This column is part of the dueling columnist segment in our ACC football preview. The point can be viewed here.
Whenever the football schedule has been released for most of head coach David Cutcliffe’s tenure at Duke, I have tried to find the six wins the Blue Devils need for bowl eligibility.
That is an impossible task this year.
Duke has its hardest schedule in years and lost its best playmakers on offense, defense and special teams—both factors that do not bode well for a fifth straight bowl appearance. There are young pieces in place for future success in 2017 and 2018, but this season has the looks of a rebuilding year.
The Blue Devils play 10 teams this year that they also played in 2015, when they went 5-5 against those opponents. The only differences in the schedule are that this year, Duke plays Louisville and Notre Dame—two preseason top-20 teams—instead of Boston College and Tulane, who combined to go 6-18 last season.
It is reasonable to assume that if last season’s Duke team played this season’s schedule, those two wins would have turned into losses and the Blue Devils would have finished 5-7. And I think Duke was better last year than it will be this year.
The Blue Devils had six All-ACC selections in 2015—center Matt Skura, specialist DeVon Edwards, strike safety Jeremy Cash, linebacker Dwayne Norman, kicker Ross Martin and punter Will Monday. All but Edwards graduated, leaving Duke searching for replacements at some of the most important positions on the field.
Redshirt junior Austin Davis will be thrust into the starting center role with just 13 games and 127 career snaps under his belt. He will be called on to lead an offensive line that is also replacing honorable mention All-ACC performer Lucas Patrick with redshirt freshman Zach Baker at left guard. Head coach David Cutcliffe has noted in the preseason that having young linemen on both sides of the line of scrimmage—the defensive line only returns one starter—represents one of his biggest concerns heading into the season.
Special teams is another major question mark entering the 2016 campaign.
Martin influenced multiple games with his right foot during his career as the best kicker in program history, scoring all nine points with three field goals in last year's 9-7 win against Boston College. It is hard to count on freshman newcomer A.J. Reed swinging a game like that right away. The same can be said for redshirt freshman punter Austin Parker in Monday’s role
Cash’s talent as a former ACC Defensive Player of the Year is irreplaceable and helped shut down opposing rushing attacks along with Norman. Projected starting linebackers Ben Humphreys and Joe Giles-Harris and strike safety Corbin McCarthy are not as experienced and probably will not be as effective near the line of the scrimmage as that duo.
Although Duke’s secondary will still be one of its most experienced and talented units led by Edwards and veterans Bryon Fields, Breon Borders and Deondre Singleton, it will be hard to keep teams out of the end zone if the Blue Devils cannot stop the run and pressure opposing quarterbacks consistently.
Those five losses would provide enough reason to believe Duke will take a step back this year even if they did not also have to replace their starting quarterback. But they do.
Thomas Sirk partially tore the same left Achilles’ tendon last week that he tore in February, sidelining him for the season. Sirk passed for 16 touchdowns last year and was also the Blue Devils' leading rusher, but instead of an experienced redshirt senior under center when Duke opens the season Saturday, it will be redshirt freshman Daniel Jones.
Jones was able to get a lot of work in with the first-team offense in spring and fall camp while Sirk was recovering from his initial injury. But repetitions in practice do not entirely prepare a young quarterback for a hostile environment on the road against a decent team, a scenario the Blue Devils will encounter six times this season.
And when Jones drops back to pass this season, he will not have Duke’s most reliable option to throw to from 2015. Max McCaffrey graduated after leading the Blue Devils in receiving yards and touchdowns last season, leaving T.J. Rahming and Anthony Nash as the team’s best options in the passing game. The receiving corps does not have much depth, with highly-touted freshman Scott Bracey missing most of fall camp due to a hamstring injury and tight ends Braxton Deaver and David Reeves also gone from last year's team.
Duke's starting running back, Shaquille Powell, graduated too, and although Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson have both had success at the position, they might not be as effective behind a young line and a young quarterback.
The Blue Devils are recruiting more talent than ever before, but it is hard for freshmen to step in and make an immediate impact in college football. Cutcliffe’s program will not stay out of the postseason for long, but a 4-8 or 5-7 finish is much more likely for this team than 6-6 or anything better.
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