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A Look At Duke’s Wide Receivers

Duke had trouble here last year. Will this season be better?

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Duke v North Carolina
CHAPEL HILL, NC - SEPTEMBER 23: Johnathan Lloyd #5 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after a fourth-quarter touchdown against the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at Kenan Stadium on September 23, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Duke won 27-17.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Duke’s wide-receiver corps might be the most scrutinized position group on the team. Many fans feel that the group underperformed last season relative to its talent and experience.

It’s hard to argue the point. Duke finished 11th in the ACC in passing last season, averaging a modest 213.4 yards per game. Perhaps even more telling is this fact. Duke threw 16 touchdown passes last season. Tight ends caught seven of these, running backs four and wide receivers five.

T.J. Rahming had two scores, Johnathan Lloyd, Chris Taylor and Aaron Young one apiece. Only one of these came in ACC competition, a 39-yard pass from Daniel Jones to Rahming against Pittsburgh.

What happened?

Certainly, Daniel Jones’s rib injury didn’t help. Not wanting to risk his health to long-developing pass plays, Duke went to the shorter, quicker-developing options early and often.

But it was more than that. Even casual observers could tell that Duke’s receivers sometimes had trouble getting off bump-and-run coverage at the line of scrimmage, getting separation from defensive backs and winning 50-50 balls. Not all the time, perhaps not even most of the time.

But too often.

Duke has a new receiver coach, Gerad Parker, as Jeff Faris moved over to tight end coach.

No offense to Farris, an enthusiastic and effective recruiter, but Parker is a veteran charged with cleaning up the little details.

“He brings a different perspective to the room,” Lloyd says. “He played wide-out in college, he’s coached a lot of good wide-outs, guys in the league now. He’s always bringing us different tools, little tips, things to beat coverage, things to beat press. He’s been a great addition to the room.”

Parker certainly has plenty of options to work with. Duke has 11 recruited wide receivers. Lloyd, Taylor and Trevon Lee are redshirt seniors. Rahming is a true senior. Young and Keyston Fuller are redshirt juniors, Scott Bracey a redshirt sophomore, Damond Philyaw-Johnson a redshirt freshman and Jake Bobo, Dennis Smith and Jarett Garner true freshmen.

Nobody is going to play 11 wide receivers. That means there is competition for playing time and that is good. Is there a risk for chemistry issues when somebody doesn’t play?

Lloyd says no.

“It’s great for the room, great for the team, a lot of talented guys elevating the group as a whole, making plays. When you see that, you want to go make a play. You know what’s behind you, what’s ahead of you and it brings out that competitive edge as a group. We have a lot of guys who can play inside and out. We expect to play a lot of guys. Nobody is really selfish. Everybody is helping each other, supporting each other, whether you’re a starter or a 2 or getting more reps that someone else. That really doesn’t matter. The competition is bringing out the best in everybody, to help the position, help the team. Everybody knows their role and everybody should be ready when their number is called.”

If you’re expecting lots of new blood right away, you might be disappointed. Rahming, Lloyd, Young and Taylor are the four most-experience receivers on the team and they are the four guys at the top of the depth chart.

Cutcliffe says getting the ball to Rahming is one of the offense’s top priorities. Rahming was unfairly compared to Jamison Crowder early in his career and may have been under-valued by the Duke fan base as a result. Rahming has the short-burst quickness to get open but not the super speed necessary to take it into the end zone.

But he not only played as a true freshman, he contributed as a true freshman. He enters the season with 178 career receptions, fifth in school history and only 29 out of third place.

It would take 105 for him to tie Connor Vernon and Crowder atop the Duke career list.

And he’s averaged a more-than-respectable 11.8 yards per reception.

You don’t catch 60 passes a year against Duke’s schedule if you don’t get open and make some plays.

But he needs help.

Lloyd might be best poised to provide that. A two-time academic All-ACC selection, Lloyd was selected by his teammates as one of four captains.

Lloyd was a prep quarterback and spent a season as a cornerback at Duke. He has played both slot and outside receiver at Duke.

“You have a unique perspective,” he says. “I’ve been back there. I’ve seen both sides. I just get to see the game a little differently.”

David Cutcliffe said Tuesday that Lloyd had “the best camp of anybody,” not just receivers but anyone on the team.

Lloyd has caught 73 passes combined the last two seasons.

Cutcliffe also praised Young, who projects to get the starting nod over Taylor, although both will play. At 6-2, 205 pounds, Young is most able of the returnees to win the “hand-to-hand-combat” between receiver and defensive back that Cutcliffe has decried in the past.

Bobo is the one newcomer locked into early playing time. The 6-4, 190-pounder excelled in the one scrimmage open to the media and has earned praise from his coaches and for his hands, leaping ability and work ethic. He has that rare ability to perfectly time his jump and take away catches from defenders.

That’s five. Offensive coordinator Zac Roper says Duke will “play as many as deserve to play. If that’d four, we’ll play four. If it’s eight, we’ll play eight. We want to go deep and keep the best players fresh. But the best players will play.”

Duke will start three receivers, play some four, even five-receiver sets. My best guess is that Bracey and Fuller will also be part of the mix. The two highest ranked Duke wide-receivers coming out of high school, neither has lived up to that reputation, combining for only 13 receptions last season. But both will have a shot to move up and compete.

The youngsters? It takes time to learn the system, develop chemistry with the quarterbacks and figure out blocking. Bobo is ahead of the curve. The others aren’t.

Lloyd argues the best way to re-energize the offense is “taking shots. In the scrimmage, as you guys saw, we took some big shots down field. That’s the only way to put points on the board, to score touchdowns. Last year we didn’t have a lot of production. That’s the only way to raise it, to take chances and be aggressive.”