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Jim Sumner Takes A Look A Duke’s Special Teams

Special teams play could be a real asset and at the bare minimum shouldn’t cause many problems

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Duke v Clemson
CLEMSON, SOUTH CAROLINA - NOVEMBER 17: Place kicker Collin Wareham #94 of the Duke Blue Devils kicks a field goal against the Clemson Tigers during their football game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on November 17, 2018 in Clemson, South Carolina.
Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

Duke participated in 147 punting plays, 140 kickoffs and 124 place kicks last season.

That’s 411 special-teams plays, an average of over 30 per game, any one of which can decide a football game.

Duke didn’t exactly lose the special-teams wars last season. But they didn’t win them either. Duke was a little better than its opponents in place-kicking, a little worse in punt returns, basically even in kickoffs. For the second year in a row Duke did not return a kick for a score, either a kickoff or punt.

Colin Wareham was a solid place-kicker and a bit of a surprise, a redshirt senior walk-on who had never played a down in college but rose to the occasion. Wareham was nine-for-13 on field goals, 49-for-51 on PATs.

Wareham was Duke’s fourth place-kicker in four seasons and he’s graduated. Will Duke go five-for-five in 2019?

Perhaps. But perhaps not. And the perhaps not could be a big redemption arc.

Duke signed Charlie Ham last year. He attended the Westminster School in Atlanta and is considered one of the ten-best kickers in his prep class.

But Ham may face competition from an unlikely source.

A.J. Reed was the last place-kicker Duke recruited out of high school. Reed got the job as a true freshman in 2016 but struggled mightily. Reed made only 3-of-10 field goals, 1-for-6 from the 30 through the 39, a 38-yarder his longest make. He had a 30-yard attempt blocked and returned for a touchdown by Virginia Tech, a 10-point turnaround in a game Tech eventually won by three points.

Reed was 0-4 over the final seven games, as Duke basically gave up on field goals.

Recruited punter Austin Parker took over the place-kicking duties in 2017, Wareham the following season.

Reed meanwhile did not play a down as a sophomore and appeared headed for another season of healthy scratches last season, his Duke career apparently over. But kickoff specialist Jack Driggers went down with an injury and Reed took over. And he did well, averaging 59.4 yards on 34 kickoffs, with five touchbacks and only one kick out of bounds.

Positive contributions, ones recognized by David Cutcliffe, who consistently acknowledged Reed’s work ethic and determination to put his 2016 woes in the rear-view mirror.

Ham doesn’t show up until this summer so Duke gave Reed a long look this spring and liked what it saw. Reed capped a solid spring by making both of his field goals in a driving rain during the Spring Showcase.

Cutcliffe said that Reed didn’t miss a kick during any of Duke’s controlled scrimmages.

There’s no guarantee that Reed will hold off Ham this fall. Kicking a football between the goal posts is much different than keeping a kickoff inbounds. But there should be competition and there should be depth and both are good things to have.

Austin Parker returns as punter, as do snappers John Taylor and Ben Wyatt, holder Jackson Hubbard and Driggers. As do many of the defensive backs who cover kicks and make the tackles.

Who returns kicks? David Cutcliffe doesn’t have return specialists. Defensive back Devon Edwards, wide receiver Jamison Crowder and running back Shaun Wilson have all excelled as returners while holding down full-time responsibilities elsewhere.

Running backs Deon Jackson and Brittain Brown have handled kickoff return duties. Both have shown home-run speed as rushers and receivers but haven’t hit the jackpot on special teams. Better blocking would help.

Duke has been pretty ho-hum on punt returns since Crowder finished up in 2014. T.J. Rahming averaged 5.8 yards per return last season and he was a senior.

Receiver Jake Bobo returned three punts for 14 yards last season and ended the spring as the presumptive punt returner next fall.

Bobo has great hands, so he’s a safe bet. “I take pride in my hands,” Bobo says. “I’m ready. I’m looking forward to it.”

Defensive back Josh Blackwell could be a wild card here. Blackwell averaged 14.4 yards per punt return as a high-school senior in Buford, Georgia and has tracksters speed.

Duke needs playmakers and Duke hasn’t returned a punt for a touchdown since Crowder. I suspect Duke will give Blackwell a chance to prove he’s that playmaker.

Because playmakers can win football games. On offense, defense and yes, special teams.

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