Next man up.
A tiresome sports cliche perhaps. But unfortunately one that often applies to football teams.
It is a collision sport, after all.
Duke needs lots of next men up to fill its wide-receiver corps for the 2019 season. Graduation and injuries have created some real opportunities for some young receivers to step up and see the field. Their ability to do so effectively will play a huge role in this season’s success, or lack thereof.
Duke lost starters T.J. Rahming, Johnathan Lloyd and Chris Taylor and reserves Keyston Fuller and Trevon Lee from last year’s team. The quintet combined for 161 of the 187 passes caught by Duke wide receivers last season.
Jake Bobo had 10 catches as a true freshmen, the leading returnee from last season. Bobo had a standout spring and some great fall-practice buzz before suffering a broken clavicle. Duke hopes to have him back by late September but no guarantees.
That leaves only three wide receivers who have ever caught a pass at the collegiate level.
Aaron Young is the most intriguing. A redshirt senior, Young got off to a great start last year, hauling in four catches for 114 yards in the season-opener against Army, one a 61-yarder.
Then his season fell apart, a persistent hamstring injury keeping him on the sidelines for much of the season. He ended with seven catches, bringing his career total to 34 catches in three seasons.
Young has been healthy so far this fall and caught a 34-yard scoring strike in the first scrimmage. He is Duke’s most experienced receiver and most effective deep threat. His continued good health would go a long way towards an effective passing attack.
Scott Bracey is a redshirt junior, a highly-touted prepster from Richmond who has thus far not lived up to the hype. He has 11 catches over two seasons. Rarely has opportunity and necessity better aligned. It is Bracey’s chance to seize a starting spot and make a positive impact.
Offensive coordinator Zac Roper says that Bracey knows the system and is doing all the right things in practice.
Fingers crossed on Young and Bracey.
If he doesn’t work there’s a herd of underclassmen fighting for their spots. Redshirt sophomore Damond Philyaw-Johnson is a redshirt sophomore, with six catches on his resume. He has the ability to get open deep but needs to improve his route-running to maximize that speed.
Redshirt freshmen Jarrett Garner and Dennis Smith played sparingly last year. Neither had a catch, although Garner had a couple of drops. But Garner pulled in a 44-yard TD in the scrimmage and has played well enough this fall to be in the mix.
That leaves the true freshmen. Darrell Harding and Eli Pancol enrolled last spring. Harding had an outstanding spring, culminating in an outstanding spring game.
Harding didn’t do anything in the fall scrimmage. But most of the time he was playing with backup Chris Katrenick at quarterback and the second-team line trying to block the first-team defense. Katrenick rarely had time to pass and when he did a mis-throw or a mis-communication seemed to ensue.
Put Harding with the first team and I suspect the narrative changes.
That brings us to the wild card. Jalon Calhoun is a true freshman from Greenville, South Carolina. The 5-11, 185-pounder played quarterback in high school and started on two state-championship basketball teams.
And he’s been the surprise of fall ball so far.
Here’s what David Cutcliffe had to say about Calhoun following Saturday’s scrimmage.
“He’s been tremendous. He’s as good a natural football player as we have. He comes to work everyday. Almost runs himself into the ground everyday. Just a pure playmaker. With Jake Bobo going out at that position, he had already earned second team at that position. That’s why he started tonight.”
Calhoun had 21 yards on two catches on a night without a lot of completions.
Safety Michael Carter sees Calhoun from the other side of the field.
“He’s going to be special. He’s very quick, he’s fast, smaller, sort of like T.J. He’s a tough match-up in the slot. That rotation of him and Bobo when he comes back is going to be real tough to game plan.”
Quarterback Quentin Harris praises Calhoun as “having a good game tonight, making a tough catch down the sideline. That ‘s something we’re going to need.” Harris added “we’re confident in the guys backing him [Bobo] up and looking forward to getting him back. The rest of the group stepped up. Jarrett Garner caught a touchdown pass tonight. He’s someone we can expect to step up and get some reps there. You just have to continue to bring those guys along, build some confidence and get them comfortable in the offense.”
Duke has a new wide-receiver coach, 49-year-old Carl “Trooper” Taylor, who is prioritizing blocking by his group.
Taylor is the kind of guy for whom the term “high-energy” was coined. I asked Roper how that energy could translate into on-field performance.
“Position groups take on the personality of their leadership. Coach Taylor’s leadership in that room has provided a lot of energy, a lot of excitement, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of togetherness, a lot of bonding in that group. When you get them on the field, you see what that energy brings. Everything toughness. Certainly blocking is a part of that, making contested catches, competing day in and day out.”
Roper makes it clear that he expects Young and Bracey to combine veteran leadership and production. But if not Duke has a lot of young talent that they can meld into a productive receiving corps.