Duke QB Quentin Harris on offense’s potential
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Duke vs. Alabama
When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta