With Daniel Jones, momentum and a little snow, Duke opens spring football practice

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, during a Nov. 5, 2016 game against Virginia Tech.
Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, during a Nov. 5, 2016 game against Virginia Tech. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe opened 2018 spring football practice on a day that was very un-spring like.

The Blue Devils, fresh off a 7-6 season, and a 36-14 win over Northern Illinois in the Quick Lane Bowl, held their first workout Wednesday morning in their indoor facility as a light snow fell outside. Duke opens the 2018 season on Sept. 1, hosting Army.

“This was a good start,” Cutcliffe said. “Our whole focus was fundamentals. It’ll be interesting to see when we study the film is what our fundamentals were. In spring practice, I’ve said it a million times around here, you think players not plays, and that’s where we are.”

Here are five takeaways from the first day of spring practice:

Quarterback Daniel Jones is back

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Duke quarterback Daniel Jones (17) runs for a touchdown past Northern Illinois safety Mycial Allen (20) during the first quarter of the Quick Lane Bowl NCAA college football game, Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2017, in Detroit. Jose Juarez AP

Quarterback Daniel Jones is back for his redshirt junior season. There were some who thought Jones, who passed for 2,691 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushed for 518 yards and seven more scores last season, might consider entering the NFL draft. Cutcliffe was never worried about having to replace his signal caller.

“He and I communicate well,” Cutcliffe said. “We talked in-depth about this, and we will face that again and have conversations (about going pro), but his head is on his shoulders right. He’s got great priorities and great plans, and right now Daniel is focused on today, and when we come back on Friday, he’ll be focused on Friday. That’s where his head should be.”

Midyears know where to be, that’s a positive

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Duke had five midyear players enroll in January — four right out of high school and one transfer. Tight end Zamari Ellis, offensive lineman Casey Holman, quarterback Gunnar Holmberg and cornerback Jeremiah Lewis signed to play with Duke in December, the early signing period, and were on campus the following month. They have worked out with the team, and learned their way around campus, but Cutcliffe wasn’t ready to comment on their football skills just yet. It’s way too soon to tell.

“It’s unfair to say did they do this, did they do that,” Cutcliffe said. “They made it here on time, they made it to meetings on time. That’s a good first day.”

There's momentum from their bowl win

Quick Lane Bowl Football (3)
Duke players hoist their championship trophy after defeating Northern Illinois 36-14 in the Quick Lane Bowl NCAA college football game, Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2017, in Detroit. Jose Juarez AP

Senior linebacker Ben Humphreys said the grind of spring ball was like “preseason camp, but with class afterward.” However, the way the Blue Devils ended last season, with a bowl win, helps spring practice go a little easier. Cutcliffe said the bowl win carried over to their winter workouts, where there was “energy and hunger.”

After Duke won the Pinstripe Bowl in 2015 his team was satisfied. He doesn’t get that feeling this time around, after the Blue Devils Quick Lane Bowl win to end last season.

“I don’t sense that right now, which is extremely important to us,” Cutcliffe said. “We can’t operate that way.”

Deepest team yet

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Duke's Ben Humphreys takes down Miami's Mark Walton (1), Friday, September 29, 2017, in Wallace Wade Stadium. Bernard Thomas bthomas@heraldsun.com

Cutcliffe said this is one of his deepest teams he has coached. The Blue Devils have depth at every position. Duke returns 16 starters and 48 lettermen.

“This is a team that’s got competition at every position,” Cutcliffe said. “Which never hurts. I mean real competition.”

Cutcliffe pointed to the linebackers group, which returns starters Humphreys (70 tackles in 2017) and redshirt junior linebacker Joe-Giles Harris (125 tackles in 2017), and said that group is going to have to play better to keep other players off the field. The offensive line is a bit more unproven after losing three starters, but, again, Cutcliffe likes the depth in the trenches and said he will keep a close eye on that group once they put on full pads.

“When we put on pads I’ll focus a little more in that area than I would today,” Cutcliffe said. “That part of our team right now lost three starters and we believe we can be better than we’ve ever been there, we just have to prove it.”

Searching for consistency

Duke started the 2017 season 4-0, then dropped six in a row, before a three-game win streak saved their season. Humphreys, a senior from Newport Beach, Calif. said he wants to end his career in Durham the right way. That starts with the little details in spring practice.

“It’s all about effort (during spring) and figuring out who you are as a team,” Humphreys said. “You hit on fundamentals, you hit on effort and the scheme stuff will come later.”