Duke football is deep enough into its 2019 fall practice for some patterns to emerge.
One of the early narratives is youth challenging experience for starting spots.
Now the cynic could argue that the returning experience might not be all that good to begin with. But they were good enough to win eight games last season, including Duke’s third consecutive bowl win.
I had a chance to talk today with offensive coordinator Zac Roper and defensive coordinator Matt Guerrieri today.
Fair warning. Football coaches as a breed are about as tight-lipped as any group of people on the planet. Some reading between the lines helps.
But there has been some movement on the depth chart at offensive line. True freshman Jacob Monk enrolled early and had an outstanding spring, moving from center to tackle. Monk ended the spring running first team ahead of incumbent Robert Kraeling. That competition has carried over to the spring.
But at the crucial left tackle spot Casey Holman has moved ahead of returning starter Jaylen Miller. Holman is a redshirt freshman, 6-4, 295 pounds. He played in four games last season, enough to preserve a redshirt under the new rules.
Duke tried Holman at guard early but Roper says Holman is at tackle for good.
Maurice McIntyre is also a redshirt freshman who played some last season. He’s a 310-pound guard. He’s a road-grader as a run blocker but still needs to improve his pass-blocking skills.
Inexperience can hurt at offensive line and Roper cautions that the depth chart is still fluid. Miller and/or Kraeling could still regain their starting spot.
“That’s the beautiful thing about camp. Those things have a way of adjusting. We always want to create competition.”
And Cutcliffe has been talking about a true two-deep at offensive line for a decade without actually getting there. But whether you’re looking for new blood at the OL or just increased competition, the young guys are shaking things up.
As an aside, Liam Smith has moved from tackle to center. He’s not likely to challenge Jack Wohlabaugh for the starting spot but center is a lot better match for Smith’s 270 pounds.
Some running-back updates. Roper says Mataeo Durant is practicing without restrictions and Duke does expect Marvin Hubbard back at some point in the season. Deon Jackson and Brittain Brown are expected to be the mainstays of the ground game, with several others competing to see the field, including true freshman Jaylen Coleman.
Running back is a tough gig.
“You can never be too deep at the running-back position,” Roper says. “Obviously, runners are going to be tackled. We always feel like we need to go into the fall really deep at the running-back position, having guys that are multiple, that can be used in a variety of ways. We’re going to test out everyone we can and see who can provide us with some depth.”
I specifically asked Roper about highly-touted receiver Scott Bracey, who has yet to live up to the perhaps inflated expectations that followed him to Duke.
“Scott’s doing a great job of working. He knows our system, is making some plays. We want to see him continue to make those plays, whether it’s down field or in contested catches. Those are the things he needs to do and right now, he’s doing them.”
Room for optimism? Or coach-speak? There certainly are opportunities for Bracey to make his case and another group of youngsters to push him for playing time.
Guerrieri is co-defensive coordinator with defensive line coach Ben Albert. Guerrieri says last year’s dual-coach roll-out went well but “you turn into a dinosaur if you stop learning. Coach Albert and I and (DB coach) Derek Jones all put our heads together and discuss what worked and what doesn’t work.”
Guerrieri will continue to be upstairs, with Albert on the sidelines.
Duke is having to deal with the loss of Mark Gilbert. How long will the 2017 All-ACC cornerback be out?
“Mark Gilbert is doing a great job, progressing every single day, doing what our guys are asking him to do. We have an awesome, awesome medical staff and they’re going to get Mark back as soon as possible.”
But there’s plenty of good news on the injury front. Sixth-year defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord is practicing without restrictions.
“It’s all about habits. This program is built on habits. Edgar knows what it takes to win as a Duke football player and he comes into that room and he establishes that mentality of ‘here’s what it takes.’ “
Defensive tackle Ben Frye, linebacker Brandon Hill and safety Dylan Singleton are all practicing at full speed.
“Those guys have really worked hard, going from where they were last year to where they are now.”
And there are youngsters on defense. Guerrieri says redshirt freshman linebacker Shaka Heyward “has had a great camp so far. He’s playing at a high level. He’s a big, talented guy. He’s physical, can run around, play sideline to sideline. We’re really excited about what he can do.”
Redshirt sophomore Josh Blackwell is running first team at cornerback and true freshman corner Tony Davis came in for some words of praise.
Guerrieri expects to see lots of these young defensive backs on special teams.
“If you can’t play on special teams here, you can’t play on defense. Special teams come first at Duke. We push ourselves on special teams.”