Of all the personnel losses facing Duke entering this year, arguably none was as daunting as those at wide receiver.
Jamison Crowder spent three years flashing pro potential before he was drafted by the Washington Redskins. Issac Blakeney had top-level speed and had proven he could show flashes of brilliance, and he parlayed that into a look from the San Francisco 49ers. So without last year’s top two receivers, there wasn’t a lot of clarity as to whom would be making big plays in the passing game.
In the Blue Devils’ 37-7 win at Tulane on Thursday night, two strong candidates emerged.
Junior Johnell Barnes led Duke with 11 catches for 109 yards and an impressive 29-yard swing pass turned touchdown. Barnes was the natural hope to take a step forward into the top receiver role — he had been in the system for two years, and he should have the maturity that successful upperclassman possess.
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Barnes’ night started off rough — he fumbled the first pass he caught, ending Duke’s first drive with a turnover. But he shook off that mistake and had a productive night.
"Johnell, I had a conversation with Johnell. He grew up," coach David Cutcliffe said. "Played like a junior, which is what I told him — you’re not a puppy anymore, let’s go."
And then there is the puppy of the receiving corps — true freshman T.J. Rahming, who became just the second true freshman to start an opener in Cutcliffe’s eight seasons at Duke. What Rahming lacks in experience, though, he makes up for in talent. He was the Blue Devils’ second-most productive receiver on the night, catching six passes for 70 yards. At one point, quarterback Thomas Sirk went to him on three straight plays.
Rahming, with his natural gifts, was well-equipped to challenge the Green Wave’s defense, which played a conservative man-to-man coverage scheme.
"They are playing man (coverage), and he is so quick and so natural on a football field," Cutcliffe said of Rahming. "He separates well. Not necessarily saying it’s T.J., but you start calling certain routes man beaters. Those guys, the quarterbacks know who is going to beat man-to-man. He is also a great screen runner because he goes from zero to 60 in a hurry."
The coaches knew that Rahming, an Army All-American in high school, had the talent to potentially make an immediate impact. But until a true freshman gets in camp and reacts to the speed and physicality of the college game, it’s foolish to project much from them. Rahming has cleared those hurdles, and expect his role to only grow.
Before Rahming earned a starting spot, redshirt freshman Chris Taylor was the best candidate to be the No. 2 receiver in terms of explosive production (senior receiver Max McCaffrey, Duke’s lone returning starter, steadily plays his part in the slot). And Taylor did snag a 27-yard pass from backup quarterback Parker Boehme on Duke’s last drive. And while junior Ryan Smith didn’t catch a pass, he did flash big play potential on a 25-yard punt return that featured him barrel rolling off of a Tulane player’s back without touching his knees or elbows down on the turf.
"I’m hoping that we see some number twos that got some playing time eager and anxious," Cutcliffe said of backups like Smith and Taylor.
A few seconds later, Cutcliffe acknowledge the uncertainly surrounding the wide receivers coming into this game.
"I know they were a concern going into this game," he said, "And I still think we have a ways to go, but I was certainly very pleased with the start."
The receivers themselves were aware of the need to prove themselves, too. And they also felt good about their work on Thursday night.
"People think just because we are young or just because we lost a couple of guys — we understand that we lost them, and we have to step up and play," Barnes said. "We’ve been doing a good job of filling those roles, those playmaking roles. T.J. Ramming made a couple plays today, Chris Taylor, we’ve got a couple of guys that can make plays. We’re not worried about it. There’s not really any pressure, just motivation."
Next week’s game against FCS North Carolina Central won’t provide any additional insight into the Blue Devils’ ability to make plays against quality competition. But for younger players like Rahming and Taylor, it will be another opportunity to gain valuable experience in anticipation for the tougher competition ahead.