Four takeaways from Duke’s preseason as it heads into its game against No. 2 Alabama

Duke QB Quentin Harris on offense’s potential

Entering his first season as Duke's starting quarterback, Quentin Harris discusses the Blue Devils' offense as it prepares to face the Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
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Entering his first season as Duke's starting quarterback, Quentin Harris discusses the Blue Devils' offense as it prepares to face the Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Duke worked through its practices since Aug. 2 focused keenly on getting ready to play No. 2 Alabama to open the season.

It’s quite the challenge but the Blue Devils are looking at not only finding a way to hang with the mighty Crimson Tide, but navigate a difficult schedule to make it to another bowl appearance.

With that in mind, the coaching staff made some crucial decisions during the preseason hoping to continue the run of successful football Duke’s turned in this decade.

Here’s a look at four key items for Duke football entering the new season:

Perseverance personified (x2)

When Scott Bracey and AJ Reed arrived at Duke as freshmen in 2016, both looked like they’d be key contributors early.

Reed got his chance, winning the starting kicker job that season.

Bracey, a four-star recruit at wide receiver, never got the chance. He injured his hamstring in Duke’s first practice that season and took an injury redshirt. Since then, he’s caught 11 passes for 100 yards over the last two seasons combined. He’s yet to score a college touchdown.

Reed’s chance went sour in a flurry of poor kicks. While he did kick the game-winning field goal in Duke’s 38-35 upset win at Notre Dame, he hit only 3 of 10 field goals as a freshman. Coach David Cutcliffe eventually gave up even trying field goals and the Blue Devils suffered through a 4-8 season.

Reed remained on scholarship and handled kickoffs the last six games last season, but hasn’t attempted a field goal or extra point since 2016. Duke used punter Austin Parker as its place kicker in 2017 and walk-on Collin Wareham last season.

Yet as Duke enters this season, Bracey is a starting wide receiver and Reed will be Duke’s place kicker for field goals and extra points.

“Scott has had a great offseason,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s really grown and feels better physically. What he’s done is he’s provided some big plays throughout our entire camp. He’s broken some tackles and is a big, strong guy.”

Reed made the final 27 extra-point kicks of his freshman season, so he carries that positive streak into the Alabama game. But he missed his final four field-goal tries. Those were the only four Cutcliffe had him try over the final seven games that season.

“He’s got a great leg,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s been terrific with his kickoffs. I still want to see the consistency I’d like to see from him day in and day out. It’s hard. Nobody is going to be 100 percent. There’s days he’s 90. There’s days he’s 85. There’s days he’s been 78 percent. My expectations are when you are in makeable range to minimally be 85 percent. I’m not concerned. I know he’s very capable. You’ve got to find that consistency.”

The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl released this video to hype up the game pitting Alabama and Duke at the Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Aug. 31, 2019.

Duke freshmen starters

Duke will have four freshmen in its starting lineup against Alabama on Saturday.

Jacob Monk is at right tackle with redshirt freshman Casey Holman starting at left tackle. Jalon Calhoun won a starting wide receiver job after sophomore Jake Bobo suffered a broken collarbone on Aug. 8.

On defense, redshirt freshman Shaka Heyward, at 6-4 and 230 pounds, gets the starting job at weak-side linebacker over redshirt junior Brandon Hill.

“Shaka is an outstanding tackler,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s big. He’s been really decisive. He is getting off the spot, playing down hill. He’s playing like an experienced player.”

Duke has 10 other freshmen or redshirt freshmen included as reserves on its two-deep depth chart: Wide receivers Dennis Smith, Eli Pancol and Darrell Harding, Jr., left guard Maurice McIntyre, defensive tackles Elijah Brown and DeWayne Carter, cornerbacks Isaiah Kemp, Tony Davis and Jeremiah Lewis and safety Jalon Alexander.

The ACC Network is here, and promises to bring around 450 live ACC contests each year.

Strong recovery for Cerenord

Duke lost a key part of its defensive front last season when redshirt senior defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord suffered through injuries to only appear in four games. On Oct. 15 at Georgia Tech, starting just his fourth game of the season, Cerenord ruptured an Achilles tendon and missed the rest of the season.

Last December, the NCAA granted him a sixth season of eligibility and Cerenord set about his recovery.

It’s gone well so far.

The 6-1, 305-pound Cerenord was listed as a reserve along Duke’s defensive line when practice started on Aug. 2. But when the depth chart was updated this week, it lists Cerenord as a starter alongside junior Derrick Tangelo at the defensive tackle slots.

Trevon McSwain started nine games for Duke last season when Cerenord was injured. He recorded 43 tackles with three tackles for losses, one sack one caused fumble, one pass breakup and four quarterback pressures.

With Cerenord back, McSwain can come off the bench to give Duke even more depth up front to keep fresh players on the field.

Duke senior quarterback Quentin Harris takes over a starting role as the Blue Devils replace Daniel Jones, who became the New York Giants first-round pick. Starting center Jack Wohlabaugh discusses how the team is adjusting to the new starter.

Hunting interceptions against Alabama

One of the sore points for Duke’s defense last season was a failure to secure interceptions. The Blue Devils had just four. Only one Football Bowl Subdivision team, Oregon State with three, had fewer.

The starting defensive backfield of cornerbacks Leonard Johnson and Josh Blackwell, with safeties Dylan Singleton, Marquis Waters and Michael Carter II, are aiming to do much better this season. Carter picked off two passes in a Duke scrimmage on Aug. 10.

It’s hard to anticipate many coming against Alabama, though.

Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw just six interceptions in his 355 attempts last season. He turned in 11 interception-free games among his 15 starts last season.

Who will win the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game pitting Alabama against Duke? Cerby the Seal from the Georgia Aquarium makes his pick.

Duke vs. Alabama

When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday

Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta

Watch: ABC

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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.