Shaun Wilson figures to lead a potent Duke kick return unit.

Duke football 2017 position preview: Kick and punt return

With the 2017 season right around the corner, The Chronicle's football beat writers break down each of the nine major position groups: quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, offensive line, defensive line, defensive backs, linebackers, kicker/punter and punt/kickoff returners.

For all of Duke’s struggles last season, there was one area where it excelled: kickoff returns. 

After a porous defense allowed points in bunches, the Blue Devils got a lot of kickoff return opportunities—and made the most of them. 

Buoyed by top returner Shaun Wilson, they were third in the ACC in kick return average, giving quarterback Daniel Jones’ offense strong field position to work with. And they were nearly as good as limiting their opponents’ returns, ranking fourth in the conference in that regard. 

They were not quite as successful in the punt return game, something head coach David Cutcliffe will look to improve upon this season. 

Key Players lost: Ryan Smith and DeVon Edwards

Smith was Duke’s punt returner last season, and enjoyed moderate success, ranking seventh in the conference in punt return average. He was certainly a burner—he ran the 100-meter-dash and 4-x-100-meter relay for the track team in the spring. But Smith is the only key returner the Blue Devils will lose heading into this season. 

Edwards, an All-American specialist that holds the school record for career kick returns for touchdowns, tore his ACL early last season to cut his career short and hand the job to Wilson.

Starters: TJ Rahming, Shaun Wilson, Johnathan Lloyd

Also the team’s starting running back, Wilson will return kicks this season for the third year in a row. After seeing limited action on returns in 2015, Wilson blossomed in the return game, averaging nearly 25 yards per kickoff return, including a kick he returned for a 96-yard touchdown against Notre Dame. Although he isn’t the fastest returner by any stretch, his shiftiness makes him a deep threat. 

Lloyd will be the second man deep alongside Wilson—he has fielded just one kickoff return in his career, taking it 16 yards. 

Rahming, last season’s leading receiver, will assume the punt return duties and try to fill in for Smith’s absence. Rahming has not fielded a return in his Duke career, but took a punt for a touchdown in high school. His shiftiness and speed could make the Blue Devils more dangerous on punt returns this season.

Dark Horse: Johnathan Lloyd

If opposing teams opt to kick away from Wilson more this season, Lloyd would likely be the beneficiary. The redshirt junior could emerge as a dangerous option with the help of his strong kick-return unit. 

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