Three things to know from Duke's spring football showcase

Duke's Joe Giles-Harris (44), shown here in action against North Carolina in 2016, is among the veterans the Blue Devils return on defense this year.
Duke's Joe Giles-Harris (44), shown here in action against North Carolina in 2016, is among the veterans the Blue Devils return on defense this year. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Sunshine and 80-degree weather put the spring in Duke football’s spring showcase Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.

The veteran players the Blue Devils have back gave the group plenty to showcase.

Duke returns 47 lettermen and 16 starters from the team that went 7-6 and won the Quick Lane Bowl last season.

Familiar names like quarterback Daniel Jones and linebacker Ben Humphreys turned in standout plays during Saturday’s 50-play scrimmage, which serves as the team’s spring game.

Here are three things we learned from Duke’s only public practice of the spring:

The tight ends give Duke’s offense a chance to be dynamic

Jones, entering his third season as Duke’s starting quarterback, completed eight of 15 passes for 83 yards in the scrimmage. One of the drives ended with an 11-yard touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Noah Gray.

The Blue Devils aim to increase the touchdown production in their passing game after Jones threw just 16 touchdown passes last season. Tight ends Davis Koppenhaver (three), Daniel Helm (two) and Gray (two) accounted for nearly half of them.

With all three of those players back, Jones plans to keep them involved.

“We certainly have a lot of talent in the tight end room now,” Jones said. “It’s one of our deepest position groups for sure. That gives us an opportunity to put two tight ends on the field. Put them in different places and run different routes. Their size and strength is another dynamic we can use in our offense.”

Injuries to the wide receivers this spring only gave the tight ends a better chance to shine. Aaron Young broke his right hand in late March and Demond Philyaw-Johnson was out of Saturday’s scrimmage with a muscle strain. Chris Taylor has missed all of spring practice recovering from an off-season surgery.

All three are expected to be ready for the start of practice in August, but they’ll have competition in the passing game from the tight ends.

“It’s an interesting and a good circumstance that we have,” Cutcliffe said, “trying to figure out do we want three wide receivers in the game and a tight end? Two tights, two wide receivers? Three tight ends, one wide receiver? You are going to see us in more personnel groupings.”

Duke’s defense expects to be dominant

The Blue Devils finished third in the ACC by allowing just 20.2 points per game last season and fourth in total defense (332.6 yards per game). Only three starters graduated, so the expectation is the defense will be just as strong.

“It’s going to be 11 guys coming after people,” said Joe Giles-Harris, an all-ACC selection at linebacker for Duke last season. “It’s going to be fun. We want to be the best defense in the country.”

Giles-Harris and cornerback Mark Gilbert were both all-ACC players last season. Humphreys, entering his fourth season as a starting linebacker, had a sack and a fumble recovery during Saturday’s scrimmage.

Sophomore defensive end Victor Dimukeje also had a sack.

Three players — rising redshirt sophomore cornerback Myles Hudzick, rising junior linebacker Koby Quansah and rising sophomore safety Marquis Waters — shared the most improved player award for Duke’s defense this spring.

Hudzick is pushing for a starting role opposite Gilbert at cornerback. Waters could become a starter since Duke has to replace safety Alonzo Saxton II, who is graduating.

The kicking game might be an adventure this season

Duke dismissed its kicker and punter last December. It was a single action as Austin Parker handled both duties before be was kicked out of school and didn’t play in Duke’s 36-14 Quick Lane Bowl win over Northern Illinois.

Freshman Jackson Hubbard, a reserve walk-on who practiced but didn’t play last season, looks to be Duke’s punter.

At kicker, fifth-year senior walk-on Collin Wareham and junior A.J. Reed, the only scholarship player of the group, are vying for the kicking job for extra points and field goals.

Reed was brought in to be Duke’s kicker in 2016 but lost the job after making just 3 of 10 field goals.

Parker made 17 of 21 last season before senior walk-on William Holmquist made his only attempt in the Quick Lane Bowl.

In Saturday’s scrimmage, Reed made a 46-yard field goal while Wareham hit one from 44 yards.

But the work, both in the practice and scrimmage portions of Saturday’s event, wasn’t consistently strong.

“I thought the kicking work was good for us, but I’m disappointed we missed an extra point,” Cutcliffe said. “We continue to look at that part of the game. We have to be better in every aspect of the kicking game.”