late season surge, and they’ll both return as redshirt seniors next season. Leading receiver T.J. Rahming is back for his senior season, too.
At running back. Brittain Brown is primed for a big year after rushing for 701 yards on 130 carries (5.39 yards per carry) with seven rushing touchdowns as a redshirt freshman this season.
Running back Deon Jackson, who played in 11 games as a freshman this season, and redshirt freshman Melvin Hubbard will fill in behind Brown to help Duke replace Wilson.
The offensive line will be an area with question marks with center Austin Davis and tackles Gabe Brandner and Evan Lisle departing. Zach Harmon, Zach Baker, Julian Santos and Rak Chambers give Duke strong, experienced options in the interior line.
Redshirt sophomore Robert Kraeling, who saw playing time in the Quick Lane Bowl, will have a chance to start at a tackle slot. Having added Lisle from Ohio State this season, the Blue Devils will explore the grad transfer market to find help at tackle for the second consecutive year. Otherwise, Liam Smith and Jacob Rimmer will have to play after redshirting as freshmen this season.
“A lot of people are coming back, a lot of playmakers, a lot of guys up front to open up space for them,” Jones said. “It’s an exciting time to be part of the program and to be part of the team. We’ve got a great opportunity. It’s a big opportunity to keep progressing and to keep moving.”
On special teams, Austin Parker’s dismissal this month left Duke in a tough spot since he was the punter and kicker. Jake Driggers handled kickoffs as a walk-on freshman and will get the chance to see his role expanded. Another walk-on, Jackson Hubbard, might be able to help at punter.
But Duke needs a grad transfer or a walk-on to help here, which is worrisome.
Those are issues Cutcliffe and his staff will attack in the coming months, along with adding two new assistant coaches. Jim Bridge slid over from special teams to coach the offensive line in the Quick Lane Bowl after line coach Marcus Johnson left for Mississippi State. Cutcliffe also gets to add a 10th assistant coach, in a yet to be determined role, thanks to a new NCAA rule allowing for staff expansion.
Duke’s schedule next season will be daunting. It includes road games at reigning ACC division champions Miami and Clemson. Duke opens at home with Army, which went 10-3 this season, and a week later travels to Northwestern, which is 9-3 entering Friday’s Music City Bowl against Kentucky. Bowl participants Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Virginia come to Wallace Wade Stadium next fall.
Duke has 15 freshman already signed and coming in for next season. A few more could be added beginning in the traditional signing period in February.
When they arrive, they’ll join a program that’s been to bowl games in five of the last six seasons. During that time, Duke has gone 44-34 with winning records in four of the last five seasons.
“I want them to understand what the expectations are when they walk through those doors,” Cutcliffe said, “and that’s something we’re excited about because we think we’re, really after 10 years, I really think this is an opportunity for a new beginning at Duke football. I’m really excited about where we’re headed.”