Chron Chat: Looking at Duke's recent dismissals and three-game losing streak

Following the dismissal of wide receivers Johnell Barnes and Terrence Alls as well as linebacker Chris Holmes, the Blue Devils head into Saturday's matchup against Virginia with many unknowns. The Chronicle's football beat writers take a look at the team's three-game losing streak and how the dismissals will impact Duke this weekend: 

1. Johnell Barnes was expected to make a big leap for the Blue Devils this season, and though his number went up significantly, it seemed like things never quite panned out. What will Duke's offense miss most without Barnes in the lineup?

Brian Mazur: Barnes hasn’t had the season we expected him to, but he did bring experience to a young wide receiver group that has struggled throughout the season. Sure Barnes never seemed to be in position to make an explosive play, but he did show that the Blue Devils could count on him late in games during his career. He had a huge fourth-quarter touchdown catch back on Oct. 31 against Miami and let’s not forget the big plays he made in last year’s Sun Bowl loss. Barnes had three years under his belt and it showed, as Duke could more or less count on him to be a reliable target. Without Barnes, the only other receiver who has seen significant playing time is Max McCaffrey, who doesn’t have Barnes’ athletic skill set.

Seth Johnson: Despite the preseason hype about Barnes, I do not think that the Blue Devils will really miss much with his dismissal. The junior dropped several key passes this year, was inconsistent for much of the season and did not break 50 yards receiving against five of Duke’s six ACC opponents so far this season. To be exact, Barnes only averaged 28.8 yards per game against conference opponents this year, and only scored a single touchdown against those same teams. Although it could be a problem depth-wise at the wide receiver position until the rest of the corps is healthy, Barnes was not productive for the Blue Devils this season in a way that suggests the offense will lose any major playmaking ability.

Nick Martin: Barnes, though not near the vertical player that Jamison Crowder was in his time at Durham, provided Duke with the threat of the homerun play. That being said, Barnes never turned that threat into action, as he didn't find the end zone once this year. I don't think this offense leaned on Barnes, per se, but he was a great No. 2 option behind McCaffrey and was willing to work on both deep and inside routes, making him a difficult cover for opposing defenses.

2. With the dismissals of Barnes and Alls, Duke is now very thin at wide receiver. Who must step up for the Blue Devils down the home stretch?

BM: I think that tight end Braxton Deaver is going to have to put up some big numbers in Duke’s final two games if the team wants to reach the eight-win mark. With the Blue Devils looking thin at receiver, look for offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery to use Deaver in the slot in addition to tight end. The redshirt senior only had four catches for 37 yards in his first six games this season, but has since become more of a target offensively, with 11 catches for 99 yards in his last three contests. You can’t realistically expect McCaffrey, Anthony Nash and T.J. Rahming to backfill Barnes’ production, but if Deaver can increase his reception number to between six and eight per game, Duke’s passing attack could receive a boost.

SJ: I would say Nash. In his last five games, Nash has only been held under 40 yards receiving once—against Miami where he only had one catch for 14 yards. Prior to this season the West Chester, Pa., native had played in 16 career games in 2013-14 and only registered five receptions for 47 yards. But last week in a losing effort against Pittsburgh, the redshirt junior showed a dynamic ability to make plays at his position. Nash broke 100 yards for the first time in his career and displayed his agility on a 52-yard crossing pattern that he took down to the one-yard line. He also made a 36-yard snag on the sideline that showcased his sure hands in tight coverage. With receivers disappearing due to injuries and dismissals, this playmaking ability could be exactly what a reeling Duke squad could use right now.

NM: I agree with Seth that Nash is the first name that comes to mind. The redshirt junior already has nearly four times as many catches this year alone as he compiled in his first two seasons combined. His hands have long been a concern, but that issue seems to fade more and more each game, as his recent five-reception, 101-yard game against Pittsburgh showed in full just how useful he can be to this team when he's out there playing confidently. He's not a break-your-ankles player like Barnes can be, but in terms of replacing their vertical threat, Nash, who boasts a team-leading 16.3 yards per catch, is the Blue Devils' best available option.

3. The past few weeks have been rough for the Blue Devils, between the controversial Miami loss, two blowout losses, the injury to Thomas Sirk and now the three dismissals. What should we expect from Duke when it takes the field Saturday in Charlottesville?

BM: I think the Blue Devils get back on track against a struggling Virginia program that will likely fire head coach Mike London at the end of the season. Sirk should return under center against a Cavalier secondary that has struggled mightily this season. The defense will give up some big plays through the air to Virginia quarterback Matt Johns early, but I think Duke will pull away in the fourth quarter and win this one 31-14.

SJ: With all of the questions in the passing game, I expect the Blue Devils to rely more heavily on the ground game if they expect to come away with a win. The Cavaliers allow 171.3 yards per game on the ground on 4.8 yards per carry. In the last five contests, Duke has racked up more than 175 yards on the ground four times—including a 327-yard performance against North Carolina. If they can find a way to repeat that performance on Saturday, it will be hard for Virginia to keep up. But the Cavaliers are not a team to be overlooked. Four of their seven losses this season have been by a touchdown or less—including a 34-27 loss to Notre Dame—and despite not being eligible for the postseason even if they win out, they could be dangerous this weekend. Look for a close contest—less than 10 points—for either team when the clock strikes zero.

NM: After the past three weeks: anything. Duke is playing its worst football of the year in all facets of the game. and seems to have strayed from brought them success in the early going—resilient defense and a capable offense. Now, with just two games remaining, the Blue Devils could very well go out and finish the season in an inspiring fashion, or they could continue to put together the same unwatchable performances we've seen out of them the past two weeks. I would like to point out that I was fairly impressed with Parker Boehme in the first half, as his ball had more zip on it and he was more willing to take the time and go through his progressions than Sirk. With games against Virginia and Wake Forest coming up, Duke should finish the season with eight wins, but if the Miami loss taught us anything, it's that football can be a very confusing and fickle game. 

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