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Duke's not just consistent at football now. The upside is slowly rising, too

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The Blue Devils are now a bowl season regular, and their recruiting is picking up as well. This is Bill C's daily preview series, working its way through every 2016 team.

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.

1. Those damned anti-social numbers

In eight years at Duke, 7 is about the only number David Cutcliffe hasn't hit. He has won 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 10 games, with the three highest in the last three seasons.

After winning 20 games in his first five years, he's won 27 in the last three. Duke's stature hasn't been this consistently impressive since the early 1960s.

The progress in the win column is undeniable. After attending four bowls between 1955 and 2011, the Blue Devils have attended four in a row.

Win columns and spreadsheets don't always agree. On paper, Duke has been one of the most strangely consistent teams in the country. The Blue Devils ranked 104th in S&P+ in 2009 (Cutcliffe's second year) and 48th in 2013; otherwise: 75th, 71st, 74th, 70th, 73rd, and 75th.

How is this possible? How could the 2-9 team of 2010 rank basically the same as the 9-4 team of 2014? That can't be right, can it?

It appears there are two basic causes for this disparity: special teams and close games.

I've been tinkering with ways to better represent special teams in my S&P+ ratings -- the Special Teams S&P+ figures you see below are basically in beta mode and haven't been incorporated into the overall S&P+ ratings yet. Special teams are accounted for indirectly thanks to the use of field position (kicks, returns) and drive-finishing (place-kicking) factors, but my suspicion is that they may be undervalued a bit. I could be wrong. I'm working on it.

Duke's special teams unit has been one of the most consistently strong in the country. This is the most fickle of units, with ups and downs on a yearly basis, but in Brian Fremeau's Special Teams FEI ratings, the Blue Devils haven't ranked worse than 41st since 2009 and have ranked first (2014) and fourth (2015) over the last two years. If I determine special teams are indeed undervalued, the next S&P+ update will probably be friendly to the Blue Devils.

That said, there aren't any guarantees that I'm weighting special teams incorrectly. And close-game results suggest there might be an element of randomness to Duke's improvement.

From 2008-11, Duke went 6-13 in games decided by one possession. From 2012-15, the Blue Devils have gone 13-7. My SB Nation colleague Bud Elliott has an ongoing theory that coaching, quarterback play, and place-kicking (special teams!) have a role to play in close-game results, not unlike having a good bullpen in baseball. But randomness plays a role, too, and it could be that Duke is getting a little bit luckier. (And yes, I remember last year's Miami game. There are exceptions to every rule.)

Regardless, a floor in the 70s is pretty remarkable in and of itself. In the 13 years before Cutcliffe arrived, Duke's average S&P+/Estimated S&P+ ranking was 93.2, its average win total an incredible-for-all-the-wrong-reasons 1.7. Cutcliffe has raised the bar significantly.

He may be looking to raise it even further: a little more than a month after Duke's first bowl win since 1960, he went out and signed the ACC's fifth-best recruiting class and the No. 34 overall class, per the 247Sports Composite. Cutcliffe's 2016 haul was better than North Carolina's, Louisville's, Virginia Tech's, and former ACC mate Maryland's. His class was among the ACC's bottom four every year from 2010-15.

It's doubtful that this class makes a significant impact on the 2016 team, but the longer Cutcliffe stays in Durham, the healthier this program might become.

2015 Schedule & Results

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 6-7 | Final F/+ Rk: 74 | Final S&P+ Rk: 75
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Win
Expectancy
vs. S&P+ Performance
vs. Vegas
3-Sep at Tulane 119 37-7 W 87% 100% +22.4 +23.0
12-Sep NC Central N/A 55-0 W 89% 100% +19.1
19-Sep Northwestern 52 10-19 L 51% 70% -16.6 -12.5
26-Sep Georgia Tech 64 34-20 W 68% 94% +17.4 +22.5
3-Oct Boston College 70 9-7 W 32% 28% -11.8 -5.0
10-Oct at Army 108 44-3 W 98% 100% +20.0 +29.5
24-Oct at Virginia Tech 59 45-43 W 61% 82% -6.1 +4.5
31-Oct Miami-FL 62 27-30 L 35% 36% -19.7 -3.0
7-Nov at North Carolina 24 31-66 L 8% 0% -35.7 -27.0
14-Nov Pittsburgh 46 13-31 L 21% 11% -25.1 -21.5
21-Nov at Virginia 78 34-42 L 9% 3% -15.7 -5.5
28-Nov at Wake Forest 92 27-21 W 28% 45% -0.4 +2.0
26-Dec vs. Indiana 61 44-41 W 29% 29% +6.3 +5.0

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 25.4 90 26.0 52
Points Per Game 31.5 48 25.4 47

2. ...and then the defense gave out

From 2009-14, Duke's defense only once cracked the Def. S&P+ top 60. Cutcliffe seemed to have settled on a bend-don't-break approach to counter an athleticism disadvantage on that side, and the result was consistent decency.

The first half of last season, then, was pretty jarring. With breakthrough talent like former Ohio State transfer Jeremy Cash (safety) and linebacker Dwayne Norman, plus what was probably the deepest defensive line Cutcliffe has had, the Blue Devils were playing some of the best defense in the country. They were more aggressive than normal, and they held their first six opponents to 9.3 points per game. Many of those opponents were really bad at offense, but 9.3 PPG is still a remarkable figure.

Duke allowed 39.1 points per game over the final seven games. "Turnaround" doesn't have to mean something good. And not surprisingly, this defensive collapse coincided nearly perfectly with the season's downward turn.

  • First 7 games:
    Record: 6-1 | Avg. Percentile Performance: 69% (~top 40) | Yards per play: Duke 5.5, Opp 4.0 (+1.5)
  • Last 6 games
    Record: 2-4 | Avg. Percentile Performance: 22% (~top 100) | Yards per play: Opp 6.9, Duke 5.6 (-1.3)

Win Expectancy looks at the key stats from a given game and determines how frequently you could have expected to win that game with those stats. Duke's win expectancy in any one game didn't top 45 percent in any of the Blue Devils' last six contests. They were somewhat lucky to beat either Wake Forest or Indiana, much less both of them. (That perhaps made up for the fact that they probably should have beaten Northwestern in September, too. And this ignores all of the zaniness from the Miami finish.)

The cause for defensive collapse isn't immediately clear. The Blue Devils were rather stable from an injuries standpoint. It may have had something to do with offensive hopelessness, but ... this was a significant collapse.

While the offenses Duke faced early in the season weren't very good, S&P+ is adjusted for opponent. Let's put it this way: Duke gave up 20 points to Georgia Tech in September, then gave up 42 to Virginia in November; those offenses weren't very different in 2015, but UVA scored twice as much. And now Cash, Norman, and three-quarters of the starting defensive line are gone.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.22 85 IsoPPP+ 92.8 94
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 40.1% 86 Succ. Rt. + 99.2 76
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 26.9 13 Def. FP+ 28.3 45
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.0 102 Redzone S&P+ 86.6 114
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 24.1 ACTUAL 21 -3.1
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 36 92 76 94
RUSHING 37 71 69 66
PASSING 45 94 75 99
Standard Downs 110 103 112
Passing Downs 41 35 45
Q1 Rk 92 1st Down Rk 48
Q2 Rk 75 2nd Down Rk 72
Q3 Rk 53 3rd Down Rk 96
Q4 Rk 63

3. Quick three-and-outs

Duke needed that defensive efficiency early on because the offense wasn't really pulling its weight. The Blue Devils had fallen from 40th to 76th in Off. S&P+ in 2014 and had to replace their starting quarterback, two leading receivers, and two linemen who had combined to start 95 games. They fell further.

Offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery, who since left to take the head coaching job at ECU, implemented a high-tempo, pass-first system, but in both 2014 and 2015, the Blue Devils were done in by a lack of efficiency. Efficiency, the ability to stay ahead of the chains and avoid three-and-outs, is vital to any offense but is particularly vital to one that wants to move quickly. Going three-and-out is bad enough, but doing so in about 15 minutes is sure to weigh on your defense over time.

Quarterback Thomas Sirk was a solid runner and showed play-making potential on passing downs; the problem was that he faced a metric ton of passing downs. Run or pass, Duke couldn't establish its game plan in 2015. Montgomery was well-regarded but couldn't get a feel for how to drag Duke's offense back toward respectability. So now Zac Roper will give it a try. Roper was a graduate assistant for Cutcliffe at Ole Miss in the early-2000s, spent 2005-07 as a Cornell assistant, and has been on Cutcliffe's Duke staff since the beginning. We'll see what he attempts to change, but Duke simply must improve on offense, particularly on first down.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Thomas Sirk 6'4, 220 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8358 251 427 2625 16 8 58.8% 11 2.5% 5.9
Parker Boehme 6'2, 220 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8432 43 78 579 2 1 55.1% 5 6.0% 6.7
Quentin Harris 6'1, 185 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8354
Daniel Jones 6'5, 210 RSFr. NR

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Thomas Sirk QB 6'4, 220 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8358 152 860 8 5.7 4.6 45.4% 2 1
Shaquille Powell RB 125 542 3 4.3 3.5 32.0% 0 0
Shaun Wilson RB 5'9, 180 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8455 84 424 3 5.0 8.8 26.2% 2 2
Jela Duncan RB 5'10, 210 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8764 69 479 4 6.9 6.7 47.8% 1 1
Parker Boehme QB 6'2, 220 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8432 40 207 5 5.2 6.1 40.0% 2 2
Nicodem Pierre RB 6'2, 210 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8541 15 76 0 5.1 1.6 60.0% 0 0
Zach Boden RB 5'10, 200 Sr. NR NR 9 34 2 3.8 1.8 33.3% 0 0
Joseph Ajeigbe RB 5'9, 215 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8414 4 8 0 2.0 1.1 25.0% 1 1
Brittain Brown RB 6'1, 195 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8696
Elijah Deveaux RB 6'0, 225 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8522







4. All the pieces of a decent run game

The run game regressed quite a bit in 2015, from 43rd to 71st in Rushing S&P+, but there seems to be potential here. Sirk is big and relatively efficient, and more importantly, backup Parker Boehme is, too. With Sirk battling back from a February Achilles injury, it is quite possible that the starting job is Boehme's when the season begins.

Leading running back Shaq Powell is gone, but Powell wasn't very effective last year. Shaun Wilson was slightly less efficient but far more explosive, and 17th-year senior Jela Duncan both proved more efficient and showed more burst than Powell. Powell averaged 4.3 yards per carry; Wilson and Duncan averaged 5.9.

These two will be running behind a line that returns three of last year's starters and kept a cleaner backfield than almost any line in the country. Duke ranked third in stuff rate and fourth in Adj. Sack Rate. and, with some more high-profile recruits coming up in the freshman and sophomore classes, could be set up to succeed well into the future.

Though Wilson was far too inefficient, the combination of Sirk/Boehme, Wilson, Duncan, and this line appears to give Duke an excellent run foundation. We'll see how Roper attempts to deploy the run, however, in what has typically been a pass-first attack.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
Yds/
Target
%SD Success
Rate
IsoPPP
Max McCaffrey WR 82 52 643 63.4% 16.9% 7.8 58.5% 47.6% 1.51
T.J. Rahming WR 5'10, 165 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8675 79 43 571 54.4% 16.3% 7.2 60.8% 41.8% 1.57
Johnell Barnes WR
62 34 411 54.8% 12.8% 6.6 59.7% 45.2% 1.37
Anthony Nash WR 6'5, 200 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8336 59 32 475 54.2% 12.2% 8.1 47.5% 42.4% 1.78
Shaquille Powell RB 44 35 212 79.5% 9.1% 4.8 47.7% 34.1% 1.24
Braxton Deaver TE 40 21 183 52.5% 8.2% 4.6 62.5% 42.5% 1.00
Shaun Wilson RB 5'9, 180 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8455 25 19 207 76.0% 5.2% 8.3 60.0% 48.0% 1.55
Erich Schneider TE 6'7, 240 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8096 25 15 123 60.0% 5.2% 4.9 68.0% 40.0% 1.24
David Reeves TE 20 13 104 65.0% 4.1% 5.2 65.0% 50.0% 0.90
Jela Duncan RB 5'10, 210 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8764 15 11 89 73.3% 3.1% 5.9 60.0% 46.7% 1.13
Chris Taylor WR 6'1, 180 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8199 12 5 36 41.7% 2.5% 3.0 75.0% 25.0% 1.16
Terrence Alls WR
10 6 56 60.0% 2.1% 5.6 30.0% 50.0% 1.13
Ryan Smith WR 5'7, 170 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7994 9 6 85 66.7% 1.9% 9.4 66.7% 55.6% 1.56
Trevon Lee WR 6'1, 185 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8743
Quay Chambers WR 6'3, 220 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8073
Johnathan Lloyd WR 6'0, 190 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8481
Davis Koppenhaver TE 6'4, 230 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8086
Daniel Helm
(Tennessee)
TE 6'4, 240 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9182
Aaron Young WR 6'2, 200 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8529
Keyston Fuller WR 6'0, 180 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8625
Scott Bracey WR 6'2, 200 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9344
Mark Birmingham TE 6'4, 235 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8899

5. Early playing time available?

Over the course of about 39 passes per game, Sirk and Boehme basically targeted six players: four wide receivers, Powell, and tight end Braxton Deaver. Of those six, only two return: wideouts T.J. Rahming and Anthony Nash.

The loss of Max McCaffrey and Johnell Barnes means an already inefficient passing game must replace its two most efficient (or, perhaps the least inefficient) weapons. Rahming and Nash combined to average nearly 14 yards per completion, but Sirk and Boehme are going to need some help from an efficiency standpoint.

The good news is that the list of candidates is long. Sophomore Chris Taylor finished the spring ahead of Rahming on the depth chart, while senior Ryan Smith, junior Quay Chambers, and redshirt freshman Keyston Fuller all had their moments in spring ball.

Meanwhile, in the high-upside department, you one figures that sophomore tight end Daniel Helm (a Tennessee transfer and former four-star recruit) and four-star freshman Scott Bracey, the gem of the 2016 class, could contribute sooner than later. The big-play potential is clear, but we'll see if Duke can actually produce a receiver with a success rate over 50 percent for once.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 110.1 3.07 3.24 38.6% 72.0% 13.9% 260.0 1.2% 4.1%
Rank 26 36 67 73 32 3 4 5 12
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. 2015 Starts Career Starts Honors/Notes
Matt Skura C 13 40 2015 1st All-ACC
Lucas Patrick LG 13 26
Casey Blaser RT 6'5, 290 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8045 13 26
Gabe Brandner LT 6'6, 285 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8043 13 13
Tanner Stone RG 6'6, 300 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7951 13 13
Sterling Korona LT 6'7, 290 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8251 0 0
Trip McNeill LG 6'5, 300 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8550 0 0
Jake Sanders LG 6'5, 305 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8389 0 0
Zach Harmon C 6'3, 285 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8497 0 0
Austin Davis RG 6'4, 290 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8470 0 0
Christian Harris RT 6'6, 295 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8417 0 0
Reno Rosene OT 6'7, 325 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8656

Robert Kraeling OL 6'7, 270 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8873

Liam Smith OL 6'4, 270 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8695

Julian Santos OL 6'3, 315 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8686

Jaylen Miller OL 6'3, 315 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8535


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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.22 48 IsoPPP+ 99.1 71
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 39.6% 52 Succ. Rt. + 93.6 91
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 32.8 15 Off. FP+ 30.7 50
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.4 70 Redzone S&P+ 105.6 43
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 21.0 ACTUAL 20.0 -1.0
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 60 81 91 71
RUSHING 49 45 92 24
PASSING 88 99 93 106
Standard Downs 72 89 64
Passing Downs 86 87 81
Q1 Rk 47 1st Down Rk 77
Q2 Rk 57 2nd Down Rk 51
Q3 Rk 110 3rd Down Rk 63
Q4 Rk 54

6. Extra aggression backfired a bit

Perhaps it's fitting that both Duke coordinators have Cornell ties. Big Red alum and former head coach Jim Knowles has led Cutcliffe's defense since 2010; his bend-don't-break approach led to immediate improvement, and he has sustained most of that improvement from year to year.

Set aside Duke's bipolarity problem in 2015 -- so good for half the year, then so bad -- and look merely at the full-season numbers. You get a vision of a team that took a few more chances, especially in pass defense, and ended up with more big plays in both directions. Safety Jeremy Cash made an incredible 18 tackles for loss, and the next six leading DBs combined for 18.5 TFLs and 31 passes defensed. The Blue Devils also allowed 51 passes of 20-plus yards, 110th in FBS. That's not very bend-don't-break.

Though everybody but Cash is back in the secondary, Cash was such a unique talent that I assume Duke will revert to a more flexible form in 2016.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 102 2.84 1.97 33.7% 57.6% 19.7% 60.9 4.0% 3.7%
Rank 49 60 1 21 23 68 121 98 119
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
A.J. Wolf DT 6'4, 280 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8105 13 37.5 5.0% 4.0 0.5 0 0 0 0
Carlos Wray DT 13 33.0 4.4% 4.5 2.0 0 2 0 0
Deion Williams DE 13 27.0 3.6% 3.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Kyler Brown DE 11 25.5 3.4% 2.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Mike Ramsay DT 6'2, 295 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7785 13 20.0 2.7% 4.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Brandon Boyce DT 6'0, 255 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8403 13 17.5 2.3% 4.0 1.0 0 0 1 0
Quaven Ferguson DT 6'2, 305 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8169 13 13.0 1.7% 2.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Britton Grier DE 13 10.0 1.3% 2.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Marquies Price DE 6'6, 245 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8519 10 9.0 1.2% 3.5 1.5 0 0 0 0
Edgar Cerenord DT 6'1, 300 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8514 13 4.5 0.6% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Allen Jackson DE 6'5, 260 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8364 9 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 1 0 0 0
Dominic McDonald DE 6'2, 240 Jr. NR 0.8535
Trevon McSwain DE 6'6, 265 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8625
Zach Morris DT 6'3, 295 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8479
Twazanga Mugala DE 6'3, 230 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8170
Chidi Okonya DE 6'6, 220 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8863








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Dwayne Norman WLB 13 88.5 11.8% 8.5 1.0 1 4 2 0
Tinashe Bere MLB 6'1, 230 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8376 11 41.5 5.5% 4.5 1.5 0 0 1 0
Zavier Carmichael MLB 6'0, 220 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8384 13 24.0 3.2% 2.5 1.0 1 2 1 0
Ben Humphreys WLB 6'2, 215 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9270 13 21.0 2.8% 2.0 1.0 0 0 1 0
Chris Holmes WLB
6 4.0 0.5% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Joe Giles-Harris LB 6'2, 220 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8487
Brandon Hill LB 6'3, 220 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8767
Koby Quansah LB 6'1, 220 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8733
Xander Gagnon LB 6'3, 225 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8569








7. A rebuild on the run front

Duke's pass rush was nonexistent in 2015, but the Blue Devils made up for it with a combination of discipline up front and risk in the back. That resulted in a lot of big pass plays, but at the very least, the defense was never caught napping on passing downs rushes.

Duke was also excellent in short-yardage situations. This wasn't an elite run defense (45th in Rushing S&P+), but it pursued the ball well and stiffened at the right times.

Knowles played a lot of guys last year, and that might come in handy in 2016. Three of the top four linemen are gone, as is Dwayne Norman, but Duke still returns five linemen who made at least nine tackles (each made at least 2.5 tackles for loss, too) and three linebackers who made at least 21. And as with the offensive line, the freshman and sophomore classes seem to have a ton of promise. As many as four sophomore linemen and two sophomore linebackers could be in the rotation, plus at least a couple of redshirt freshmen. And end Chidi Okonya and linebackers Brandon Hill and Koby Quansah were among Duke's more highly-rated 2016 signees.

This could be an excellent front six in 2017 and beyond; there could still be some regression in 2016, however. (And at some point, that pass rush will need to bounce back and help out a bit.)

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Jeremy Cash S 12 79.0 10.5% 18 2.5 0 4 3 0
DeVon Edwards CB 5'9, 180 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7759 13 75.5 10.1% 2 1 1 6 0 0
Deondre Singleton S 5'11, 180 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8248 13 61.5 8.2% 6 0 0 4 2 0
Bryon Fields
(2014)
CB 5'11, 180 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8003 13 55.5 7.1% 2.5 0 1 2 0 0
Breon Borders CB 6'0, 180 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7957 13 47.5 6.3% 4 1 3 9 0 0
Alonzo Saxton II ROV 5'11, 180 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8568 13 31.0 4.1% 2 0 1 2 1 0
Phillip Carter ROV 6'1, 195 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7923 13 15.0 2.0% 2 0 1 1 0 0
Jeremy McDuffie CB 5'11, 170 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8615 13 14.5 1.9% 0 0 1 0 0 0
Corbin McCarthy S 5'10, 200 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7500 13 11.5 1.5% 1 0 1 1 0 0
Zach Muniz CB 5'11, 170 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8256 6 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 2 0 0
Jake Kite S 6'0, 185 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8041 11 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jordan Hayes S 6'0, 180 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8373
Brandon Feamster S 6'3, 210 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8051
Dylan Singleton CB 5'11, 190 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9038
Mark Gilbert CB 6'2, 170 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8610
Javon Jackson DB 5'11, 180 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8543
Antone Williams DB 5'11, 175 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8533
Jacob Morgenstern S 6'4, 215 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8366

8. Experience isn't an issue, at least

Every class, from freshman to senior, appears rather well-represented in the Duke secondary. You've got seniors DeVon Edwards, Breon Borders, and Deondre Singleton leading the way after combining for 12 TFLs and 23 passes defensed a year ago. You've got key sophomores and juniors. You've got a loaded class of true and redshirt freshmen, including four-star newcomer Dylan Singleton. This should assure solid experience and continuity each year moving forward. But now we'll see if it assures actual quality.

Even with Cash, Duke ranked an unacceptable 99th in Passing S&P+ in 2015. The lack of a pass rush was a major impediment, but the risk-reward balance just wasn't there. The Blue Devils gave up too many plays to benefit from the plays they were making, and on third-and-4 or longer, opponents were allowed to complete 20 passes for 15-plus yards and produce a 131.1 passer rating. Duke allowed only a 49 percent completion rate in those situations but allowed 14.6 yards per completion and picked off only two of 102 passes.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Will Monday 65 43.5 13 20 23 66.2%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Ross Martin 75 59.4 22 1 29.3%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Ross Martin 42-42 18-21 85.7% 8-9 88.9%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Returns Avg. TD
DeVon Edwards KR 5'9, 180 Sr. 24 29.4 3
Shaun Wilson KR 5'9, 180 Jr. 4 41.0 1
Ryan Smith PR 5'7, 170 Sr. 29 7.1 0
Category Rk
Special Teams S&P+ 2
Field Goal Efficiency 5
Punt Return Success Rate 73
Kick Return Success Rate 34
Punt Success Rate 16
Kickoff Success Rate 60

9. Got legs?

Cutcliffe has a strong special teams reputation, and it's hard to worry too much about the Duke special teams unit at any time. Still, the Blue Devils must replace a couple of fantastic legs. Ross Martin made 89 percent of his long field goals, and punter Will Monday combined length (43.5 yards per punt) with finesse (20 fair catches, 23 punts inside the 20). DeVon Edwards is dynamite in the kick return game, but every time you have to replace a key leg or two, there's a chance you end up with a dud.

2016 Schedule & Projection Factors

2016 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
3-Sep NC Central NR 29.7 96%
10-Sep Wake Forest 74 7.5 67%
17-Sep at Northwestern 46 -4.1 41%
24-Sep at Notre Dame 11 -15.7 18%
1-Oct Virginia 68 6.2 64%
8-Oct Army 124 23.5 91%
14-Oct at Louisville 20 -13.3 22%
29-Oct at Georgia Tech 54 -3.3 42%
5-Nov Virginia Tech 32 -1.2 47%
10-Jan North Carolina 27 -3.2 43%
19-Nov at Pittsburgh 29 -9.2 30%
26-Nov at Miami 30 -8.9 30%
Projected wins: 5.9
Five-Year F/+ Rk -1.2% (64)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 37 / 52
2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / -3.1
2015 TO Luck/Game +0.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 76% (80%, 73%)
2015 Second-order wins (difference) 7.0 (1.0)

10. Lots of tossups

Despite constant residence in the 70s, S&P+ projects Duke 51st this year because of solid experience and last year's recruiting boost.

Based on the schedule, though, this season could break in a lot of different ways. They're given between a 41 and 67 percent chance of winning in six games, with two to three likely wins and four likely losses. That's six games projected within 7.5 points; if the good close-game fortune continues, so will Duke's bowl streak.

Whatever Duke's goals are this year, another fast start will be necessary. The Blue Devils started 8-1 in 2014 and 6-1 in 2015 and has a decent to good chance in five of the first six games of 2016. The second half of the season, though, is full of games in which Duke is either a slight underdog (at Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, UNC) or a larger one (at Louisville, at Pitt, at Miami).

S&P+ paints a conflicting picture of Duke's recent accomplishments, but Cutcliffe appears to be achieving balance among classes and depth that Duke has maybe never had. No matter what the upside is, Cutcliffe's Blue Devils appear to have staying power, and their moment of strong upside is not that far in the rear view. Duke might have another rise in it soon, but might have to check "seven wins" off of the bingo card this fall.