Defense expected to lead young Devils team

The Blue Devils are relying on freshmen in key spots

Junior Deon Jackson (25) is part of an experienced running back tandem with Brittain Brown. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

DURHAM — David Cutcliffe has long had the title of quarterback whisperer. This past spring, with one of his protégés — Daniel Jones — getting drafted by the Giants to replace, perhaps sooner than anyone expected, another protégé in Eli Manning, Cutcliffe has solidified his reputation.

This year, Cutcliffe’s reputation may get shattered, not because of any fault with Quentin Harris, who will be replacing Jones at quarterback. By all accounts, he’s up to the task.


“Quentin can really throw,” Cutcliffe said. “He can really manage a game. He’s all the things we’re looking for.”

No, Cutcliffe’s reputation will change because, despite all of Harris’ positive qualities, the real difference-maker of this year’s Duke Blue Devils should be its defense.

“It should be a strength,” Cutcliffe said. “Based on the number of playmakers we have back. Everybody looks to who’s gone every year. OK, look how much (linebackers) Koby Quansah and Brandon Hill have played. Talk about our defensive front, which is basically back intact. The secondary, a little bit of the same thing. Look at our safeties two-deep, our cornerbacks two-deep — we’ve got really explosive, outstanding football players on defense. We’ve still got a couple banged up. I expect, come September, at some point, we’re going to get reinforcements.”

Cutcliffe didn’t even mention his defensive line, which will be led by junior Victor Dimukeje, who had 8.5 tackles for loss last season. Tre Hornbuckle and Drew Jordan (4.0 TFL each) are battling to start at the other end spot, with Chris Rumph (8.0 TFL) providing depth. The interior features two fifth-year seniors and a junior.

Quansah should be the go-to man at linebacker, after Duke lost four-year starters Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys. Quansah suffered a broken thumb late in training camp, but he could play as soon as the opener.

The secondary will be led by safeties Dylan Singleton and Michael Carter II. Cornerback and All-ACC candidate Mark Gilbert may be one of the September reinforcements Cutcliffe was talking about. He suffered a season-ending injury last year and had a setback in the offseason requiring another surgical procedure.

On offense, Harris has starting experience, filling in when Jones was injured last season. Duke also has a pair of strong returning running backs in Deon Jackson and Brittain Brown.

Despite all the returning talent, Duke will be extremely young this year. Two true freshmen, receiver Jalon Calhoun and right tackle Jacob Monk, will start in the opener. No true freshman has started an opener on offense for Duke since 2015, and there hasn’t been a true freshman offensive lineman in the season-opening lineup since 2007.

A total of 14 freshmen appear on Duke’s two-deep depth chart. In addition to the two true freshmen, redshirt freshmen Casey Holman (left tackle) and Shaka Heyward (weakside linebacker) are expected to start.

The receiving corps has taken some flak from the national media, who has been impressed by Jones’ preseason performance with the Giants and looking for a reason he wasn’t doing it in college. Duke has also lost TJ Rahming and two other key contributors from that group of receivers. Four of the seven receivers listed on Duke’s two-deep are freshmen, including three true freshmen.

Duke has an impossible opener, in Atlanta against Alabama. A big concern is that, with such a young team, the depth could get challenged if playing the Crimson Tide produces injuries in key positions. At quarterback behind Harris, for instance, the cupboard is looking bare. Expected backup Gunnar Holmberg is out with an injury suffered in preseason practice. Chris Katrenick is unproven and looked shaky in preseason scrimmages.

Duke gets the chance to ease into the schedule following Bama week, with nonconference games against NC A&T and Middle Tennessee. Then the Blue Devils jump into the ACC schedule with a key game at Virginia Tech. A win there, and a 3-0 start to conference play is possible. A loss, and the bowl math starts to turn against Duke, with the Blue Devils possibly approaching Thanksgiving still in search of a sixth win.

Duke Blue Devils

2018 Record: 8-5 (3-5 ACC)

Coach: David Cutcliffe (111-101 career record, 67-72 at Duke)

Points Per Game: 29.4

Points Allowed Per Game: 27.4

Key Returning Players: Jr. RB Deon Jackson; Jr. DE Victor Dimukeje; Sr. LB Koby Quansah

Key Departed Players: QB Daniel Jones; LB Joe Giles-Harris

Key Additions: Fr. WR Jalon Calhoun; Fr. RT Jacob Monk

Key Game: Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va., Sept. 27