Duke did not have a single wide receiver use up his eligibility last season.
So, you might think this year’s group is full of experience.
You would be wrong.
Aaron Young and Scott Bracey elected to enter the transfer portal and play elsewhere as grad students. Young ended up at Florida Atlantic, Bracey at James Madison.
As a result Duke’s wide-receiver group is one of the youngest on the team.
Duke has nine recruited wide receivers. Seven are underclassmen. Only five have ever caught a pass in a college game. Only two have more than eight career receptions. The entire group has combined for 88 career receptions at Duke.
Young and Bracey had 95 combined career receptions as Blue Devils.
Jake Bobo is a junior, one of those upperclassmen, along with redshirt junior Damond Philyaw-Johnson. Bobo says he embraces those additional leadership responsibilities, while adding that the collective is doing a good job of stepping up.
“The good thing is we have a very, very talented group and a very, very energetic group,” he told the media Tuesday, “so it doesn’t take a lot to get those guys going. . . . Our [he and Philyaw-Johnson’s] job is to get the younger guys going, catch everybody up to speed on what’s going on. . . . On the field we’re all trying to lead each other. We don’t necessarily have two or three leaders.”
David Cutcliffe adds some context.
”The starters right now are Damond Philyaw-Johnson, Jake Bobo and Jalon Calhoun. The competition they’re feeling right now is going to do nothing but make us better.”
It starts with Bobo and Calhoun. Bobo is a 6-4 target with a knack for making contested catches. He missed much of last season with a clavicle injury. He has 20 career receptions, for 289 yards.
Calhoun was Duke’s breakout star last season. A former prep quarterback, Calhoun started as a true freshman and led Duke with 420 yards, while his 46 receptions trailed only tight end Noah Gray’s 51.
Bobo and Calhoun both operate best at the slot but Duke doesn’t have the luxury of keeping one on the bench very often. They’ll have to figure out ways to get them on the field together.
Philyaw-Johnson? He’s a redshirt junior, thus the most experienced recruited wide receiver in the program. And he’s a preseason All-American.
That has to be a good thing, right?
But he’s an All-American as a kickoff returner. He’s shown elite acceleration returning kicks but hasn’t yet been able to transfer that to receiver. He has eight career receptions.
But he did pull in a 42-yard pass in Saturday’s scrimmage. Chase Brice was the quarterback.
If Philyaw-Johnson can harness that athleticism he could give Duke a dangerous weapon against opposing secondaries.
Darrell Harding (eight catches, 130 yards) and Eli Pancol (six catches, 91 yards, three touchdowns) displayed some deep-threat abilities as true freshmen last season. Pancol caught a 53-yard scoring strike from Brice in that same scrimmage.
Duke usually has three wide-outs on the field at the same time, with some four, even five-receiver sets. So, there’s room for someone or several someones to step up. Actually, more like a necessity.
A surprise candidate has emerged. Dennis Smith is a redshirt sophomore. He’s played some on special teams but has never caught a pass at Duke. But he has good size at 6-2, 185 and he did catch 127 passes in his final two seasons as a senior at Gaffney (S.C) high school.
Gunnar Holmberg is one of three candidates for starting quarterback and he went out of his way Tuesday to compliment Smith as someone who has opened eyes, consistently making “some really good plays in camp and in scrimmages.”
Bobo says there have been practices when Smith was the best receiver on the field.
Redshirt sophomore Jarrett Garner missed most of last season following ACL surgery but has recovered. He’s a burner. Before he got hurt Garner showed an ability to get open deep without showing an ability to catch the ball when he got there. But he caught the ball in high school, 103 receptions in his last two seasons at Hickory Ridge High School in the Charlotte suburbs and a couple of college drops is a pretty small sample size.
True freshmen Jontavis Robertson and Malik Bowen Sims and some walk-ons round out the group. Cutcliffe has never been reluctant to play true freshmen at receiver.
Cutcliffe notes that playing against Duke’s deep and experienced secondary has helped Duke’s receiving corps, adding that it’s “fun” to watch them go against each other in practice.
Speaking of Cutcliffe, he’s Duke’s new offensive coordinator. Obviously, no one is going to talk in much specific detail about Duke’s game plan.
But Holmberg did share some thoughts about Duke’s old/new OC.
“Tempo, getting the ball to really good players, getting the ball to them whether it’s deep balls or whatever, just letting them work, just letting players be players, not over-thinking it. It’s a very player-friendly offense that gives us a lot of room to work.”
Bobo says the key word is “explosiveness. The receiving corps . . . . we were making plays down the field. It’s been a point of emphasis for us. We want to air it out more.”
You’ve probably heard this before and hitting big plays in an August scrimmage is a lot different than hitting them against the Notre Dames of the world.
Then again David Cutcliffe didn’t become known as a quarterback guru without having his guys take some shots down the field and there’s a reason he’s taking over that responsibility. Presumptive starting quarterback Chase Brice averaged over 25 yards per completion in Saturday’s scrimmage, which at the very least is something to build on.