Duke represents the arguable nadir of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, the 38-35 loss during the 2016 debacle not only coming to another 4-8 team, but also at home. This November’s rematch should share little in common with that one, both teams better — though the Blue Devils perhaps only barely — and at Wallace Wade Stadium, which seats all of 40,004.
For what it’s worth, since that 2016 season, the low point in both Kelly’s Irish decade and David Cutcliffe’s 11 years at Duke, the Blue Devils have gone 7-6 and 8-5 with wins in two bowl games. Winning as 20-point underdogs in South Bend does remain a high point in terms of shock value.
Teams with sixth-overall NFL draft picks at quarterback are supposed to finish the regular season better than 7-5, especially if they manage to win the two games such a passer misses due to injury. Yet Duke did not entirely capitalize on Daniel Jones’ final season, going just 3-5 in ACC play. That included losing as favorites three times to Coastal division opponents.
The Blue Devils were, as of mid-November, somehow still in the thick of the race for the division crown at 3-3, but their odds remained exceedingly slim with a date at Clemson looming. The Tigers scored 35 unanswered points to dash any upset hopes, 35-6.
Thus, Jones remained the primary, if not only, story of Duke’s 2018. A broken collarbone in the second week of the season at Northwestern hardly slowed him; he missed just two games and returned to finish the year with 2,674 passing yards on a 60.5 percent completion rate with 22 touchdowns against nine interceptions. Respectable numbers, perhaps even admirable, but far from a stat line expected of a No. 6 pick.
WHAT DUKE LOST
Obviously, Jones, and while few thought he would become the first Blue Devils’ top-10 pick in more than 30 years, he was a first- or second-round pick in most projections. He is not a small talent to be replaced.
All the same, when Duke’s passing game falls off this season, the headlines will focus too much on losing Jones. The Blue Devils are now also without their top three receivers and two tight ends. Those five combined for 197 catches for 2,220 yards and 25 touchdowns last year.
Duke’s defense lost its top two linebackers, one heading to the NFL a year early and one graduating. The former, first-team All-ACC Joe Giles-Harris, led the Blue Devils with 81 tackles, while Ben Humphreys added 67 more, including 6.5 tackles for loss.
WHAT DUKE GAINED
Not much, being Duke has never been a recruiting powerhouse of any kind. The class of 2019 ranked No. 66, per rivals.com, and this seems an appropriate time to remind readers that there are 65 “Power Five” teams in the country.
Nonetheless, early enrollee receiver Darrell Harding received rave reviews in the spring, and given the Blue Devil’s void of experienced pass-catchers, Harding could fit into the mix quickly.
Duke also benefits from the return of 2017 first-team All-ACC cornerback Mark Gilbert. A dislocated hip kept him sidelined all of last season. Gilbert started 13 games in 2017, breaking up 15 passes and intercepting six more. To give that a bit of context, the Blue Devils picked off a total of four passes last year.
Cutcliffe shines as an example of a coach proving his immense ability simply by bringing respectability to a program once perpetually moribund. Winning 10 games and the Coastal in 2013 may not seem a worthy high-water mark, but realize Duke won 10 total games in the eight years before Cutcliffe arrived.
Cutcliffe will be tested replacing Jones, even as the renowned quarterback coach that he is. Fortunately for him, Quentin Harris has spent five years learning the system and got in some experience not only when Jones broke his collarbone, but also as a short-yardage specialist. He completed a pedestrian 34 of 68 passes for 437 yards, but he threw merely one interception compared to seven touchdowns, not to mention five more rushing scores.
Criticism of Harris in 2019 may camouflage receiver issues, but it is also possible his dual-threat abilities supplement a strong rushing attack.
The Blue Devils averaged 160 rushing yards per game last year, hardly a massive number, but they did so efficiently and with junior Deon Jackson (847 yards, seven touchdowns; 26 catches for 253 yards and two scores) leading the way as he earned second-team All-ACC honors as an all-purpose back. Jackson (pictured above) was not the focus to begin the season, only truly taking over when junior Brittain Brown injured his hamstring.
Brown returns this year, and the duo should work well together, especially behind a line returning three starters — and a fourth who started prior to injury — with 60 career starts all around.
It has become a theme when discussing the ACC Coastal … Injuries and attrition forced youth to the defensive forefront, and that proved costly last season. It is logical, and it applies to Duke, as well. The next step in that storyline is eight returning starters, nine if including Gilbert, including the entire defensive line and the entire secondary (again, if including Gilbert).
A defense that gave up 209.3 rushing yards per game and 4.98 yards per carry has little room for anything but improvement. The same can be said of a defense that managed 24 sacks.
Junior safety Marquis Waters will lead those efforts on the back end, while three-year starting defensive end Victor Dimukeje will look to build on his 8.5 tackles for loss, including 3.5 sacks, as a sophomore.
That defensive improvement may not be enough to compensate for losing Jones. In 2018, the Blue Devils gave up three more yards per game than they gained (409 to 406), and that stat may worsen, albeit down in the 300s.
Duke’s season has a built-in ceiling simply by opening against Alabama and then later facing Notre Dame. Add in the mix of the Coastal (at both Virginia Tech and Virginia, finishing the season vs. Miami), and a notable winning streak may be tough for Cutcliffe to manufacture, aside from facing North Carolina A&T and Middle Tennessee State the two weeks after the Tide.
Current sheets peg the Blue Devils’ season win total over/under at 5.5. It is a tricky number — Can Duke sweep Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest? Doing so would all-but guarantee that over, but this is the Coastal, nothing is ever that simple.
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