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Duke’s steady and full of upside in football. We don’t talk enough about how wild that is

David Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils could experience a brief setback in 2019 with a total reset in the passing game, but they are loading up for another fun run in 2020 and beyond.

NCAA Football: Duke at Baylor
Leonard Johnson (33), Marquis Waters (10), and Antone Williams (35)
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

At either the hardest or second-hardest job in the ACC (depending on how you feel about Wake Forest), David Cutcliffe has been revolutionary.

The 64-year old Bama grad and SEC lifer took a late-career right turn when he moved to Durham 11 years ago. Wanting to simply be a head coach one more time (he spent seven years in that role at Ole Miss), he took on a job that few would have wanted.

Duke had averaged just 1.4 wins per year for its previous two head coaches. Cutcliffe nearly tripled that average over his first four seasons (3.8 per year) and has nearly doubled it again since (7.4 in his last seven).

The Blue Devils won the 2013 ACC Coastal crown, they’ve bowled six times in seven seasons, they’ve been ranked in parts of four seasons, and after winning three bowls ever pre-Cutcliffe, they’ve won three in the last three years. They have lost successful QBs and plenty of assistants, and while they’ve still had ups and at least one particular down (4-8 in 2016), the program has remained healthy. And in April, they produced another milestone: quarterback Daniel Jones became the program’s first top-10 draft pick since 1987.

You don’t produce such unlikely steadiness by relying on single players, even at the quarterback position. In fact, Cutcliffe has almost succeeded despite his QBs. The next time a Duke passer produces even a 140 passer rating over a full season under Cutcliffe will be the first.

NFL: NFL Draft
David Cutcliffe
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Jones’ time as starting quarterback was fascinating, for reasons positive and negative.

  • In 2016, as a freshman, Jones torched NC Central and 4-8 Notre Dame and looked solid later in the year against eight-win UNC and nine-win Louisville and Miami. He also threw five interceptions against two-win Virginia.
  • In 2017, he was great to start the season (146.7 passer rating against NC Central and 10-win Northwestern), solid to end it (135.4 in the last three games), and mostly horrible in between (93.6 in the middle eight games).
  • In 2018, he again started like gangbusters (23-for-39 for 389 yards, four touchdowns, and no picks in wins over 11-win Army and Big Ten West champ Northwestern), randomly destroyed Pitt in the middle of the year, did an amazing Lamar Jackson impression against UNC, and torched Temple in the Independence Bowl. And he played like garbage for most of the other six games (102.1 passer rating).

Jones never really established any level of consistency, and Duke’s rise to 52nd in Off. S&P+ in 2018 seemed to have as much to do with the unearthing of a more explosive run game as with any massive improvement with the pass. It was baffling to me that he was being considered a first-round prospect with numbers that topped almost no one’s, and I was, to say the least, not a fan of the Giants picking him sixth.

But that’s the Giants’ problem now. And if Duke has a problem in Jones’ absence, it appears it won’t be specifically because of Jones — it’ll be because of massive turnover in the receiving corps, as well. You’re going to have a new starting QB throwing passes to a set of new wideouts. Knowing how overall attrition in the passing game tends to negatively affect your Off. S&P+ rating, that might be a bit daunting.

But again, Cutcliffe didn’t get here by leaning on a brilliant passing game, and that didn’t change with Jones.

Outside of the passing game, the continuity is good. The run game returns its top four backs and six linemen with starting experience. And while two dynamite linebackers are gone (Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys), the defensive line returns intact, and the secondary could replace one lost starter (corner Brandon Feamster) with a 2017 starter who missed last season (Mark Gilbert). The Duke defense has graded out better than the offense for five straight years, and if it unearths a pass rush, this could be one of Cutcliffe’s best yet.

Offense

Jones’ biggest strength might have been that he was aces on third-and-medium. Despite a propensity for negative plays (89th in stuff rate, 55th in sack rate), Duke was able to catch back up to the chains and create semi-manageable third downs, and on third-and-4 to third-and-6, Jones produced a 194.2 passer rating (15-for-26 for 226 yards and five touchdowns). This is where his athletic ability shined, too — he ran for six more first downs in these situations.

Granted, that fell to 99.6 beyond six yards, and granted, he was 3-for-8 with two picks on fourth down, but if you could create third-and-manageable, Jones was able to take it from there. And there’s no guarantee that the next guy, with new receivers, will do that as well.

NCAA Football: Duke at Pittsburgh
Quentin Harris
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

So who will the next guy be? Odds are good that it’s Quentin Harris, a senior who has very much waited his turn. Over parts of three seasons, has completed 41 of 81 passes for 510 yards, eight interceptions, and one pick. When Jones missed two games with a September 2018 shoulder injury, Harris threw for a combined 376 yards and six touchdowns, threw no picks, took no sacks, and rushed for 146 yards. Duke beat Baylor and NC Central with relative ease.

Harris will have to hold off sophomore Chris Katrenick and redshirt freshman Gunnar Holmberg in fall camp, and since he’s likely to run the ball a lot more than Jones, he’ll have to avoid some wear and tear. But he’s qualified for the job.

We’ll see what his receiving corps gives him. The “leading receivers” section of this preview is awfully thin:

  • Jake Bobo, a 6’4 sophomore, caught 10 of 14 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown last year. He looks the part, and he evidently developed a nice rapport with Harris this spring. Still, he’s the leading returning wideout from last year. With 10 catches.
  • Aaron Young, a 6’2 senior, caught 16 passes in 2017 and began 2018 with four catches for 114 yards against Army. But he played in only one more game, battling hamstring issues the entire way. He briefly considered transferring in the offseason, but it appears he’s back.
  • Tight end Noah Gray is a potential high-efficiency weapon: he caught 20 of 24 passes with a 71 percent success rate in backing up departed starter Daniel Helm.
  • Sophomore Damond Philyaw-Johnson caught six passes, junior and former four-star prospect (and constant battler of wonky hamstrings) Scott Bracey caught three, and redshirt freshman Jarett Garner saw some action. Cutcliffe signed four mid- to high-three-star freshmen as well.

That’s not awful. But continuity tends to matter a ton here, and there’s still very little of it.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Duke
Deon Jackson
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The running backs could play a role in the passing game, too. Junior Deon Jackson caught 26 passes for 253 yards to go along with his 847 rushing yards. He was a bit all-or-nothing in the backfield (here’s your reminder of Duke’s bad stuff rate), and he’s joined by a couple of steadier, and far less explosive, options in junior Brittain Brown and sophomore Marvin Hubbard III. A junior-heavy line, with six players combining for 60 career starts, could either hold steady or improve a bit.

Under coordinator Zac Roper’s guidance, Duke threw constantly when ahead of the chains last year; the Blue Devils ran just 49 percent of the time on standard downs, 11 percentage points less than the national average. Harris will shift that balance, but the quality of the receiving corps might determine just how much of a shift we’re talking about here.

Defense

Because Cutcliffe is The Guy Who Coached The Mannings In College, we tend to think of Duke as an offense-first program. That’s unfair to a sometimes brilliant defense that has had to carry plenty of the load through the years.

Under coordinator Jim Knowles, the Blue Devils flipped to an efficiency-first approach a few years ago, seemingly consciously risking big plays for a steady stream of three-and-outs and turnover opportunities. There were indeed some gashes, but the results were clear: from 104th in Def. S&P+ in 2012, Duke improved to 70th in 2013, 31st in 2015, and 20th in 2017.

Cutcliffe lost Knowles to Oklahoma State last year, but despite having to play a ton of freshmen and sophomores (in all, 13 made at least 11 tackles), new co-coordinators Ben Albert and Matt Guerrieri were able to keep the defense playing a top-50 level (46th).

NCAA Football: Independence Bowl-Temple vs Duke
Victor Dimukeje (51)
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Giles-Harris and Humphreys were solid anchors and quarterback types at linebacker, but the front and back of the defense are experienced enough this year that maybe that influence isn’t as necessary.

For starters, the safety corps is loaded. Last year’s top four return, including junior Marquis Waters (maybe Duke’s best all-around defender) and sophomores Leonard Johnson and Lummie Young IV, both of whom thrived near the line of scrimmage (combined: 10 tackles for loss to only four passes defensed).

If Gilbert returns to full health, the cornerbacks could be strong, too. An All-ACC pick with 20 passes defensed in 2017, Gilbert suffered a strange dislocated hip early last fall and missed the spring as well. Without him, young corners Michael Carter II and Josh Blackwell will have to step up.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Duke
Mark Gilbert (28)
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Up front, there’s massive potential at the tackle position. Big Trevon McSwain and Derrick Tangelo are back, and senior Edgar Cerenord returns after a 2018 Achilles injury. Sophomore Ben Frye could be a major play-maker — he had 3.5 TFLs among his four tackles last season — if he can return to full strength from a knee injury.

The Blue Devils were desperate, however, for a pass rush that never really materialized last year. They were 129th in passing downs sack rate, and it says a lot about the secondary that they were still able to rank 20th in completion rate. Junior Victor Dimukeje and sophomore Chris Rumph II are your returning “leaders” in this area, having combined for 6.5 sacks last year. Duke can still field a competent D without a pass rush, but a return to the top-20 or top-30 will be impossible without improvement here.

Special Teams

Duke won kickoffs last year. Kicker Jack Driggers had an 89 percent success rate and allowed just an 18.3-yard return average, which suggests great height and placement, and Deon Jackson is a steady return man.

The rest of Duke’s special teams unit lacked. The Blue Devils finished 87th in Special Teams S&P+, primarily because of Collin Wareham’s limited range; he missed two PATs and went 0-for-3 on longer field goals. He’s gone, but there’s no guarantee his replacement will do better.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug vs. Alabama 1 -32.5 3%
7-Sep NC A&T NR 27.0 94%
14-Sep at Middle Tennessee 104 9.7 71%
27-Sep at Virginia Tech 30 -10.2 28%
5-Oct Pittsburgh 59 1.6 54%
12-Oct Georgia Tech 89 8.9 70%
19-Oct at Virginia 41 -7.5 33%
26-Oct at North Carolina 61 -2.8 44%
9-Nov Notre Dame 12 -13.7 21%
16-Nov Syracuse 56 0.8 52%
23-Nov at Wake Forest 62 -2.7 44%
30-Nov Miami 19 -8.5 31%
Projected S&P+ Rk 65
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 89 / 38
Projected wins 5.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 3.7 (55)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 48
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -7 / -3.2
2018 TO Luck/Game -1.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 54% (37%, 71%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 6.8 (1.2)

It’s amazing to step back and realize we’re talking about steadiness and bowling and top-10 picks in a Duke football preview. When I began this preview series back in 2011, I was talking about 3-9 seasons as a sign of progress. And now we’re talking about five wins as a possible setback.

Step one toward thriving in a post-Jones universe: survive Week 1. Duke inexplicably plays Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game to start the year, and while we’ll learn a few things about the defense’s capability, it’s unlikely Duke will move the ball.

The Blue Devils are favored in four of five games post-Bama, though, and it’s imperative to their bowl hopes that they win those winnable games. Otherwise, getting to six wins will be tricky.

Of course, Cutcliffe has shown that he can weather brief setbacks. Duke did go 4-8 in Jones’ first year as starter, after all. Quarterback aside, this will be a sophomore- and junior-heavy team. Bowling again would be a nice bonus, but the primary goal is finding answers for another nice run in 2020 and beyond.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.