Duke football finished spring football earlier this week. Over the next few weeks I’ll be taking a look at the program, where it’s at and what it needs to do. I’ll be looking at position groups and I’m going to start with the offensive line.
Because that’s where football begins, at least on the offensive end. If you can’t block, you pretty much can’t do anything.
Duke was 11th in the ACC last season in rushing and eighth in sacks allowed.
Not awful. But certainly room for improvement.
Duke lost two sorta starters from last season. Zach Harmon began the season starting at center, missed some games due to injuries and came back starting at left guard.
Christian Harris began the season starting at left tackle. He lost that spot to Jaylen Miller not because of injury but rather general ineffectiveness. Then Miller went down with a fractured right ankle and Harris once more filled the breach.
Solid players but replaceable.
Duke should be pretty good on the interior of the offensive line.
Ohio State transfer Jack Wohlabaugh took over from Harmon at center and became Duke’s best offensive lineman. A 300-pounder, Wohlabaugh was a four-star recruit and likely has an NFL career in his future.
Julian Santos projects as the starter at left guard, Rakavius “Rock” Chambers at right guard.
Santos is a senior. He was the first recruited offensive lineman to play as a true freshman at Duke under Cutcliffe. But he struggled with consistency last year and eventually lost his starting spot to Harmon.
Santos used that as motivation, winning one of two awards for most improved offensive player this spring, not an award one would expect to see from a senior with significant starting experience.
Offensive coordinator Zac Roper says Santos “had a big, big jump this spring. His knowledge and understanding of the system is very high.”
Starting quarterback Quentin Harris adds “It just shows that everybody has the capacity to improve. He had a great spring, rarely made a mistake, showed lots of maturity.”
Chambers also played as true freshman. He’ll be a junior next fall. He and Santos both tip the scales at 310 pounds.
Zach Baker is a redshirt senior, with starting experience, able to play at both guard and center. Maurice McIntyre is a 320-pound road-grader who got on the field as a true freshman last season but not enough to burn his redshirt.
David Cutcliffe gives his assessment of the interior.
“I thought Jack Wohlabaugh had a great spring. Julian Santos had a great spring. Everything works inside out. Rock Chambers had a really good spring. We forget how young he is in this equation.”
So far, so good.
But tackle is more problematic. Miller came in as a guard and is still learning the tackle spot. But he missed most of the spring recovering from ankle surgery. He made it back for the Spring Showcase and the few practices after that. Good that he’s healthy, not good that he missed important development time.
Incumbent right tackle Robert Kraeling was ill most of the spring. Kraeling might be the most highly-recruited offensive lineman of Cutcliffe’s Duke tenure and at 6-7, 310 pounds, he certainly looks the part. But he struggled with edge rushers last season.
Roper says of Kraeling “he’s continuing to grow, to get better, to get stronger.”
Kraeling is a redshirt junior. This needs to be his year.
Redshirt sophomore Patrick Leitten missed all spring following knee surgery. Leitten has been injured most of his Duke career, so it’s hard to know when and if he can contribute at this level. Redshirt junior Liam Smith hasn’t developed and redshirt freshman Peace Addo is a project.
That left Duke with a surprising tackle tandem at the end of the spring.
Casey Holman played four games as a true freshman last season, enough to preserve his redshirt. But he played them at guard.
He’s a tackle now.
Then there’s Jacob Monk, a true freshman from nearby Clayton. His father Stanley was a standout running back and track sprinter for Duke in the 1980s, while his uncle, the late Quincy Monk played linebacker at UNC and the NFL.
Monk played center at Duke and at 6-2, 300 pounds, he does not fit the profile of an offensive tackle.
But Roper says Monk is for real. Using a comparison usually seen in basketball, Roper says “he’s not tall but he’s long. He has long arms and uses his length well. We are going to put our best five out there. We aren’t going to pigeonhole anyone. He may well be one of our top five. Injuries may have dictated our depth chart a little bit but Holman and Monk are very talented football players, very capable.”
Cutcliffe adds that Monk brings talent and versatility.
“Right now, if we played tomorrow, he would start at tackle for us. He’s a good football player that can probably play all five positions if you asked him to.”
Quentin Harris has to rely on these guys and he says he likes what he’s seen.
“I think they progressed really well. We’ve got some young tackles right now, getting a lot of reps. Casey Holman coming off his freshman year, was thrust in there at left tackle. I thought the inside of the interior has been really good with Jack, we have a lot of chemistry together the last year. At the guard spot you’ve got Julian Santos, Zach Baker and Rock Chambers and we have a really solid three-man rotation there.”
Cutcliffe is more circumspect, acknowledging some shaky moments in the rain-soaked spring game.
“We were using some different combinations in the offensive line. I’m not sure how smooth that went.”
But he adds some reasons for optimism.
“Jim Bridge has done a really good job with that group. We’ve had scrimmage work where I think we’ve been the best we’ve been in a couple of years. I’m anxious to see what we can do with everyone healthy.”
No one claims that this is a finished product.
“A lot of what we do offensively will be dictated by the offensive line,” Roper says. “We’ve got a lot of work to be done. The summer is going to be critical, getting these guys into the weight room, getting them healthy.”
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