“Coach, how’s your team going to be this season?”
“Well, we’ve got some talented players and some experienced players. Unfortunately, they aren’t the same people.”
That old joke doesn’t exactly describe Duke’s 2021 football team. Upperclassmen like center Jack Wohlabaugh, guard Jacob Monk, wide receivers Jake Bobo and Jalon Calhoun and running back Mataeo Durant on offense and defensive end Ben Frye, linebacker Shaka Heyward, cornerbacks Leonard Johnson and Josh Blackwell and safety Lummie Young are all upperclassmen with some accomplishments on their resumes.
But it may describe other parts of the team. Some of Duke’s position groups have little experience, while others have experienced starters but not much experience behind them.
David Cutcliffe has often said that a football team is “only as good as its twos [second-teamers].” Duke has enough experience at wide receiver and defensive back to bring some experienced players off the bench. And offensive line has seen some younger players leapfrog more-experienced players on the depth chart, which leaves some experience coming off the bench. But positions like running back, tight end, quarterback, defensive line and linebacker may have to develop those “twos” with underclassmen.
David Cutcliffe met with the media Wednesday morning and much of the discussion concerned the intersection of experience, depth and talent.
“We have a lot of good athletes on this team. We’re really young. We have 50 first and second-year players on this team. [We] have a lot of youth, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of speed.”
Athleticism, enthusiasm and speed are all good things. But “really young?” Not so much.
How does Duke counter that youth?
Cutcliffe says he has an “interesting team. I’ve used the word ‘competition’ and it’s real at positions. There are a lot of people who are working hard to earn some playing time and I think we’re going to play a higher number of people than we normally have played.”
Let’s get into the weeds at some of the positions where youth will have to be served for Duke to have a successful season.
Quarterback is the engine that drives the car. Presumptive starter Gunnar Holmberg has played 74 snaps at Duke, attempting 25 passes, with 24 rushes, many of the latter the result of sacks.
Duke has had Holmberg on a crash course involving film work, conditioning and extra work with, well darn near anyone on offense.
Cutcliffe says its time to find out if all that work has paid off.
“The number of snaps represented at that position isn’t very many and they’ve got to show they can do it in a game. Gunnar is our starter and I think the work he’s getting is making a big difference. But you’ve got to go out and do it in a ball game.”
Chase Brice and Chris Katrenick transferred after last season. Redshirt freshman Luca Diamont is the only other recruited quarterback with any college experience and that consists of the final few drives of the 2020 season, against Florida State. Diamont had a nice stat line in last Saturday’s scrimmage, 10 carries for 86 yards, including a 59-yard touchdown.
But there’s no quarterback controversy here. It’s Holmberg’s job.
Holmberg has an experienced wide-receiver corps to throw to. But Duke is going to have to replace star tight end Noah Gray, drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Jake Marwede is the starter. He’s a redshirt senior, 6-6, 245. So, he’s got the size and he did have 13 catches last season. But the backups are redshirt sophomore Matt Smith, redshirt freshman Cole Finney and sophomore Nicky Dalmolin.
Cutcliffe called the trio “really talented people” and noted “Matt has played a lot of football.”
That’s a pretty generous interpretation of “lot of football.” Smith played 30 snaps last season, with no receptions.
Dalmolin played 107 snaps last season and caught three passes for 42 yards. He’s listed at 6-5, 215, pretty slight for a tight end. On the other end of the spectrum Duke moved 6-8, 270-pound Patrick Leitten from offensive tackle to tight end, where he will be used as an extra blocker in short-yardage situations.
Durant is a senior and one of the best running backs in the ACC, perhaps the nation. But again, not much experience behind him. Jaylen Coleman has recovered from Achilles surgery and has had a big preseason. But he has 15 career rushes. Converted defensive back Jordan Waters has 18. True freshman Trent Davis had a 48-yard scoring scamper in the second scrimmage and may have played his way into the mix.
“We’re talented there,” Cutcliffe says of his running backs. “I feel good about where we are there.”
Defensive line is the biggest concern and Cutcliffe is making no attempt to hide it.
“The defensive front has got to have some younger people step up and I think we can.”
Cutcliffe calls 300-pound redshirt sophomore DeWayne Carter a “stalwart.” Duke is working Christian Rorie, Aeneas Peebles and Notre Dame transfer Ja’Mion Franklin into the defensive-tackle soup. Franklin is 6-1, 300 pounds and was a touted recruit before going to South Bend. But he only made four tackles in two seasons there. Was it because he was facing too much competition for playing time? Or some deficiency in his game? I guess we’ll find out.
Defensive tackle Gary Smith is still recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery earlier this summer. He’s running but not yet cleared for contact. Smith was running first team alongside Carter before he was injured. Cutcliffe said he’s listening to the medical people, Smith’s return isn’t going to be rushed and he just doesn’t know right now.
Frye is the only upper-class defensive end. Michael Reese, Ahmad Craig, Caleb Oppan and R.J. Oben are all sophomores who played sparingly last year.
We’ve known about the defensive line since spring. But it hasn’t been a good summer for the linebacking group. Heyward is a stud. But Rocky Shelton and Christian Hood are no longer with the team, leaving redshirt sophomore Sayyid Stevens and true sophomore Dorian Mausi as the leading next-man-up candidates.
“Sayyid has played a lot. Dorian Mausi has played more than you think last year. We’ve got a couple of transfers in who have played a lot of football. I love our competition there.”
Adam Fakih is a grad-student transfer from Michigan. He’s 6-2, 220 and was a three-time All-Academic Big Ten selection. But he had four career tackles at Michigan.
Colby Campbell is a 230-pound grad transfer for Presbyterian, an FCS school in Clinton, South Carolina. He was an FCS All-American. He once made 25 tackles in a single game, against Davidson. Can he make the step up in class from the Pioneer League to the ACC?
Cutcliffe insists that this competition will pay dividends.
“I’m really pleased with this freshman class. I’m really pleased with last year’s freshman class. That group has a lot of athletes who can see the field. I think it’s pretty close to who’s a two but it can change. That’s going to be an ongoing theme; don’t get comfortable. But I like where we are from a competitive standpoint. They know they’ve got to perform well to get on the field.”
Cutcliffe said he was pleased with the second scrimmage, citing better tackling by the defense and better execution by the offense.
But he acknowledges there’s work to be done before the rapidly-approaching opener next Friday.
“I don’t think any coach would ever say he’s where he wants to be in the preseason,” adding that he’s looking for “pristine execution” in the final days of the preseason. “If you have a team that really understands why, what the concept is and why you’re doing it, why you have to execute it a certain way, that’s when your best football teams come together. I like where we are because I like our spirit. We know what we’re doing for the most part but now we’ve got to do it really well.”