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David Cutcliffe is building Duke for the long haul but might struggle again in 2017

When the schedule gets rougher, and you stay the same, the effects are pretty obvious.

North Carolina v Duke Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

There’s something to be said for reliability. In nine seasons at Duke, David Cutcliffe has produced an S&P+ rating that ranked between 70th and 75th six times. The Blue Devils were 104th in 2009, and jumped to 48th and 56th, respectively, in 2013-14. Otherwise, they’ve basically been the same team.

It seemed that might change in 2016. It didn’t. Duke returned its starting quarterback, a handful of exciting skill guys, three starters from a good offensive line, and almost all of its defensive back seven. Because of returning production and an uptick in recruiting, the Blue Devils were projected to jump out of their 70s comfort zone and back toward the top 50.

They finished 72nd. The starting quarterback in question, Thomas Sirk, injured his Achilles for the second time and missed the season, and the offense ended up driven by a freshman (Daniel Jones) throwing 430 passes. The defense, meanwhile, got destroyed by attrition.

The fast start that the schedule recommended — four opponents finished 60th or worse in S&P+, and the Blue Devils played all four in the first half of the season — didn’t happen, and a schedule that was expected to be tough became murderous.

Duke ended up playing six teams that ranked 26th or better in S&P+. That the Blue Devils won two of these games (against Notre Dame and North Carolina) hinted at the upside they were supposed to have, but a poor start that featured losses to Wake Forest and Virginia caught up to them. And for the first time in five years (!), they were home for the postseason.

They did improve, though, if only slightly. Per S&P+, the offense and defense both made slight upticks, but the team was dragged down a little by special teams and devastated by one of the toughest schedules the school has ever seen. The ACC only has a couple of truly elite programs, but its middle class is the best in FBS, and Duke seemed to face every program in said middle class.

It could happen again in 2017. Including non-conference games against Northwestern and Baylor, Duke plays eight projected top-40 teams and 10 teams that bowled last year.

Suddenly it doesn’t really feel like the 70s are going to cut it anymore. During Duke’s four-year bowl run, the Blue Devils went 25-3 against teams that finished below .500 and 8-17 against those .500 or better. When you’re playing about seven games per year against the former, and you’re handling your business, you’re all but guaranteed a bowl appearance. But hen that number suddenly shrinks to three, as it did last year, that’s problematic.

The question for Duke in this new, quickly improving ACC, then, is one of upside. How much of it do Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils have? We’ll find out soon enough, but it does appear there’s more than there used to be. After signing classes that ranked mostly in the 60s and 70s, Cutcliffe’s last three classes have ranked 52nd, 34th, and 48th, respectively, per the 247Sports Composite.

The Blue Devils currently boast the following count of mid-three-star (or higher) freshmen or redshirt freshmen: one quarterback, four running backs, four receivers/tight ends, six offensive linemen, two defensive ends, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. That’s a competitive collection of good recruits, and it ignores the presence of quite a few sophomores of similar recruiting stature. In theory, if Cutcliffe can grit his way through 2017 with a lot of these athletes matriculating into the depth chart, the payoff might not be far away.

In the meantime, though, his 2017 team probably won’t look all that much different than the 2016 iteration. But thanks to an amazing home slate — six of those eight projected top-40 teams (Northwestern, Baylor, Miami, Florida State, Pitt, and Georgia Tech) are coming to Durham — the Blue Devils might be able to win enough tossups to get back to the postseason.

For now, that’s the only goal. Jones is now a sophomore, he’s got a familiar supporting cast, and thanks to injury, Duke both loses and returns a ton of experienced pieces. Returning production suggests a team that ranks in the 60s, and, well, history suggests something in the 70s. If the Blue Devils can win some more close games (they’ve won 14 of their last 21 one-possession finishes) and start working some well-regarded young talent into the mix, the future can remain bright.

But when you go 4-8, you end up facing far more burden of proof than you did previously. Cutcliffe is 62 and has pulled off a major rebuilding job in Durham; is he ready to turn things around for a second time?

2016 in review

2016 Duke statistical profile.

For much of the season, Duke got better as its record got worse. Frustrating early losses to Wake Forest, Northwestern, and Virginia meant the Blue Devils were only 3-3 when hitting the meat of their schedule. Jones had taken control of the offense and gone through some ups (175.8 passer rating against Notre Dame) and downs (99.1 against Virginia).

Jones and the Duke offense began to find themselves over the second half of the season. Unfortunately, the defense was in the process of giving out.

  • First 5 games vs. FBS (2-3): Avg. percentile performance: 46% (33% offense, 46% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.5, DU 4.9 | Avg. score: Opp 25, DU 20
  • Next 4 games (1-3): Avg. percentile performance: 59% (65% offense, 53% defense | Avg. yards per play: Opp 7.2, DU 5.5 | Avg. score: Opp 28, DU 25
  • Last 2 games (0-2): Avg. percentile performance: 23% (37% offense, 17% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 8.4, DU 4.6 | Avg. score: Opp 48, DU 18

The secondary became the walking wounded, and the front seven wore down while employing a terribly small rotation. By the end of the season, a defense with lots of efficiency potential was giving up big plays that were both too big and too frequent.

Duke allowed only 165 gains of 10-plus yards (a healthy 33rd in FBS) but a whopping 24 of those went at least 40 yards (121st). The Duke offense, meanwhile: 157 gains of 10-plus (105th) and 10 gains of 40-plus (105th). To overcome that, the Blue Devils needed extreme offensive efficiency; they ranked 73rd in success rate.


Duke offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

In a roundabout way, the passing game held up its end of the bargain despite a freshman quarterback and a sophomore-dominated receiving corps. Jones completed 63 percent of his passes, and Duke ranked 42nd in passing success rate with sophs T.J. Rahming, Chris Taylor, Johnathan Lloyd, Daniel Helm, and Davis Koppenhaver combining for 171 receptions and freshman Aaron Young adding another 11.

Everything was short, mind you. None of the above players averaged above 11.3 yards per catch, and only one had a success rate above 50 percent. Cutcliffe’s Duke offense has always used the pass as an extension of the run game, and this is a result of that. Despite attempting nearly 40 passes per game, Duke had just 16 completions of 30-plus yards (86th), and that required a level of accuracy and mistake-free play that you’re not going to find led by a freshman.

When you are annoying opponents with short passes but aren’t striking fear in their hearts with big plays, they tend to catch on. The Duke attack ranked 29th in Q1 S&P+, 70th in Q2, and 125th in Q3. There was no run game and no plan B.

North Carolina v Duke
Daniel Jones
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In theory, that could change as more high-ceiling threats enter the system. Redshirt freshman receiver Scott Bracey was a four-star prospect, and tight ends Mark Birmingham and Jake Marwede were high-threes. But their emergence still wouldn’t fix the run game, which was dreadful and put far too much on Jones’ shoulders.

Sirk’s injury probably hurt more in this regard than in the passing game. In 2015, Sirk averaged just 5.8 yards per pass attempt, but he averaged 5.7 yards per carry over about 13 carries per game and distracted opponents enough that backs like Shaun Wilson and Jela Duncan were able to burst out for big plays at times.

Jones averaged 5.7 yards per carry over nine carries per game, but while he was even more efficient than Sirk, he wasn’t as explosive. That contributed to Wilson falling from 5 yards per carry to 4.1 and Duke falling from 36th to 106th in Rushing IsoPPP (an explosiveness measure).

It’s hard to immediately see what will change in 2017. Jones and Wilson are back, but the line lost two stalwarts in Casey Blaser and Tanner Stone (combined: 63 career starts); two seniors remain up front (tackle Gabe Brandner and center Austin Davis), and former four-star Ohio State tackle joins the mix as a graduate transfer. But the aforementioned youth movement might take root up front. It could at running back, too: Wilson’s three backups are gone, so players like redshirt freshmen Brittain Brown and Elijah Deveaux and true freshmen Deon Jackson and Marvin Hubbard III could see the field sooner than later.

If the run game provides a little more, the passing game could show a lot more. Jones is no longer a freshman, after all, and Rahming now has 113 receptions in his first two years. Rahming, Taylor, Lloyd and tight ends Helm and Koppenhaver are all back, as are Young and senior Quay Chambers. Bracey, Birmingham, Marwede, and another well-regarded true freshman (Damond Philyaw-Johnson) will have to be pretty strong to crack the rotation.

Now they just need someone to break an extra tackle or two on those short passes and burst upfield. Otherwise this is the same dink-and-dunk offense it’s always been.

Virginia v Duke
T.J. Rahming
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images


Duke defensive radar

Jim Knowles is a man after my own heart. As recently as 2014, Duke’s defense could be very much defined as a bend-don’t-break unit. It makes sense — it’s the defensive equivalent of a dink-and-dunk passing game — and if you can execute properly, you can win games with it. Preventing big plays and forcing a college offense to execute eight to 12 plays without error is a good way to prevent points (or at least hold opponents to field goals).

It’s a limited-upside approach, though. Efficiency is far and away the most important, reliable factor in a game of football, and beginning in 2015, Knowles had the personnel to take matters in his own hands. It was working pretty well, at least until he no longer had the personnel about halfway through 2016.

  • 2014 Duke defense: 105th in success rate, third in IsoPPP, 60th in Def. S&P+
  • 2015 Duke defense: 52nd in success rate, 48th in IsoPPP, 56th in Def. S&P+
  • 2016 Duke defense: 54th in success rate, 120th in IsoPPP, 48th in Def. S&P+

Knowles has dialed up the aggressiveness, and while the results have been scattershot, Duke’s overall Def. S&P+ ranking has risen. (How did it go up last year with such bad big-play numbers? Ironically, the Blue Devils were bailed out by one last bend-don’t-break principle: red zone defense. They were ninth in Red Zone S&P+, which propped them up.)

Midway through last season, the effects of Knowles’ new, aggressive approach were clear. Against three eventual bowl teams (Wake Forest, Northwestern, Army), Duke allowed just 18 points per game and 5 yards per play.

They got torched by a Notre Dame offense that had not yet cratered, but they were taking the fight to opponents with decent results. But then star cornerback DeVon Edwards got hurt. So did linebacker Tinashe Bere. Seemingly every defensive back limped off the field at least a couple of times. Depth vanished, the defense wore down, and opponents came to realize they could pass at will.

Knowles might not have the pieces this year, either, at least not unless some freshmen experience quick breakthroughs. The linebacking corps, led by not only Bere but also Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys (who combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks as a freshman and sophomore, respectively, last year), should be stout and give Knowles two nice attacking pieces.

Beyond that, though? No returning lineman had more than 2.5 TFLs, and the two most exciting attackers in the secondary (safety Corbin McCarthy, corner Breon Borders) are both gone.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Duke
Ben Humphreys (34)
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

The youth movement is coming, like it or not. Duke will probably start three seniors, max (tackle Mike Ramsay, corner Bryon Fields, safety Alonzo Sexton II), and otherwise Duke’s fortunes will be defined by young upside. That sounds terrifying; it might not be.

  • Sophomore ends Terrell Lucas and Tre Hornbuckle had five TFLs among their 20.5 tackles in limited action. Freshman end Drew Jordan was very nearly a four-star recruit and has decent enough size (6’2, 255) to see the field quickly.
  • Giles-Harris had 9.5 TFLs and four sacks as a freshman and could still have more upside to uncover. Plus, sophomore Koby Quansah and redshirt freshman Brandon Hill were both high-three-star guys.
  • Sophomore DBs Jordan Hayes (safety) and Mark Gilbert (corner) combined for 35 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and a couple of passes defensed. Sophomore safety Dylan Singleton was a four-star recruit, sophomore safety Brandon Feamster got his feet wet, and redshirt freshman corner Antone Williams chose Duke over offers from schools like Virginia Tech and Wisconsin.
Army v Duke
Joe Giles-Harris
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

There’s potential here, but if I spend more time talking about potential and youth than proven production, then I’m probably talking about a defense that will be good in 2018 but might struggle this year. Duke’s defense improved in back-to-back years and should still be decent, but a third year of improvement is unlikely.

Special Teams

Duke’s Special Teams S&P+ ranking the last three years:

  • 2014: sixth
  • 2015: second
  • 2016: 119th

What the heck happened? The Blue Devils replaced a big-time kicker (Ross Martin) and punter (Will Monday) with freshmen. That’ll do it. AJ Reed was a dreadful 3-for-8 on field goals under 40 yards and 0-for-2 outside of 40. Austin Parker averaged a decent 40.9 yards per punt with plenty of fair catches, but the Blue Devils allowed 9.4 yards per return (89th). And only 14 percent of Parker’s kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.

The return game remained a strength with Shaun Wilson (back) in KRs and Ryan Smith (gone) in PRs, but place-kicking and punting carry the most weight in the special teams equation, and Duke was dreadful at both. The freshmen are now sophomores, but ... there is, as you might say in the business world, plenty of opportunity for improvement here.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep NC Central NR 26.5 94%
9-Sep Northwestern 37 -1.7 46%
16-Sep Baylor 28 -4.1 41%
23-Sep at North Carolina 38 -6.6 35%
29-Sep Miami 18 -8.6 31%
7-Oct at Virginia 70 0.3 51%
14-Oct Florida State 3 -20.8 11%
21-Oct Pittsburgh 33 -2.9 43%
28-Oct at Virginia Tech 25 -11.1 26%
11-Nov at Army 102 9.9 72%
18-Nov Georgia Tech 31 -3.7 42%
25-Nov at Wake Forest 64 -2.5 44%
Projected S&P+ Rk 65
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 58 / 56
Projected wins 5.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 1.1 (64)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 39 / 52
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / -5.5
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 67% (79%, 55%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 3.6 (0.4)

S&P+ projects Duke 65th overall; the offense should improve at least a bit, but whether the defense slides a little or a lot will define whether the Blue Devils are able to keep up in a lot of relative tossups.

They are looking at quite the uncertain schedule: two games with win probability of 72 percent or higher, three games at 31 percent or lower, and seven between 35 and 51 percent. They’re slight underdogs in most of those, but if they go 4-3, they can reach a bowl. If they go 2-5, they’re looking at a second straight 4-8 year.

Really, though, 2017 is about 2018. The ACC is getting tougher, and it will require more upside to keep up, but Duke might be capable of doing that down the line if a few high-upside youngsters begin to turn potential into production this fall.

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