Short-handed Duke prepares for Alabama

Blue Devils suffer injuries while preparing for opener against Crimson Tide

Duke will face Nick Saban and powerhouse Alabama in the Kickoff Classic in Atlanta on Aug. 31. (Vasha Hunt / AP Photo)

DURHAM — Following Duke’s second scrimmage of preseason camp, coach David Cutcliffe was pleased with his first-team units.

“The first offense scored 24 points,” he said. “That’s an improvement. We had a nice two-minute drill. We took the ball 60 yards in a minute, 30 with only one time out. We had more explosive plays.”

The defense also impressed Cutcliffe.

“The first-team defense continued the trend of playing at a high level,” he said. “They held the second-team offense scoreless.”

Of course, in a week and a half, Duke’s offense and defense won’t be facing the Blue Devils’ second-teamers. They’ll be facing Alabama.

The Crimson Tide were No. 2 in the just-released AP and coaches polls, getting 10 and six first-place votes, respectively, in the two polls.

Nick Saban’s Bama teams have won four national titles this decade, including two in the last four seasons. This year’s team is also on the short list of contenders for the College Football Playoff.

“We know we’ve got a yeoman’s task,” Cutcliffe said. “When we look at Alabama tape, we realize you’re seeing one of the better college football teams of all time. It’s going to be a great challenge to us.”

It’s a challenge Duke’s players haven’t seen yet this season. The Blue Devils played at eventual national champion Clemson last year, losing 35-6. So returning players should have some idea what they’re in for.

Cutcliffe is encouraged by his team’s development this preseason, but he’s also wary of opening with the Tide.

“I don’t think any coach would feel good unless they had 100 percent of their players,” he said.

Cutcliffe and Duke are not in that position, by any means.

Duke’s roster was already on the wrong side of the talent gap with Alabama (although, in Cutcliffe’s defense, that would be true of every team, except possibly Clemson). That’s before the attrition started.

The Blue Devils got bad news on two contributors hoping to return from season-ending injuries last year. Running back Marvin Hubbard III and cornerback Mark Gilbert both had to undergo additional surgeries. Hubbard suffered a dislocated hip last year, while Gilbert ruptured his Achilles. Both needed work to clear out scar tissue and are out indefinitely. Of the two, Gilbert, who was an All-ACC candidate before the injury, is likely going to be a bigger impact loss against the Tide.

Once camp started, the hits kept coming. Wide receiver Jake Bobo, a sophomore who had 167 yards and a score in his freshman year last season, fractured his right clavicle at practice and underwent surgery. He’ll be out indefinitely. With several of last year’s top receivers — including TJ Rahming, Johnathan Lloyd, Chris Taylor and tight end Daniel Helm — gone, Bobo was expected to take on a larger role in the offense as a target for new starting quarterback Quentin Harris.

Harris is replacing Daniel Jones, who is starring for the Giants in the preseason after leaving early for the draft. It’s safe to say Cutcliffe expected to have Jones as his senior starter when he booked the Bama game.

The depth at that spot took a hit when redshirt freshman Gunnar Holmberg, expected to compete to be Harris’ backup, injured his right leg at practice. He’ll also need surgery.

“Unfortunately, Gunnar Holmberg has injured a knee,” Cutcliffe said, without specifying the injury. “He has an imminent surgery so he will be out indefinitely. It is not a ligament. At this day and time, you try to go in and repair for long-term health. I am disappointed for him and I’m disappointed for us. I know he will do everything he can to be back for us as quickly as possible.”

Cutcliffe, however, is facing the challenge of playing the Tide short-handed head-on.

“It’s real easy to play the guy who knows what to do,” he said of his backup players. “If you churn, cream rises to the top. If you’re a veteran player and somebody is playing above you, you have a choice — you’d better churn.”

In other words, injury is creating an opportunity for someone, and they need to seize it.

“It’s going to be fun to watch the backs and the receivers compete within themselves,” he said. “The bus waits on no one.”

And that bus will be leaving for Atlanta, and a date with Saban’s Alabama team, whether they’re ready or not.

“It’s a challenge,” Cutcliffe said. “And the way you test if we’re taking that challenge is on the practice field.”

Cutcliffe has seen plenty of practice this preseason.

“So far, so good,” he concluded.