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And In That Corner … The Duke Blue Devils, Notre Dame’s first-ever conference opponent

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For 103 consecutive Notre Dame games, this space has featured a preview of the upcoming opponent from a beat writer on the other side of the aisle in the press box. That stretches back to the 2012 season opener, a run that includes a national championship appearance, a College Football Playoff appearance and a trip to Dublin, as well as two undefeated regular seasons, a few chaotic wins against Michigan and all of that 2016 debacle.

Sometimes a student writer jumps in at the 11th hour to answer the questions (Ball State). On occasion, one newspaper writer will help out twice within one season (Virginia, Virginia Tech). Every so often, the process involves no hiccups or worries whatsoever (Navy).

Thanks to Brian McLawhorn of DevilsIllustrated.com, we can make it 104. As one might imagine, Brain had neither advance notice nor much time to turn around the answers, but he did not balk, and for that, we should all be quite grateful …

DF: I appreciate you stepping up to field these questions on particularly short notice in chaotic times. I apologize for my tardiness in sending them your way; I felt a responsibility to actually do some Duke (2:30 ET; NBC) research first.

Obviously, any research turned up Chase Brice’s name in the first sentence. The Clemson transfer has been named the Blue Devils’ starting quarterback and one would presume a well-built, experienced quarterback is all Duke head coach David Cutcliffe asks Santa for every winter. Brice’s career stats (82-of-136 for 1,023 passing yards and nine touchdowns with only four interceptions) are enough to get past any small sample size worries and efficient enough to suggest as much talent as one would presume from a Dabo Swinney recruit. What do the Blue Devils expect from him? What buzz have you gleaned, admitting the lack of spring practices and a typical preseason may have robbed you of any chances to see him yourself?

BM: I think quite simply Duke needs Chase Brice to be a confident leader of the offense, and David Cutcliffe expects as much. That comes with the territory for a starting quarterback, but it’s something that was lacking last season. Quentin Harris was a great teammate and leader in the locker room, but he lacked the ability to efficiently run the offense and put it in the best position to succeed. Duke was never able to become a threat offensively because of it. Brice won the starting job because Cutcliffe believes he gives Duke the best opportunity to open up his offense and be a threat to create explosive plays. It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a transfer that’s been on campus for less than two months, particularly in such a unique environment that exists due to COVID-19. But Cutcliffe has complete faith in Brice and has built a culture around him of players that will not let him bear the weight alone. 

As far as the buzz around Brice’s presence goes, his teammates seem to love his confidence and ability to quickly fit in with the rest of the squad. Brice had connections to the roster with Will and John Taylor, whom he played high school ball with in Snellville, Ga., so it’s helped him connect quickly with his fellow teammates. Beyond that, I think he’s generated excitement around his ability to open opportunities for big plays downfield, something that was lacking last season. Unfortunately, due to practice restrictions for media as a result of the virus, I have not seen him in person, so it’s difficult to offer my own assessment. I think overall people around the program are excited for the Brice era to get rolling. 

Chase Brice
Clemson graduate transfer quarterback Chase Brice could change the dynamics of Duke’s offense under head coach David Cutcliffe’s tutelage. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Brice will have a few returning skill position players, but from what I have gathered, Duke’s offensive success may come down to its offensive line. That line returns four starters and 102 starts, and also added a Stanford graduate transfer, but it also struggled greatly in ACC play last year. Is the lack of change actually a good thing, or could this be more of a weak spot once again?

Duke’s offensive line certainly stumbled during conference play last season, ranking No. 11 in sacks allowed, while struggling to open up holes consistently for the run game. But there’s actually a lot of change that’s happened with the offensive line – by way of injury and new faces. 

Duke hired a new offensive line coach in Greg Frey, who previously held roles at Michigan and Florida State, and he has injected a new level of intensity that this Duke offensive line has not possessed in the past. I have heard great things about how he has re-energized this offensive line, and based on Chase Brice’s assessment, the group has progressed quite a bit in camp. 

Just last week, the unit took a huge blow with last season’s All-ACC Honorable Mention recipient and starting center Jack Wohlabaugh suffering a torn ACL, effectively ending his season. With his loss, Duke will run out just two full-time starters from last season’s unit, redshirt sophomore Casey Holman and sophomore Jacob Monk. They will be joined by Stanford grad transfer Devery Hamilton, who has started 10 games in his career, redshirt sophomore Maurice McIntyre, who has one start and played 347 snaps last season, and finally Will Taylor, who has started three games in the past and will play center. 

So despite the injury to Wohlabaugh, there is a lot of excitement and optimism around this offensive line. There’s young talent with some experience under their belt, so I expect this group to be better than it was a year ago. How much better? I don’t know. It’s hard to make that overall assessment having not seen them firsthand, but those around the program tell me there is a different aura with this group.

The Blue Devils defense should not be a weak spot, led by possible first-round draft pick defensive end Chris Rumph and former All-American cornerback Mark Gilbert, but its interior strikes me as middling. Given Notre Dame’s experienced and promising offensive line, how can Duke mitigate the damage done up front?

Well, this is the big question mark. As you mention, Duke will have an ability to put pressure on the offense from the edges, and the backend of the defense should be strong. The uncertainty lies up the middle at tackle and linebacker. 

Middle linebacker Shaka Hayward should be poised for a big year, and I think he will help a lot in Duke’s ability to implement blitz packages and clog the middle against the run. No matter, though, they’ll need to probably scheme their way into limiting damage up front. Derrick Tangelo and Ben Frye have been named Duke’s starters at tackle, so there’s some experience with Tangelo, but Frye has never started a game. Behind them, Duke has four freshmen making up the depth chart. That’s a lot of uncertainty. And for a team that struggled mightily at keeping opponents from running the ball effectively up the middle a year ago, that’s not very comforting. On the bright side for Duke, it’ll be mostly a fresh start. 

If these guys cannot limit damage in the middle and prevent Notre Dame from controlling the line of scrimmage and running the ball as they please, all that talent on the edges and in the secondary will be rendered useless. 

That’s a lot of responsibility for some new faces, so the bottom line is they have to be disciplined and the coaching staff likely has to be creative in how to bring help. 

To my understanding, Cutcliffe has decided to call plays this season rather than offensive coordinator Zac Roper. How much of a change will this be? Cutcliffe’s reputation precedes him, but I have always thought that to be in development, not so much on game day.

It will be a huge change for Duke. Zac Roper’s play-calling was as much of an issue for Duke as Quentin Harris’s struggles at quarterback last season. He was conservative, not very creative, and was repetitious and predictable. That was a recipe for disaster, and it played out that way. 

There is an expectation that Cutcliffe will be all of those things that Roper was not. And players are excited about Cutcliffe’s new role with the offense. And while, yes, his reputation is as a quarterback guru, and someone that develops talent, he’s one of the most talented offensive minds in the game. He orchestrated the Tennessee offenses in their heyday and played key roles in that while at Ole Miss as well. The bottom line is that perception of development hasn’t translated to game day because that’s what’s talked about. He hasn’t called plays in more than a decade, so out of sight, out of mind. 

Ultimately, this Duke offense will be more aggressive under Cutcliffe, and I anticipate seeing more chances being taken. 

Duke was the last of the ACC schools to allow football players to return to campus and began voluntary workouts on only July 12. What sense have you gotten about where the program feels it is in its general readiness? We are all grasping at straws in some of these regards, but you certainly know better than I do.

Again, as you mention, even from my perspective there is some sense of grasping at straws. In a normal world, I would have seen these guys in action several times by now during scrimmages. So, it’s just me trying to read players and coaches in how they respond to questions, and gauging thoughts from those around the program. 

Several ACC schools that got off to an early start had to shut things down for a little bit due to positive COVID cases, so their prep time was hit. I think the one benefit Duke’s had by the late start is the lack of issues with the virus. They have played catch-up, but this extra week of preparation has helped them feel a little more confident. Luckily for Duke, the players were extremely disciplined in prepping for the season before returning to Durham. Cutcliffe has mentioned multiple times how pleasantly surprised the staff was with the work the team put in on their own. 

I think some uncertainty exists for players, although none have outright said that. They’ve worked hard in the time they’ve been allotted, but Saturday will tell us a lot about how the late start has impacted them. 

Lastly, as nearly three-touchdown underdogs, how close do you think the Blue Devils can keep it this weekend?

I believe they can keep it under that three-touchdown number, and perhaps be in striking distance. I truly think this Duke team will look a lot different than it did a year ago, and will be more competitive. They have to get off to a good start, though, particularly with this being the opening game of the season. Duke has to build confidence early to make this game have a more competitive spirit. 

As we talked about previously, the key for Duke will be along the lines on either side. Defensively it will be not allowing Notre Dame’s offensive line to dictate things play after play after play. The Blue Devils’ interior line has to hold its own. That doesn’t mean win every battle, but it means being enough of a presence that the team’s strengths – edge rushers and secondary – can be in a position to play at their very best. 

Offensively, the guys up front have to give Chase Brice time to make plays. If they give him time, he has the tools and players around him necessary to give Duke a fighting chance. 

If those things don’t happen, it could go awry quickly.