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A Look At Duke’s Football Scrimmage

Optimism abounds

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Georgia Tech v Duke
DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 18: Victor Alexander #9 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets tackles Brittain Brown #22 of the Duke Blue Devils during their game at Wallace Wade Stadium on November 18, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 43-20.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Duke began its 2018 football season with a resounding victory Saturday night.

Or a crushing defeat.

Of course, it was neither.

But that’s the dilemma of trying to evaluate an intra-squad scrimmage. Much of what happens is zero sum. Every sack Duke picked up was a sack Duke allowed, every turnover forced, a turnover committed.

So, I’m always reluctant to draw too many over-arching conclusions about these things.

Of course, not everything is zero sum. False starts, delay-of-games, dropped passes, the kind of things our tennis friends call “unforced errors,” are just bad all around.

There weren’t many of those on display, a few to be sure, but considering that Duke has been practicing for less than two weeks and most members of the team are finishing up summer school, it was a pretty clean game, with enough big plays and big hits on display to encourage any Duke fan.

A few words on format. The 120-play scrimmage was closed to the public but open to the media. Kick returners and quarterbacks were touched down, not tackled. Stats were kept but not scores. The usual format was first-team offense against second-team defense and second-team offense against first-team defense, with additional players used as needed and some mixtures spicing things up.

Play-calling is usually pretty vanilla in these things. If Duke has trick plays up their sleeves, they are still up their sleeves.

And lots of people played, people you won’t see once the regular season begins. Four quarterbacks threw passes, at least six running backs got carries.

Still, it is possible to glean some useful information, much of it on an individual level.

One thing did stand out, an increased reliance of vertical passing. Duke was throwing the ball downfield, especially utilizing timing routes on the sidelines. Duke didn’t hit all the time or even most of the time. Duke’s defensive backs range from pretty good to really good. But Duke’s much-criticized receiving corps won its share of duels.

David Cutcliffe said the emphasis on downfield throwing was partly because Duke’s linebackers and defensive backs didn’t leave many options in the short game. But this admittingly small sample size confirms what I’ve heard from several sources, specifically that new wide-receivers’ coach Gerad Parker is a fan of the longball and Duke is going to take its chances.

“That’s going to be an every-week thing,” receiver Johnathan Lloyd. “That’s just a big emphasis, pushing the ball upfield, taking shots, scoring touchdowns.”

“We’re going to be really aggressive,” David Cutcliffe added.

There was one big position change this week. Redshirt junior Trevon McSwain was moved from defensive tackle to offensive tackle.

Why move him now instead of spring?

A couple of reasons. Christian Harris and Robert Kraeling have solidified their starting spots at offensive tackle. But the backups have been underwhelming and Duke wanted more depth behind Harris and Kraeling.

On the other side of the ball, true sophomores, Derrick Tangelo and Axel Nyembwe, redshirt freshman Ben Frye and true freshmen Tahj Rice and Elijah Brown have shown enough that Duke thinks they can do without McSwain on the defense.

Rice is listed at 320 but Cutcliffe cited 345 tonight.

Now for some personnel observations. All-ACC safety Jeremy McDuffie did see action, not a lot but enough to confirm that his return is on schedule. He hasn’t had any setbacks.

And linebacker Ben Humphreys was a human-wrecking ball, racking up two tackles-for-losses and some bone-jarring tackles, giving pause to any suggestion that this was just another practice.

Daniel Jones did about what you’d expect, 12-for-20, 179 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions.

Quentin Harris got most of the backup work at quarterback, with Chris Katrenick and Gunnar Holmberg also seeing the field. There’s no doubt that right now, Harris is Jones’s primary backup.

T.J. Rahming (three catches, 61 yards), Lloyd, Chris Taylor and Keyston Fuller all caught long passes.

But the breakout star of the night was true freshman Jake Bobo, a 6-4, 190-pound wide-receiver from Massachusetts.

Bobo had four catches, for 93 yards, mostly tough, contested catches in traffic.

Cutcliffe said he wanted more receivers who could win “hand-to-hand-combat” with defensive backs and Bobo is that guy and more.

Not only will Bobo be in the wide-receiver rotation, he could easily start.

He was that impressive.

“He is an individual who has a knack for making big plays,” Cutcliffe said of Bobo. “He’s done it in practice. He’s a very consistent football player. He’s got size, he’s got great hands. He made an impact on the game.”

Brittain Brown played sparingly—he’s fine, Duke just wanted to see other running backs. Deon Jackson pounded for 80 yards on 13 carries but redshirt freshman Marvin Hubbard III opened some eyes, with 75 yards on 16 carries. Hubbard has some Shaun Wilson in him. He’s the fastest running back on the team but is strong enough to run through tackles.

True freshman Mateo Durant played a lot but I suspect Duke will try to maintain his redshirt. Nico Pierre and Elijah Deveaux are down in the mix.

Not a lot of multiple tight-end sets and the tight ends were used effectively, albeit in traditional patterns.

The offensive line was what we expected. A wildcard might be true-freshman guard Maurice McIntyre, listed at 320 but probably heavier. A road-grader. Will he play this season?

On the other side of the ball, I’ve already mentioned Humphreys. Harris tried to throw in Mark Gilbert’s direction and Gilbert got the pick. Josh Blackwell got the starting nod at the other corner spot but Cutcliffe says it’s too-close-to-call between Blackwell and Michael Carter.

Duke broke out script with some extra field-goal tries. Colin Wareham went six-for-six on field goals, A.J. Reed went three-for-three.

Cutcliffe said Wareham has only missed one kick this fall in game-like situations.

Jackson Hubbard punted. Austin Parker is not in the place-kicking mix but I hope he gets to punt. I’m not convinced Hubbard has an ACC leg.

The only injury I saw was reserve safety Damani Neal. Cutcliffe thought it might be a quad-strain but not sure.

There’s no question that Duke not only has ACC-level talent but next-level talent and quality depth across the board. Cutcliffe cited some efficiency issues but didn’t play coach-speak on this team’s talent level.

“We will see more individuals make big plays on both sides of the ball. We saw that tonight. The second thing is our twos challenged our ones. That’s a good sign of where we want to be as a football team. It’s a good first scrimmage and I’m looking forward to seeing how we build off it.”