Duke completed 187 passes to its wide receivers last season.
Returning wide receivers accounted for 26 of those.
That’s a pretty significant talent loss.
I realize that some Duke fans discount the talent-level of Duke’s recent wide receivers and there’s some truth to that narrative.
But T.J. Rahming is a significant loss by any metric. Rahming had 75 catches last season, for 811 yards and eight touchdowns. Rahming was third-team All-ACC and ended his Duke career with 253 receptions, trailing only Connor Vernon and Jamison Crowder on Duke’s list.
Rahming played four seasons at wide receiver, three of them with Daniel Jones. But he ended his career with 240 receiving yards and two scores in Duke’s Independence Bowl win over Temple.
Johnathan Lloyd didn’t have four years, not as a receiver, at least. He was a prep quarterback and played defensive back for a year at Duke. But he learned his third position well enough to catch 124 passes, good for 16th place on Duke’s career list. Lloyd caught 51 of those last season.
Duke also lost speedy Chris Taylor, a deep threat who could get open on anyone but couldn’t always finish the play with a catch, and backups Keyston Fuller and Trevon Lee.
Who fills the void?
Duke has lots of candidates but not much experience.
In fact, Duke has only two recruited upper-class wide receivers, each interesting in his own way.
Aaron Young is a redshirt senior. He began last season with a big game against Army and spent the rest of the season fighting an unsuccessful fight against a strained hamstring.
Can Young stay healthy? He was banged up much of the spring but made a highlight-reel catch in the Spring Showcase.
But when healthy Young has a demonstrated ability to make big plays.
Then there’s redshirt junior Scott Bracey, arguably the most-touted recruit of David Cutcliffe’s Duke tenure.
Bracey has had trouble staying healthy, with hamstrings a problem. But when healthy, he’s looked like an ordinary receiver. Bracey has 11 receptions in two seasons.
Duke offensive coordinator Zac Roper says of Bracey “there’s a role to be had for him. He’s working. Staying healthy is a big part of it.”
Bracey needs a big season to stay ahead of a talented group of youngsters primed to see the field.
Damond Philyaw-Johnson is a redshirt sophomore. He has top-notch speed but his route-running skills are raw.
And he was injured much of the spring.
Detecting a trend? Cutcliffe said Duke was down to four healthy wide-outs at times this spring.
True sophomore Jake Bobo and true freshman Darrell Harding seem the best bets for a breakout.
Bobo had 10 receptions last season. At 6-4, 190, he’s shown the ability to make tough catches in traffic. Bobo will be a slot receiver and says he had a great spring, getting deeper into the playbook and schematic nuances.
Cutcliffe says Bobo separated himself from the competition this spring.
You may not have heard of Harding, a 6-4, 200-pounder from Winter Garden, Florida. Harding enrolled at Duke early and participated in spring ball.
Harding shared the offensive award for most improved player this spring. “He won that award for a reason,” Cutcliffe says.
Bobo says Harding “made plays all over the place,” this spring. “He surprised me. It’s virtually impossible to guard him one-on-one.”
Eli Pancol also enrolled early and made a positive impression. He’s 6-3, 195, from Indiana.
Cutcliffe has commented over the years on the “hand-to-hand combat” between defensive backs and wide receivers and has prioritized getting bigger receivers, a goal accomplished.
Also in the mix are redshirt freshmen Dennis Smith and Jarrett Garner, neither of whom had a catch last season. Jordan Waters is another freshman. He’ll arrive this summer.
Duke also will need some new faces at tight end, where third-team All-ACC Daniel Helm and Davis Koppenhaver graduated.
Junior Noah Gray is the major returnee. He’s an athletic 240-pounder, with 20 catches last season. But he needs to improve his blocking.
Gray is the only returning tight end with a college catch. Jake Marwede missed the spring with an injury, giving Mark Birmingham and Zamari Ellis lots of reps.
Duke needs at least one of them to emerge as an ACC-level player.
Speaking of new, Duke has a new wide-receiver coach. Trooper Taylor is Duke’s third WR coach in three years. He’s replacing Gerad Parker, who took the same job at Penn State.
Taylor is new at Duke but he’s been a college coach since 1992. He and Cutcliffe worked together at Tennessee.
Taylor is a high-energy guy who says he’s been looking to get back together with Cutcliffe for years.
Roper emphasizes that Duke’s schemes will remain the same.
“I expect a star or two to emerge from that group,” Roper says of his wide-receiver corps. “I have high expectations.”
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