Luke DeCock

Duke looking for its next great football playmaker. What are chances it finds one?

Duke QB Daniel Jones: "we need to improve our" passing game

Duke football quarterback Daniel Jones discusses the need for the Blue Devils to improve the passing game.
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Duke football quarterback Daniel Jones discusses the need for the Blue Devils to improve the passing game.

A few of them already have their pictures on the walls in Duke’s new press box. They made their names catching passes and setting records for the Blue Devils, and now they’re commemorated in a tower their success helped get built.

Big-play receivers like Jamison Crowder, Conner Vernon, Donovan Varner and Eron Riley were constants on David Cutcliffe’s early Duke teams, something the Blue Devils could count on even in seasons when they couldn’t count on much else.

In each of Cutcliffe’s first seven years at Duke, he had at least one receiver who caught eight touchdowns or had 900 receiving yards – often both and almost always more. But the past two seasons the Blue Devils have lacked that kind of pass-catching star, and there’s no guarantee anyone fills that role this season. It’s one of the biggest questions facing the Blue Devils as they look to recover from a 4-8 season and return to bowl eligibility, starting Saturday when they host N.C. Central.

Is Duke’s next great receiver somewhere on the depth chart? Maybe. Maybe not. And whether one emerges may have as much to do with the talent surrounding him as his own.

“We have guys who are big and fast,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s just a matter of consistency and making that decision that you’re going to be great. That’s the guy we all know makes plays.”

The drop-off at the position is a little surprising considering how well Duke did there early in Cutcliffe’s tenure, when the Blue Devils were asking recruits to take a leap of faith – the Blue Devils expected Blair Holliday to join that group as well, before his accident – and how Duke has been able to maintain a similarly strong tradition of playmaking defensive backs.

Bryon Fields looks ready to pick up where DeVon Edwards left off (who picked up where Jeremy Cash left off, and so on) and there are a few players stacked up behind him. At some point the situation at receiver diverged from that in the secondary. The transition post-Crowder hasn’t been as smooth.

In 2015, Max McCaffrey put up good, but not great, numbers. In 2016, T.J. Rahming joined Vernon as the only Duke players to record more than 100 catches over their first two seasons, but for a low per-catch yardage and only three touchdowns.

Some of that had to do with the unexpected quarterback transition from Thomas Sirk to Daniel Jones and the necessity of dialing back the offense. Jones didn’t really have a favorite red-zone target last season – seven different players had at least two touchdown catches, and while Rahming caught 70 passes, only one was for a TD – and the Blue Devils didn’t throw long nearly as often as they did with Thad Lewis, Sean Renfree, Anthony Boone or Sirk under center and Varner, Vernon and Crowder rampaging through secondaries.

Not only did Jones and Rahming spend the summer working out together in an attempt to develop better chemistry, as a second-year starter Jones has access to far more of the playbook than he did at this time a year ago.

“Some of the deep balls, things we didn’t do as well last year, we’ve improved,” Jones said Tuesday.

The fact that Rahming wears the same No. 3 as Crowder only heightens the comparisons, and he did have a 190-yard game against Virginia as a freshman. All of that makes Rahming the most likely candidate to emerge, if anyone does, but there are no guarantees. He’s small, for one thing – listed at 5-10, 165 – and if his quickness was going to enable him to turn short plays into long gains, he had plenty of opportunities a year ago and that never really materialized.

“T.J. certainly can,” Cutcliffe said. “He is a talent.”

Scott Bracey was a sought-after recruit who was expected to play as a true freshman last season, but he struggled with injuries and redshirted, and is again dealing with injuries this fall. Johnathan Lloyd and Chris Taylor both started extensively last season and are essentially known quantities at this point. Two sophomores, Keyston Fuller and Aaron Young, also made the depth chart, and senior Quay Chambers, at 6-3, 220, is the biggest of all of them. But if one of the latter three was on the verge of a breakthrough, that probably would have happened in camp.

So it’s reasonable to expect the passing game to take a considerable leap forward in Jones’ second season, but it’s only reasonable to hope a receiver will emerge under those circumstances who can carry on the legacy Cutcliffe built in his early years at Duke.

That could be Rahming. It could be one of the others. It could be no one. Duke needs it to be anything but the latter.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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