With Duke's 2017 football season kicking off Saturday against N.C. Central in Wallace Wade Stadium, The Chronicle's football beat writers and sports editors made predictions on how the team will fare and which players will stand out the most.
Regular season record
Ben Leonard: 8-4. With an improved offensive line and a quarterback in Daniel Jones that could take the next step this season, the Blue Devils are in line to surprise many with one of the best passing attacks in the conference. Duke has all of its hardest games at home and only two games it could lose on the road—against UNC, which it beat last season and against Virginia Tech, which it was a blocked field goal from beating. The Blue Devils lost most of its close games last season, and won’t suffer that fate again this year.
Ben Feder: 5-7. Although quarterback Daniel Jones should take a step forward in his second year under center, there are too many concerns throughout the roster, and too tough of a schedule to improve much on last season’s 4-8 record. To become bowl eligible, Duke is going to have to win some contests it could not last season—against Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Virginia—and even if the offense can keep the Blue Devils afloat, a bunch of young defensive players are going to have to step up, both on the defensive line and in the secondary.
Hank Tucker: 4-8. I'm not buying into the hype that Duke will be any better than it was last year, and the schedule does the Blue Devils no favors with matchups against Florida State and two Power-5 nonconference opponents. The only essentially guaranteed win on the schedule is the season opener against N.C. Central, and although Virginia and Army are not particularly good, both of those games could be close on the road. Jones can only do so much at quarterback, and an inexperienced secondary and defensive line is a bad formula for Duke's defense.
Michael Model: 6-6. Following a rough start to the 2016 campaign— which included tough losses to Wake Forest and a 34-20 defeat at the hands of Virginia in which quarterback Daniel Jones threw five interceptions— the Blue Devils were able to stay competitive in the second half, playing close games against no. 7 Louisville and no. 19 Virginia Tech on the road, and defeating no. 17 North Carolina at home. If Duke can limit explosive plays and stay in ballgames, I can see them remaining competitive in the majority of their games. If the Blue Devils can produce at home and get a victory against Pittsburgh or Miami and avoid those aforementioned devastating losses of last season. I can see Duke cruising to a 6-6 record and making it back to a bowl game after a one year hiatus.
Mitchell Gladstone: 6-6. This is a tough call because in all honesty, I don’t think the floor is all that low for this team, but at the same time—due to a handful of tough opponents—the ceiling is not particularly high. I can probably chalk up a trio of easy victories (N.C. Central, Virginia and Army) and three expected losses (Florida State, Virginia Tech and Baylor). Ultimately, Duke might pull off a surprise win or lose a game it should win or both, and in the end, it all comes out a wash. The Blue Devils finish the regular season at .500 and earn themselves a chance to make it a winning season for the fourth time in the last five years.
Ben Leonard: Daniel Jones. After emerging late last season as one of the ACC’s top signal-callers, Jones will lead a resurgent Duke offense that takes it to the next level under his watch. Backed by an improved offensive line, his continued development will help open holes for Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown to run.
Ben Feder: Daniel Jones. Gone are running backs Joseph Ajeigbe and Jela Duncan, and in is graduate transfer right tackle Evan Lisle, who should provide more stability to the offensive line. It is Jones’ time to shine. With an emerging group of wide receivers, a solid tight end in Daniel Helm, and an explosive running back in Shaun Wilson, Jones has all the weapons at his disposal for a dominant 2017-18 season.
Hank Tucker: Daniel Jones. Who else could the choice be? Jones will be the star of the show this year without Duncan in the backfield with him, and he will likely spread his completions out to a variety of receivers. Jones will have to have a good season for Duke to have any success at all, considering the deficiencies it has on defense.
Michael Model: Daniel Jones. After a tough start to his college career, Jones showed his potential in the second half of the season. In the Blue Devils’ final six contests, the Charlotte, N.C., native completed more than 63 percent of his passes, while boasting a touchdown to interception ratio of nine to one. Although Duke went just 1-5 over that span, Jones did an excellent job of keeping the Blue Devils in the game and giving the team a chance to win. The redshirt-sophomore is also a two-way player, and led the Blue Devils’ in rushing touchdowns with seven while finishing as the team’s second-leading rusher with 486 yards a season ago.
Mitchell Gladstone: T.J. Rahming. Over and over, it’s been one name for the Duke offense: Daniel Jones. But do not sleep on the guy that will be Jones’ number one target after pulling in more than twice as many passes as any player on the Blue Devil roster target last season. Head coach David Cutcliffe said earlier this week that Rahming has potential similar to that of former wideout Jamison Crowder, who was twice named first-team All-ACC and finished his career with a conference-record 283 receptions.
Ben Leonard: Ben Humphreys. While questions swirl about Duke’s secondary and defensive line, the middle linebacker will play quarterback for a strong linebacking corps. He racked up 106 tackles last season—one shy of tying for tops on the team—and will continue to be a force in opponents' backfields this season.Speedy, big and strong at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, there's no question why many have tabbed him as a preseason All-ACC selection.
Ben Feder: Joe Giles-Harris. Last season, Duke counted on its linebackers to make a ton of plays, as Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys led the team in tackles by a largin margin. But with Humphreys coming off offseason shoulder surgery, Giles-Harris may need to showcase his immense talent even more this season.
Hank Tucker: Ben Humphreys. Linebacker is the one position group on defense that will have both talented and experienced players on the field. Humphreys, a third-team All-ACC pick last year, will do as much as he can along with Giles-Harris to make up for the question marks both on the defensive line and in the secondary.
Michael Model: Joe Giles-Harris. The redshirt-sophomore was arguably the Blue Devils best defender last season. Giles-Harris led Duke with 107 tackles and was a wall on defense, forcing 9.5 tackles for a loss last season. In just his second season as a starter, Giles-Harris is back and stronger than ever and will lead a Blue Devils’ defense which struggled, allowing more than 28 points a game a season ago.
Mitchell Gladstone: Joe Giles-Harris. This is not a particularly hard choice. Giles-Harris and his roommate, fellow linebacker Ben Humphreys, are far and away the two best players on this unit and the pair will very likely lead Duke in tackles once again. So why Giles-Harris? He’s probably slightly more athletic and will carry the motivation of wanting to out-tackle his buddy for a second straight season.
Ben Leonard: Virginia Tech. Duke was a blocked field goal away from beating the Hokies last year and should be able to push them this season, even on the road. Until last season, the Blue Devils had played tough on the road under Cutcliffe, and figure to reestablish that success this year against Virginia Tech, which does not have any experienced quarterbacks on its roster and has to replace two star offensive linemen, Augie Conte and Jonathan McLaughlin.
Ben Feder: Georgia Tech. Last season, with an inexperienced Jones at the helm, Duke lost a tight contest in Atlanta 38-35. Now, with Georgia Tech’s starting quarterback Justin Thomas out of the picture, the Blue Devils will not have to deal with a dynamic veteran in his third season running the triple-option. At home, with an offense that should improve with Jones, the Blue Devils will get just enough stops to prevail.
Hank Tucker: Pittsburgh. With the Panthers losing running back James Conner and quarterback Nathan Peterman to the NFL, they could be vulnerable to their first loss to Duke since 2014 when they come to Durham Oct. 21. In the midst of a brutal home schedule, this will be one game that makes the Wallace Wade faithful happy.
Michael Model: Miami. The Blue Devils will face Miami after a tough stretch against Northwestern, Baylor, and North Carolina. Jones had a tendency to step up in big games last season, keeping Duke close against Notre Dame, North Carolina, Louisville, and Virginia Tech. Following losses to Baylor and North Carolina this year on the road, the Blue Devils will be hungry come Sept. 29. With a streak of three-straight losses looming, Jones passes for over 300 yards and no interceptions as Duke knocks off a top-20 opponent for the second-consecutive season.
Mitchell Gladstone: Northwestern. Is Georgia Tech or Pittsburgh a particularly good win? I’m not quite sure. But I do think that the Blue Devils will get a big-time victory, especially with all of their tough home contests this season. And in 2017, Duke finally gets off the schnide versus the Wildcats. Daniel Jones steps up in his first home test and gets revenge on a Northwestern defense that absolutely shut down the Blue Devil offense last year in Evanston, Ill.
Ben Leonard: Northwestern. Quarterback Clayton Thorson had Duke's number last season—and don't expect that to change. He torched a Blue Devil secondary that is better than it will be this season for 324 yards, and the Wildcats snuffed Duke’s offense almost entirely. The Blue Devils will continue to grow as the season goes on, but they will fall victim to the perpetually underrated Wildcats once again.
Ben Feder: Virginia. An imposing defensive front wreaked havoc on Jones last season, who had six turnovers in his worst performance last season. Quarterback Kurt Benkert decimated the Blue Devil secondary, which has lost many key pieces from last season and is littered with inexperience. With this game in Charlottesville, Va., the Cavaliers have the tools to pull off a second straight upset.
Hank Tucker: Virginia. The Cavaliers have not been very good in recent years, but they have found ways to have success against Duke with back-to-back wins. Benkert is the only returning starting quarterback in the ACC's Coastal Division other than Daniel Jones, and he already torched the Blue Devil secondary once last season—I agree with Ben Feder that he can do it again.
Michael Model: Wake Forest. Wake Forest was relevant in 2016, when they became bowl eligible for just the second time since 2008. There’s no reason to expect drop off from this squad this season. The Demon Deacons will return quarterback John Wolford, leading-rusher Matt Coburn and sophomore Cade Carney who gained 103 yards and three touchdowns against the Blue Devils a year ago. Duke will be bowl eligible when they enter their final contest, but will fall to Wake Forest for the second-consecutive season.
Mitchell Gladstone: Wake Forest. After winning seven games last season, the Demon Deacons are no longer a walkover. The Blue Devils should have a bowl game locked up by this contest on the final week of the regular season, however. Still, with a chance to end the ACC season on a high note and potentially put themselves in position for a big-time bowl game, Duke falters against Wake Forest for a second season.
Ben Leonard: Brittain Brown. Brown rushed 19 times for 143 times this fall in scrimmages, and should emerge as a strong No. 2 back behind Shaun Wilson—at the very least. Head coach David Cutcliffe had a difficult time not playing him as a true freshman last season, and he will break out on the scene as a potent back in some capacity this season.
Ben Feder: Mark Gilbert. Although he played sparingly at the beginning of the season as a true freshman, Mark Gilbert showed flashes of talent behind All-ACC performer Breon Borders. Now, Gilbert will have his time to shine in a starting role, and the combination of his athleticism and his size at 6-foot-1, will help him become a playmaker in a Duke secondary desperate for one.
Hank Tucker: Brittain Brown. With a distinct skillset from starter Shaun Wilson, Brown could a lot of time on the field right away and a lot of chances at touchdowns in short-yardage goal-line situations. Wilson has never been a very consistent threat, and I could see Brown getting more and more opportunities if he proves himself as the season progresses.
Michael Model: Brittain Brown. After being redshirted due to a surplus of depth at the running back position last season, Brown should get plenty of opportunities to impress this season. With the departures of Jela Duncan and Joseph Ajeigbe, Brown will give Cutcliffe an option to go with a much bigger back given his 6-foot-1 frame. Much bigger than incumbent starter senior Shaun Wilson, Brown will plow through opposing offenses and end up splitting the load with Wilson. Come 2018, Brown will be the team’s number-one option and a force in the Blue Devils backfield.
Mitchell Gladstone: Scott Bracey. This one could be a total flop—Bracey was listed as a second-string wideout on the first depth chart of the season and Cutcliffe mentioned that his condition was not yet up to par. But just as the Blue Devil head coach pushed Mark Gilbert back into a starting role, I think Cut and offensive coordinator Zac Roper do the same with Bracey, who was inside the top 200 prospects in ESPN’s Class of 2016. By season’s end, he is Duke’s No. 3 wideout and pulls in four touchdowns.