With the 2016 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 to prepare you for the regular season.
With Zac Roper now at the helm of the Blue Devils’ offensive attack, Duke will look to push the ball more downfield and create opportunities for big plays from its wideouts and tight ends. The Blue Devils will face an uphill battle as they look to mitigate the losses of key seniors at the skill positions.
Although Thomas Sirk could be healthy in time for Duke's opener against N.C. Central Sept. 3, the Blue Devil wide receivers and tight ends have worked throughout the spring, summer and fall with Sirk’s backups as he rehabbed from an Achilles injury. Duke concludes training camp with a cloudy picture at both positions and clarity may not come until the Blue Devils have a few games under their belts.
Key players lost: WR Max McCaffrey, WR Johnell Barnes, TE David Reeves, TE Braxton Deaver
Duke will lose four players who all appeared in at least 10 games a season ago and were responsible for half of the team’s passing touchdowns. McCaffrey ranks as arguably the biggest loss for the Blue Devil offense, as he developed a solid connection with Sirk in the slots and intermediate passing game. The wide receiver was also one of the team’s leaders in the locker room and will leave a void that some of Duke’s young talent will be tasked to fill.
Barnes, Reeves and Deaver all stand as losses that the Blue Devils will be able to recover from. Despite his talent on the field, Barnes’ career at Duke never took off and the junior was ultimately dismissed from the program last November. Reeves finished with the third most receiving touchdowns by a tight end in program history, but his impact diminished in his final season, when he finished just ninth on the team in receiving yards with no touchdown catches. After being a third-team All-ACC selection and making ESPN’s All-Bowl team in 2013, Deaver missed the entire 2014 season with a torn right ACL and struggled in 2015.
Cutcliffe on the Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:
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I want to see who is making plays, whether it is 7-on-7 or 1-on-1. We are going against a pretty formidable secondary. If they can beat Breon [Borders] one-on-one, then they get a chance to play. In the spring, I don’t know if I saw anyone do that.
It’s not just players, it’s positions. You want production at this position, boundary receiver, tight end, running back, slot. We become hard to stop when yards production and points production comes across the board, and that’s one of the things Zac and I have talked about a lot. We hope to see that grow. I have to do a better job of helping that happen.
The Blue Devils will rely on a host of unproven options at both positions, with sophomore T.J. Rahming the leading returner with 43 receptions a year ago. Duke will also hope to get a full year of production from redshirt senior Anthony Nash, who has the size at 6-foot-5 to make for a solid target in the middle of the field and in the red zone. Roper said during fall camp that junior Johnathan Lloyd will start in the slot alongside Rahming and Nash.
Senior Ryan Smith could emerge as one of the team’s go-to wide receivers with his ability to make plays in the slot and off of quick screen passes to the sidelines. Redshirt freshman Keyston Fuller came to the Blue Devils as a four-star recruit a year ago and was named one of two most improved players on the team after spring practice, but is still recovering from surgery on a right tibia fracture in June and did not play in last Friday's intra-squad scrimmage.
At tight end, redshirt senior Erich Schneider looks set to step into a larger role after finishing with three receiving touchdowns a year ago—including a 25-yard touchdown in the fourth overtime to help Duke beat Virginia Tech—and a reception in each of the team’s last eight games. A big X-factor for Duke will be the impact of Tennessee transfer Daniel Helm and whether he can become a potent option in the red zone for the Blue Devils.
Dark Horse: WR Chris Taylor
Although the redshirt sophomore enters the season having started in only three games and hauled in just five receptions in his limited playing time to date, Taylor was one of Cutcliffe’s standouts in training camp. The Miramar, Fla., native brings speed to the Duke offense and could emerge as a deep threat as the season progresses. At 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, Taylor may have difficulty beating stronger defenders one-on-one. But with the Blue Devil wide receiver position as open as it has been in recent memory, the redshirt sophomore has the chance to turn extra opportunities into big plays on the field.
Be sure to stay with the Blue Zone for our continuing 2015 position preview series. Check in tomorrow to read about how Duke is trying to replace All-ACC center Matt Skura and guard Lucas Patrick on the offensive line.
Hank Tucker and Amrith Ramkumar contributed reporting.