Duke football is currently in the middle of the most consequential spring-football-session in more than a decade. The Blue Devils are coming off a 2-9 season, the worst mark since Ted Roof’s last Duke team went 1-11 in 2007. And it’s not like Duke is returning everybody of consequence. On the contrary Duke had significant losses at quarterback, offensive line, tight end, defensive back and especially defensive line. Duke expects to have seven people at its pro day later this spring, not exactly the profile of a two-win team.
There’s also been a lot of coaching turnover, some of it new people, some of it familiar people in new spots. Head coach David Cutcliffe gave up his offensive-coordinator duties to a tandem of Re’Quan Boyette and Jeff Faris, neither of whom has ever been an OC before. Boyette is a former running back and running-back coach who has moved over to wide receiver. Faris is the quarterback coach. Former QB coach Zac Roper is now coaching the tight ends. Trooper Taylor moved from wide receivers to cornerbacks, Sam McGrath from quality control to linebacker. Calvin McGee is a former NFL tight end who’s Duke’s new running-backs coach.
The philosophy seems to be if you can’t shake things up after a two-win season, when can you shake them up?
Head coach David Cutcliffe discussed the benefits of this movement earlier this week, focusing on Boyette and Faris.
“Well, I think their youthful enthusiasm, their creativity. They’re great together. That’s a difficult circumstance, but I have been so impressed by them and their ability to address the offensive team, to run the staff room, the offensive staff meetings. Just their entire thought process has been really good. Doesn’t surprise me. They’re both exceptional people. They’re both gifted coaches. They love to study the game, and they are injecting some energy and some creative ideas, as is Calvin McGee, who’s been around a lot of great offensive football. I think it’s been real refreshing for our team.”
Jake Bobo is one of the key returnees, a rising senior wide receiver with 52 career catches to his credit.
“The difference is energy,” Bobo says of Faris, while adding that Duke is “switching some things up schematically.”
Wide receiver could be s strength. Bobo is joined by rising junior Jalon Calhoun (85 career catches), rising junior Eli Pancol (30) and rising junior Darrell Harding, among others.
Tight end is more problematical, with only Jake Marwede having much experience.
Cutcliffe suggests there could be a wild card.
“Nicky Dalmolin, who was playing receiver a year ago as a true freshman, he’ll be working at tight end.”
Dalmolin is listed as 6-5, 215, so it might be some time before he’s a three-down tight end. But Duke badly needs a playmaker at that position to replace graduated star Noah Gray.
Speaking of playmakers, Mataeo Durant enters his senior season as one of the ACC’s best running backs after rushing for 817 yards and averaging 6.8 yards per carry last season.
But there’s not much proven depth behind him. Is this the year Cutcliffe ditches his running-back-platoon system for a one-back system?
The offensive line lost starters Rakavius Chambers and Devery Hamilton. Returnees include tackles Casey Holman and Jacob Monk and guard Maurice McInytre, all of whom have been starters. Duke would like to move Graham Barton from center back to his natural guard position but only if Jack Wohlabaugh is recovered from a foot injury that cost him last season.
“We’re trying to get Jack back,” Cutcliffe said. “He looks great. We’re trying to get him back healthy before we try to get him back playing. I think Jack is stronger and more fit. I told him the other day, I said, you’ve changed your body. It has been phenomenal what we’re seeing, this is also good for us.”
Will Taylor is further from seeing the field.
None of this will matter much if Duke doesn’t get better play from an unproven quarterback contingent.
Gunnar Holmberg will be a redshirt junior but he hasn’t played much.
Bobo suggests that is about to change.
“He’s matured, taken control of the huddle. This is the first time I’ve seen him step into the huddle and command respect and command attention. He’s that guy.”
Luca Diamont barely got his feet wet last season and the rest of the quarterback room consists of walk-ons and true freshmen.
What does Cutcliffe want to see from his signal callers?
“The first thing is I want to see a higher level of managing the offense, a higher level of taking care of the ball that goes with managing the offense, a consistency. A consistency of completion percentage. The less balls that hit the ground or land near or in the hands of a defender, you’ve got a real good shot of having a good year at quarterback.”
Ah, turnovers, Duke’s Achilles heel last season.
“You can’t repeat it,” Cutcliffe said. “I mean, I’ve never been around it. I’ve never seen anything like that in this very long career that I’ve had. I can’t pinpoint all of the unique and different reasons. But you have to start it early, day one. It has to become important even when the ball’s not on the field. They have to think and understand the process. That’s the most important part of offensive football, that when the play’s over, you still have possession of the ball. We’re doing a number of committing ten minutes of our practice schedule specifically to ball security.”
Bobo says the offense has gotten the message.
“Ball possession is definitely something we’ve dove into. Catching the ball and tucking it away before we start running with it.”
If the offense has questions, the defense has QUESTIONS, especially a defensive line that lost its top four players. Grad student Ben Frye is the only returnee with any real experience but at 255 pounds, he is significantly under-sized for a defensive tackle. Defensive back Leonard Johnson went out of his way to praise rising redshirt sophomore DeWayne Carter and at 6-3, 300 pounds, Carter is not undersized. Notre Dame transfer Ja’Mion Franklin should get immediate playing time at defensive tackle.
Duke is so thin at defensive end that they’ve switched backup tight end Zamari Ellis to that position. R.J. Oben and Caleb Oppan may sound like the same person but they could be Duke’s starters at defensive end this fall.
It’s better at linebacker, where Shaka Heyward, Rocky Shelton and Dorian Mausi got most of the snaps last season in Duke’s two-linebacker scheme. Heyward is the most likely Duke defender to compete for All-ACC honors.
Duke lost Michael Carter and Marquis Waters from its secondary but Cutcliffe says Duke has “some people, again there with some experience, some youth with some ability,” Johnson is a senior who has started at corner and safety and must be an anchor.
Johnson says the defense is “emphasizing finishing” and finding new leaders.
Cutcliffe says Duke needs to force more turnovers.
Duke might have an edge with place-kicker Charlie Ham and punter Porter Wilson, both very solid as freshmen.
Good kickers can win close games. But can Duke keep enough games close enough for it to matter?
Cutcliffe is 66 years old and winding down his career. No one wants to see him go out with two-win seasons. And maybe there’s an advantage to hitting rock bottom; at least we hope it’s rock bottom. There’s no way but up. Duke lacks experience, lacks depth and really lacks experienced depth. The phrase “coach them up” seems appropriate here.And the team’s fragile confidence is going to have to be rebuilt brick by brick. If this is going to happen, it’s going to have to start this March, a spring practice that will help decide the direction of Duke’s football program.