Duke fans got their first chance to see the 2018 team in action Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium in the Spring Showcase. Head coach David Cutcliffe’s squad practiced on the field for the first half of the event before scrimmaging for 50 snaps between the “Blue” and “White” teams—blue on offense, white on defense. Football beat writer Ben Leonard gives his instant observations and position battles to watch from the showcase: 

Offensive line still remains a question mark

The Blue Devils bring almost everyone back from last year’s squad—except for heavy losses up front. 

After losing three starters from an already iffy unit last season, Duke’s offensive line didn’t look great Saturday, especially in pass blocking. The Blue Devils were in the bottom half of the country in sacks allowed last season, and it looks like quarterback Daniel Jones could be under even more heat this fall. Jones was under pressure early and often, taking multiple “sacks”—quarterbacks were off limits for hits in the scrimmage. 

After losing Evan Lisle, Gabe Brandner and Austin Davis to graduation, junior left guard Julian Santos and redshirt senior Zach Harmon, who has moved to center, will look to anchor an inexperienced unit. In the action Saturday, redshirt sophomore Robert Kraeling lined up at right tackle, redshirt senior Christian Harris lined up at left tackle and sophomore Rakavius Chambers took snaps at right guard. 

Place-kicking battle appears to be a two-horse race

Cutcliffe said Duke’s abysmal kicking game in 2016 gave him acid reflux—and he hopes that won’t happen again this year. 

After placekicker/punter Austin Parker—who provided stability by making 17-of-21 field-goal tries—was dismissed from the team in December, the Blue Devils appear to have a two-man race on their hands to replace him. Junior A.J. Reed, who made just 3-of-10 tries in 2016, is vying for time with redshirt senior walk-on Collin Wareham. 

Wareham made all five of his tries in practice, including a 44-yarder, and hit another 44-yarder in the scrimmage. Reed made four of five tries in practice, missing from 40 yards out but nailing a 46-yarder in the scrimmage. Wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd did most of the holding, while sophomore walk-on Jackson Hubbard seems to have the punting job locked down. Junior walk-on Tim Skapek got some action in practice, but Hubbard was markedly better. 

"The kicking work was good for us,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got to be better in every aspect of the kicking game.”

Noah Gray breaks out in stacked receiving group

Even with a deep receiving corps returning, Duke could lean on its tight ends more this season.

Tight end Noah Gray caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Jones on a fade to the corner of the end zone and several other passes. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound sophomore appears to be the third weapon at tight end at Jones’ disposal, along with Daniel Helm and Davis Koppenhaver. Gray made an impact in limited time last season, scoring a key touchdown late against Wake Forest to help the Blue Devils earn bowl eligibility. 

“He runs routes. I’ve talked to all of our receivers and tight ends about this with a sense of urgency,” Cutcliffe said of Gray. “He comes off the football as well as anybody I’ve ever had.”

Cutcliffe is excited to work with this “interestingly good” circumstance of having so much depth at tight end, hinting that opposing teams would have to face more multiple tight-end packages this season. With weapons galore, Jones finished the day completing eight of his 15 pass attempts for 83 yards, including two scores—the other an eight-yard strike to receiver T.J. Rahming. 

Cutcliffe also praised running back Deon Jackson's receiving ability, saying that the sophomore has benefitted from improved conditioning. The presumptive backup to Brittain Brown also earned one of two offensive most improved awards presented in an on-field ceremony, with Kraeling earning the other. 

“The freshman 15—he did that quickly in fall,” Cutcliffe said of Jackson. “He’s in a great place in terms of conditioning and also just learning the offense. He has done that all spring long. He’s the best receiving and route-running running back that I’ve been around.”

Secondary looks to fill hole left by Bryon Fields Jr.

Stud sophomore cornerback Mark Gilbert will start, but Duke will have to replace his corner partner from last year. 

Redshirt freshman Myles Hudzick has stood out for Cutcliffe so far—he earned one of three defensive most improved awards—but Cutcliffe is exploring all options. He views secondary players as versatile and isn’t scared of slotting in safeties at cornerback so far. 

“We have safeties that can play corner and corners that can play safety,” Cutcliffe said. “Everybody should be able to cover and tackle. Why do we have to differentiate between them? What we’re seeing on the back end right now is five guys that are defensive backs—and we’ve got about 10 of them right now.”

The Blue Devils will also have to weather the loss of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who left Durham to take the same position at Oklahoma State in January. Knowles had been the defensive coordinator since 2010 and employed a distinctive defensive set with just two linebackers—something that continued Saturday. 

Junior linebacker Ben Humphreys said the defense has been focusing on fundamentals, not schematics, this spring, and will continue to be the leader of a Duke defense that should be stout once again. 

“We’ve all been there, through the highs and the lows,” Humphreys said. "We’re excited to build on what we’ve done.”