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Duke’s Receivers Could Be A Real Strength For This Team

They’ve taken some knocks. Are they ready to excel?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Duke at Virginia
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - OCTOBER 19: Duke wide receiver Jalon Calhoun (5) receives a pass then rushes up field during the game between the Duke Blue Devils and the Virginia Cavaliers on October 19, 2019, at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, VA.
Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Some of David Cutcliffe’s best Duke players have been wide receivers. Eron Riley, Donovan Varner, Conner Vernon, Jamison Crowder and T.J. Rahming all made All-ACC. Crowder was an All-American and is beginning his seventh season in the NFL. Crowder and Vernon are tied for first in career receptions at Duke and the ACC with 283, while Rahming ranks third at Duke, Varner fourth.

But Duke hasn’t had that level of production the last few years. Some of that can be attributed to subpar quarterback play. But perhaps Quentin Harris and Chase Brice would have been better quarterbacks had their wide receivers been better at getting separation from defenders, gaining yards after receptions and making more contested catches.

Most of Duke’s 2020 receivers return for 2021. Damond Philyaw-Johnson and Dennis Smith entered the transfer portal; they combined for 23 catches last year.

On the other hand Duke returns senior Jake Bobo, redshirt junior Jarett Garner and true juniors Jalon Calhoun, Eli Pancol and Darrell Harding. That’s an experienced position group for a team young in so many other areas.

Can this group leverage that experience into increased production? Are there younger, better options?

Re’quan Boyette is Duke’s new receivers coach. A former Duke running back, Boyette has been at Duke either as a player or a coach since 2005 but this is his first time coaching receivers.

He says David Cutcliffe wants “complete coaches. It’s going well. I don’t look at it as a transition. I’ve been here pretty much my whole life. We all try to be head coaches of our own positions.”

About those experienced receivers. Boyette notes that these players had to play early in their careers, perhaps earlier than they were ready for but now Duke is poised to reap the benefits.

“I expect us to lean on our experience. I expect us to lean on our size. I expect us to lean on our strength and our speed and our quickness. I expect us to make our plays when they come to us. That’s what comes with experience. It’s about our details and our experience. We have to prove that we can go out and make plays on a daily basis.”

Bobo is a co-captain, 6-5, 215. By his own admission he doesn’t have great speed. But he led Duke with 358 receiving yards last season and comes into the 2021 season with 52 career receptions, for 647 yards.

Bobo uses his size well. Boyette says Bobo is the player best positioned to replace graduated tight end Noah Gray as the third-down, go-to receiver.

Bobo is more than happy to hear that.

“It’s very important for me as a player as a receiver to be able to make those catches and that’s something I’ve definitely put an emphasis on my whole career. I’m not a burner so you’ve got to be able to do something different and for me that’s 50/50 balls, making catches in traffic, knowing you’re probably going to get your head taken off a little bit. When Gunnar’s [quarterback Holmberg] sitting back there and we need a third-down conversion, I hope he’s coming to me, 10 times out of 10.”

Calhoun has 85 catches for 769 yards in two seasons. He’s got good hands and an ability to make that first defender miss. But he doesn’t have elite speed. Like Bobo, he’s a possession receiver.

Does Duke have a deep threat? Does it want one?

Those of us of a certain age remember Steve Spurrier’s adage that you should always take a deep shot down the field early because even if it doesn’t work it gives the defense something to think about.

That has not been the recent philosophy at Duke and truth be told a lot of things have to go right to make that deep shot work. You’ve got to have the right call, the offensive line has to protect longer, somebody has to get open, the quarterback has to make the right read and make an accurate pass and the receiver has to make the catch.

Deep shots start with calling deep shots. David Cutcliffe freely admits that he made a mistake taking over the play-calling responsibilities last season. Jeff Faris is co-coordinator with Boyette but the 32-year-old Faris will be the one up in the tower, making the play call. I asked Faris a few weeks ago to describe his coaching philosophy and he said “I like to have a lot of fun. I like to be aggressive. I have a lot of energy. I’m young. We’re going to be aggressive. We’re going to put those guys into position to make plays.”

I asked Boyette the same question and here’s what he said.

“One of the biggest things about this team is we can run the damn football. So, we want to make sure we do that and take care of everything on the first level and do what we need to do in running the football. We want to be able to spread the football around, whether that’s from sideline to sideline, player to player, being able to put our offense on the field and make the defense cover the whole field. Then we want to play deep, we want to try to be explosive, to throw the ball over your head and put it in space real fast, play with big-time tempo.”

Be aggressive? Or establish the run? Are they mutually exclusive?

Quarterbacks love to throw deep and receivers love to go deep but it sometimes sounds better in August than it plays out in October.

But let’s go with the guy who’ll be calling the plays and assume Duke will be aggressive and take some early shots. Duke has three veterans with some ability to go deep. Pancol had a 55-yard reception last season against Notre Dame. Harding averaged 13.3 yards on 12 catches. Garner averaged a team-best 21.1 yards per reception, on 13 catches. That includes a 52-yard TD against Syracuse. But injuries, inconsistency and the occasional drop have held back the trio.

Bobo gives his assessment of his deep position group.

The depth is “huge, just being able to roll guys in there who can make plays. All eight of us or whatever, to be fresh when we step out on the field, that’s huge to be able to, if I get tired after a couple of plays, to be able to tap my helmet and the next guy will come in and make a play. Darrell Harding has stepped up this camp and made some plays. Younger guys are stepping up and making plays. Sahmir Hagans has come in and shown a burst. Jarrett Garner has made a lot of plays, taking the top off defenses. So, we’re a really deep group and we take pride in that and that will help us this fall.”

Hagans is a true freshman from Philadelphia. He came in over the summer and impressed his teammates in voluntary workouts. After the first day of fall practice Pancol volunteered “Shamir is a great young guy. I think he’s going to surprise people.”

Sophomores Malik Bowen-Sim and Jontavis Robertson got their feet wet last year. Boyette says he loves the depth and competition.

“Sahmir Hagans, Malik Bowen-Sims are pushing the other guys in the room to get better. They’ve made tremendous jumps from day one of camp and I’m excited about what they’ve to be able to do to help us. We do have a deep group, a bunch of guys we’re comfortable with. All those guys have played and been in situations that are crucial to football. With those guys having to step up and play early, now that they’re juniors and seniors, we’re comfortable with what they can do. We believe in what they’ve doing and what they can get done.”

It all comes down to winning football games. Pancol says it’s a tight-knit group determined to turn around last year’s doldrums.

“It’s definitely been motivation for me. Once you feel that, you never want to feel that again. I want to flip that script around. We have a great culture. Everybody is working together with the goal of winning championships.”