Duke linebacker Ben Humphreys was talking to the press a few weeks ago. Humphreys is beginning his senior year and was telling us how stoked he was for the final 12-13 games of his college career.
“Why not 15” he was asked.
“Sure, why not,” was his response.
Fifteen games finds you to the national title game.
That’s the great thing about the preseason. Everybody is undefeated. And, if you’re a member of a Power-5 conference, you’re on the road to that 15th game.
Just don’t lose.
Easier said then done. And truth be told, I don’t see a 15th game in Duke’s future anytime soon.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons for optimism.
Duke returns a boatload of talent and boasts a roster that has more speed, depth and next-level talent than any team during David Cutcliffe’s decade long-tenure at Duke. Linebacker Joe Giles-Harris and cornerback Mark Gilbert have made multiple pre-season All-America teams and the pre-season watch lists are chock full of Blue Devils.
Time to book those reservations for the ACC title game in Charlotte?
Not so fast.
I try to distinguish between question marks and concerns, with the latter being the more serious. And there may not be any concerns on this year’s team. But there are some question marks that could derail Duke’s big-season aspirations.
Here are a handful.
- Is there an ACC-level backup quarterback?
It’s an axiom that quarterbacks get too much credit when things are going well and too much blame when they aren’t.
And Duke’s recent history confirms the implication that it takes more than a top quarterback to win football games.
Thad Lewis and Sean Renfree are the only two Cutcliffe-era Duke quarterbacks to take a snap in a regular-season NFL game.
They started for Cutcliffe’s first five seasons, breaking school records right and left.
Neither ever quarterbacked a winning season.
A combination of Anthony Boone, Brandon Connette and Thomas Sirk followed Renfree and led Duke to three consecutive winning seasons.
Daniel Jones could be the one to break that template, the NFL quarterback who leads Duke to team greatness.
I think Daniel Jones has another level. Two seasons ago, he was the green-behind-the-ears redshirt freshman thrown into the deep end of the pool. Last year, he was hampered for much of the season by a rib injury.
Now, he’s in his fourth year in the program, his third year as a starter, healthy and hearty.
But football is a collision sport and Boone, Connette, Sirk and Jones have all been bit by the injury bug.
Does Duke have a Plan B if that nefarious big bites again?
Quentin Harris is the nominal backup, a redshirt junior with 85 career snaps, many of them in moo-up situations, most of the rest in obvious running situations. Harris has thrown 13 passes at Duke and has averaged 2.5 yards per 32 rushes.
Harris improved enough in practice last season to move past veteran Parker Boehme as backup, which suggests the coaches see something positive. But he’s never really been in a situation where he was running the team for a prolonged period in a game whose outcome was still undetermined.
Redshirt freshmen Chris Katrenick and true freshman Gunnar Holmberg are about as green as could be. The strong-armed Holmberg projects as the quarterback of the future. But Cutcliffe held out Renfree, Boone, Sirk and Jones as true freshmen and he would like to do the same with Holmberg.
Fingers crossed on this one. And knock on wood, while you’re at it.
2. Can Duke win the close ones?
Duke had five games decided by a touchdown or less last season and lost four of them, the exception the 31-23 win at Wake Forest that cinched bowl eligibility.
“We need consistency to win close games,” Daniel Jones told me. “We have to executive in the red zone, not waste opportunities. We’ve been in position but we haven’t been able to win those games.”
Of course, sometimes you win those close games with a field goal.
Which brings us to.
3.Can Duke make a field goal with a game on the line?
Duke’s first-team place-kicker is Colin Wareham, a redshirt senior walk-on who has never played a snap in a real college football game.
Now, Wareham has been very impressive over the last five months, first in spring ball, when dismissed Austin Parker was presumed to be out of the program for good, and this fall, with Parker back.
Walk-ons can and have been outstanding college kickers, even at Duke, which traditionally has had a less robust walk-on program than much of the competition. Will Snyderwine made some All-America team back in 2010, while Jack Willoughby, Danny Stirt, Alex King and others have made a positive impact for the Blue Devils.
But it can’t be denied that the next Colin Wareham kick in a college game will be his first.
Interestingly, Parker is not in the place-kicker mix. Austin Reed is Wareham’s backup.
Any mention of Reed might send a cold chill down your back after his epically bad freshman season, two years ago. But Reed has hung in there and earned David Cutcliffe’s respect.
“He is more mature. He’s stronger. He’s worked exceptionally hard. The strength builds confidence. He’s created a better tempo in his swing.”
Wareham is that rarity of rarities, an inexperienced redshirt senior.
But there are lots of inexperienced young players on the depth chart.
4. Will inexperience undermine Duke’s season?
Duke could start eight, even nine upperclassmen on offense.
Running back lacks experience. But Brittain Brown is an elite talent.
And there’s offensive tackle. Christian Harris is the presumptive starter at left tackle and he’s a redshirt senior, which sounds experienced. But Harris barely played before the middle of last season, when Gabe Brandner went down with an Achilles strain.
Harris didn’t embarrass himself and in fairness it should be noted that Cutcliffe said Harris had begun to up his game prior to Brandner’s injury. And Harris did beat out redshirt senior Sterling Korona for Brandner’s spot.
Duke’s starting right tackle is redshirt sophomore Robert Kraeling, perhaps the most highly-recruited offensive linemen Cutcliffe has brought to Duke. But graduated Evan Lisle took almost all the snaps of consequence last year.
The backups are Kraeling’s classmates Liam Smith (nine career snaps) and Jaylen Miller (14 snaps) and possibly true freshman Casey Holman. Holman enrolled early and participated in spring ball and has moved between guard and tackle. The need at tackle is clearer. Cutcliffe has never played a true freshman at offensive tackle at Duke but Holman could be the first.
It’s a different story on the other side of the ball where only tackle Edgar Cerenord, Humphreys and safety Jeremy McDuffie are among likely rotation players who use up their eligibility this season.
The top defensive ends are sophomores Victor Dimukeje and Drew Jordan, while sophomore Derrick Tangelo is first team and true freshman Tajh Rice second team at tackle.
Duke does have some experienced depth on the defensive line and they will play lots of people there. But the cornerback opposite Gilbert—he’s a junior-will either be redshirt freshman Josh Blackwell or converted safety Michael Carter II, a sophomore.
Gilbert and future NFL player Ross Cockrell struggled in their first year at cornerback and nobody in their right mind is going to throw at Gilbert when an inexperienced option is available on the other side of the field.
And ACC offensive coordinators are in the right mind.
Which brings us to the question that might be a concern not a question.
5. What’s with that schedule?
Duke only has six home games this season, traveling to Northwestern and Baylor early in the season. Northwestern is going to be a bear and nobody expects Baylor to resemble last year’s 1-11 debacle.
Duke was 3-0 last season at home in non-ACC games, 0-1 on the road.
And Duke’s ACC crossover opponent is literally the toughest possible, Clemson at Death Valley.
Now, the Tigers have a recent tendency for a late-season walkabout and perhaps Duke can catch them looking ahead to arch-rival South Carolina or even their annual playoff match with Alabama.
But I wouldn’t bet a pie on it.
And the rest of the ACC doesn’t promise any safe harbors. Duke plays division favorite Miami on the road. Duke has lost its last three games to Virginia, its last three to Pittsburgh. Duke has won at Georgia Tech once since 1994.
Any plausible scenario for that eight or nine-win season involves wins in at least three of those games.
Not impossible by any means, perhaps not even unlikely. But not a sure thing either. Questions will have to be answered, concerns will have to be addressed, work will have to be done.
Then we can think about Charlotte.