Duke talent spread across the field

David Cutcliffe has his most-talented Blue Devils team ever

Duke wide receiver T.J. Rahming is one of several returning starters on the Blue Devils offense. (Mark Dolejs / USA TODAY Sports)

CHARLOTTE — It’s preseason watchlist season, where we see that the only thing college football has more of than bowl games is trophies.

Each position on the field has an honor, and over two weeks in July, a list of two dozen of the best players at that spot is released. So far a baker’s dozen of watchlists have been released, including ones for the top receiver, tight end, quarterback, running back, defensive player, defensive back.

The 13th watchlist to be released was for the Outland Trophy, given to football’s top interior lineman. The list does not include a Duke Blue Devil.

Why is that a surprise? Because up until that point, a Duke player had been included on every list. The Blue Devils were the only Division I team to go 12 for 12 on watchlists, leading up to the Outland.

National champion Alabama? The Crimson Tide were eliminated on the third list released — the Biletnikoff (given to the top receiver). So were national runner-up Georgia and ACC champion Clemson. Coastal champion Miami didn’t have a player on the Davey O’Brien (quarterback) list or the Mackey (tight end). In fact, every other ACC team had been left off of at least two lists, and only Miami and Clemson joined Duke on at least half of them.

In other words, Duke not only has talent, but it’s spread all around the field this season, in a way that few other programs can boast.

“I think this could be our best team,” said coach David Cutcliffe.

The defense has plenty of people excited in Durham, led by linebackers Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys, cornerback Mark Gilbert and a defensive line that — despite what the Outland people think — has plenty of talent as well.

“I think we’re a really talented group this year,” Giles-Harris said. “We’re excited about it. We’ve got a lot of guys back. We had a D-line that was phenomenal last year. Our linebackers are back. We’re ready to go, and we’ve got a secondary who’s explosive, fun, fast and exciting to watch. The sky’s the limit for this group. We’re excited.”

There’s just as much excitement on the other side of the ball.

Third-year starting quarterback Daniel Jones is joined by running back Brittain Brown, receiver T.J. Rahming, tight end Daniel Helm and an experienced line.

“It’s certainly an exciting position to be in as a quarterback with the receivers we have coming back,” Jones said, “and a lot of the same faces in the same positions to make explosive plays, make plays down the field, and I’m looking forward to that opportunity, for sure.”

The players being named to all the watchlists are the frontline starters, but, as any college coach knows, all the star power in the world is no match for the injury bug. However, Duke has confidence in the players that aren’t being named to the lists, as well.

“I think we’ve got the best depth we’ve had at Duke,” Cutcliffe said. “After spring ball, I always ask what our backups look like. I sit down with our staff on each side of the ball and say, ‘Let’s talk about our backups.’ They usually don’t like to do that, but this year, we had good conversations about it and everybody felt better (than usual) about them.”

The team has taken its share of lumps in recent years, missing a bowl game two years ago in Jones’ freshman year before rallying to finish 6-6 in the regular season last year and earning a bowl bid.

Needless to say, the players won’t be resting on their preseason watchlist accolades.

“You get a little bit of noise talked about you, but that doesn’t really mean much until you have to get out there and play football,” Giles-Harris said. “Everything sounds nice in the offseason, but until you get on the field and start playing. … We look at last year and we did a lot of great things last year, but we want to be better than last year. We’re a different group, and we’re excited about where we can go.”

Then there are the intangibles, something for which football doesn’t have an award — at least not yet.

“Everybody talks about their team’s chemistry,” Cutcliffe said. “Chemistry is only built through being great teammates, so that’s the most critical thing we do starting in January. You come back from a bowl victory hopefully, but you’ve got a whole brand new football team. You do have to replace starters. But if you’ve got a good football program, it’s not done with people who haven’t been around, that they don’t know each other, they don’t know what’s required from them.”

The pieces are all in place for Duke. Something that, at least in preseason watchlist season, no other team can say.