With Duke's 2016 football season kicking off Saturday against N.C. Central in Wallace Wade Stadium, The Chronicle's football beat writers and editors in the sports department made predictions on how the team will fare and which players will stand out the most.
Amrith Ramkumar: 6-6—I think Duke can get off to a strong start and win enough games in the Coastal Division to keep its bowl streak alive, but it's going to be close. The only almost guaranteed wins for the Blue Devils are N.C. Central and Army, so they will have to be more consistent week in and week out than they have in the past. I think they can get that done and win enough close games again to make their fifth straight bowl game.
Brian Mazur: 6-6—Without the likes of Thomas Sirk, Matt Skura, Max McCaffrey, Jeremy Cash and Carlos Wray, the Blue Devils have a lot of questions to answer on both sides of the football, as well as on special teams without Will Monday and Ross Martin. Combine this with a tough schedule that includes road games at Notre Dame, Louisville, Northwestern and Miami, and Duke will suffer its worst season since 2012. But there are enough winnable games on the schedule for the Blue Devils to get to six wins and play in a bowl game for the fifth straight year.
Hank Tucker: 4-8—Duke has to replace five of its six All-ACC players last year and its starting quarterback. The Blue Devils play six good teams on the road. It will be very hard to win any of those games. It will be very hard to beat North Carolina at home. Duke will probably lose at least one home game against Virginia, Virginia Tech or Wake Forest—all solid ACC teams. That is a reasonable way to get to eight losses, as pessimistic as it sounds.
Ben Feder: 6-6—With easy games on the slate to kick off the season against N.C. Central and Wake Forest, I would be shocked if the Blue Devils do not start off 2-0. Also, these games give starting quarterback Daniel Jones important in-game experience at the college level before running into two strong opponents on the road in Northwestern and Notre Dame, both games that I expect Duke to lose. After that, although the Blue Devils dropped their contest against Virginia last season, Duke was overwhelmed by injuries—including one to then-starting quarterback Thomas Sirk. The Blue Devils will beat the Cavaliers for their third win and then will win three out of the four contests against Army, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh to become bowl eligible.
Sameer Pandhare: 5-7—The Blue Devils' schedule sets them up for a fast start and Duke could even be 5-1 heading into the meat of its conference schedule if it can steal a win against Northwestern. Ultimately, I don't think this team will have much success on the road due to its youth at key positions on both sides of the ball. The Blue Devils have the look of a team that hangs in a lot of close games, but struggles to close in the fourth quarter. Duke's ability to make a fifth straight bowl game will depend on whether they can pull out at least two wins against the trio of Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh.
Sam Turken: 6-6—With so much uncertainty on both sides of the ball, six wins is the best Duke can do this year. The only ways that the Blue Devils can contend for a Coastal Division title is if their defense suddenly becomes one of the best units in the country or Jones becomes a star—both of which are unlikely. With several new successful coaches in the Coastal now, Duke’s competition will also be much better. Miami, Virginia and Virginia Tech—who have mostly struggled in recent years—are all on the rise.
AR: RB Jela Duncan—If the Blue Devils are going to be successful without Thomas Sirk, Duncan is going to need to have a big year, and I see 2016 as the year one of the most physical runners in the ACC breaks out. The redshirt senior has never averaged fewer than 5.0 yards per carry in a season, and he should provide the reliable figure in the backfield Duke needs to take pressure off its quarterbacks and create opportunities for other playmakers like Shaun Wilson and T.J. Rahming.
BM: RB Shaun Wilson—We have seen flashes of Wilson’s ability to break big plays at any moment during the past two seasons, but I think 2016 will be the year Wilson begins to cement himself as the best player on the offensive side of the football for the Blue Devils. With three starters returning on the offensive line, there will be plenty of holes for Wilson to break through this year, and look for him to take full advantage.
HT: RB Jela Duncan—The redshirt senior running back is entering his final year in a Duke uniform, and the Blue Devil offense will revolve around the running game with Sirk out for the season with a partially torn left Achilles’ tendon. I expect Duncan to have a few 100-yard games on the ground, bruising weaker defensive fronts and helping Duke move the chains to take pressure off Daniel Jones.
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BF: RB Jela Duncan—The most consistent threat for the Blue Devils entering this season will be one of the two featured running backs in an offense with a first-year signal-caller. Expect offensive coordinator Zac Roper to call Duncan’s number early and often, especially when second-string Shaun Wilson is having an off day.
SP: RB Shaun Wilson—The running back has flashed his tantalizing potential at times during his career. Provided more carries this season, I think Wilson takes the step the coaching staff has been waiting for and becomes the consistent runner the team needs. The Blue Devils will definitely rely on their ground game, and I expect Wilson to be the biggest beneficiary of the team's youth at the quarterback position.
ST: WR Anthony Nash—I’m going to go in a different direction and say Anthony Nash. I think Jones, as a young and inexperienced quarterback, will struggle to look through his progressions. He may very well just pass to his first and second targets—which will likely be Nash and T.J. Rahming. At 6-foot-5, Nash is a big target whose ability to jump and go after balls will offer Jones some security. Jones won’t always have to be 100 percent accurate when passing to his most experienced receiver.
AR: LB Ben Humphreys—Humphreys said he has added about 20 pounds to his frame in the offseason, which could make for a scary combination of speed and strength in the heart of the Blue Devils' 4-2-5 defense. The sophomore had 11 tackles in Duke's Pinstripe Bowl win and seems perfectly positioned to rack up big numbers and create turnovers this year like All-ACC linebacker Dwayne Norman did last season.
BM: CB Breon Borders—Although Borders struggled at times last season, he has become Duke’s best one-on-one pass defender. The Blue Devils will face some good quarterbacks this season, and I believe they will be throwing away from Borders most of the time. Those who do decide to test the senior will rarely be rewarded, and I expect Borders to lead the team in pass breakups and interceptions this season.
HT: LB Ben Humphreys—Humphreys will have a breakthrough season as the Blue Devils’ starting middle linebacker, replacing Norman. Humphreys has the size to step up and stop the run and is also versatile enough to drop back and cover opposing tight ends or receivers in the slot. Just a sophomore this season, Humphreys has the talent to develop into one of the ACC’s best defenders for years to come.
BF: LB Ben Humphreys—After an impressive performance in last year’s New Era Pinstripe Bowl, Humphreys is expected to fill the leadership void left by All-American Jeremy Cash. The sophomore linebacker has garnered plenty of respect from both his fellow teammates and coaches, and as one of the featured players on defense, he should have a monster year, especially in stopping the run.
SP: LB Ben Humphreys—All aboard the Humphreys hype train. The sophomore linebacker looks poised to take the next big step after a solid performance in the Pinstripe Bowl. Humphreys has the size and speed to excel and should be able to turn his offseason work in the weight room into immediate results for the Blue Devils.
ST: LB Devon Edwards—Humphreys may have a breakout year, but Edwards is the secondary’s new leader and has a chance to be a ball hawk. Although he had just one interception last year, Edwards had three his redshirt freshman year. He may not be as multi-dimensional as Jeremy Cash was, but I expect Edwards to be all around the field, whether it be at safety, nickelback or corner.
AR: Virginia Tech (Nov. 5)—With almost the entire Hokie offense returning and an offensive-minded head coach in Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech could challenge for the Coastal Division title this year. That's why I think a Duke win against the Hokies could be the November one that propels the Blue Devils back to a bowl game and will become their signature win of the regular season after road games against Georgia Tech and Louisville. If Duke doesn't beat the Hokies, its closing stretch against North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Miami could send the team to its worst finish since 2011.
BM: Northwestern (Sept. 17)—The Blue Devils will start the season 3-0 after notching a solid early-season road upset against Northwestern on Sept. 17. This pivotal road win will give the Blue Devils a huge boost heading into a contest with Notre Dame the next weekend.
HT: Virginia Tech (Nov. 5)—Duke's bowl hopes could be hanging by a thread when the Hokies visit Durham. Jones will play a mistake-free game at quarterback, leading a couple of scoring drives and letting the defense do the rest. A strong Blue Devil defensive line could contain Hokie running back Travon McMillian, putting pressure on inconsistent quarterback Brendan Motley to make plays through the air.
BF: Virginia Tech (Nov. 5)—After last season’s thrilling 45-43 quadruple overtime victory against the Hokies, expect tensions to be running high on both sides coming into the game. This contest may make or break Duke’s bowl hopes with a showdown looming five days later against arch rival North Carolina, which is expected to be one of the top teams in the Coastal Division this season. I expect the Blue Devils to put everything on the line in front of their home crowd to score a major tally in the win column as the season winds down.
SP: Virginia Tech (Nov. 5)—The Blue Devils' 75th Anniversary celebration of the 1942 Rose Bowl will end on a sweet note with a much-needed victory against the Hokies. The win could be a big win for the team after what I see as consecutive road losses against Louisville and Georgia Tech. Although the game may not be as crazy as last season's four-overtime affair, expect it to be entertaining, as both teams will desperately need wins to qualify for a bowl game.
ST: Northwestern (Sept. 17)—It’s hard to figure how good the Wildcats will be this year because they also have several questions to answer. But if the Blue Devils can establish their running game and play solid defense, they may come out with the win in a low-scoring affair and head to Notre Dame the following week 3-0.
Most disappointing loss
AR: Georgia Tech (Oct. 29)—The Blue Devils have beaten the Yellow Jackets two straight times, but I think it will be hard for Duke to stop Paul Johnson's triple option attack without All-American Jeremy Cash. It's a winnable game for the Blue Devils, who will be in trouble if they can't find a way to beat either Northwestern or Georgia Tech on the road.
BM: North Carolina (Nov. 10)—For the second time in three years, North Carolina makes the short trip from Chapel Hill for a highly-anticipated Thursday night showdown with Duke. The Tar Heels will squeak past Duke in the fourth quarter en route to a second straight Coastal Division title.
HT: Wake Forest (Sept. 10)—This will be Jones’ first career action against an FBS team, and although the Demon Deacons have lost four straight to the Blue Devils, three of those games were decided by one possession. A couple of freshman mistakes by Jones could be enough to swing the game Wake Forest’s way and send Duke to a surprising loss in its conference opener.
BF: North Carolina (Nov. 10)—After being embarrassed the past two seasons against its hated rivals, Duke will want to avoid the same fate in a third straight season. But behind an experienced offensive line and All-ACC running back Elijah Hood, the Tar Heels will handle the Blue Devils easily on the road, reinforcing their recent dominance over Duke.
SP: Miami (Nov. 26)—After last season's late-game officiating debacle, the Blue Devils would like nothing more than to exact a measure of revenge against the Hurricanes. Unfortunately, Miami boasts a much more talented team and Duke has traditionally struggled down in South Florida. Considering this game may also hold bowl implications, another loss to the Hurricanes would be quite the bummer for the Blue Devils.
ST: Virginia Tech (Nov. 5)—Duke defeated the Hokies last year in a four-overtime thriller. This year’s outcome may not be as close and probably will not be in Duke’s favor. With new head coach Justin Fuente and a lot of talent returning, Virginia Tech will have too much offensive firepower for the Blue Devils. It is only a winnable game if Duke can score enough points to keep up with the Hokies in a shootout.
Best offensive newcomer
AR: TE Daniel Helm—Tight ends are an important part of Duke's offense, creating holes for running backs and receivers by blocking and providing big, quarterback-friendly targets in the red zone. I think Helm, a Tennessee transfer, can help Jones find his footing early in the season in both players' first year of game action for the Blue Devils.
BM: WR Scott Bracey—Bracey is one of the most talented recruits to ever play football at Duke and is expected to contribute right away. Although he is currently struggling with a hamstring injury, look for him to provide a spark to an offense that is surrounded by questions heading into the season.
HT: QB Daniel Jones—There is a reason Jones leapfrogged veteran quarterback Parker Boehme in training camp to be the starter heading into the season. Jones does not have the dual threat ability that Sirk would if he was healthy, but he is a poised pocket passer and should be a good game manager. Jones has worked with the Blue Devils’ stable of receiving threats during spring camp and fall practice and has had time to develop downfield chemistry with T.J. Rahming and Anthony Nash.
BF: QB Daniel Jones—With Bracey sidelined with a hamstring issue and Sirk out for the season, the choice becomes easy. I expect Jones to have a solid first season as the team’s signal-caller, as his pocket presence and big arm will give the Blue Devils a passing weapon that they did not have with Sirk at the helm.
SP: TE Daniel Helm—Duke will need somebody to step up at the tight end position without Braxton Deaver and David Reeves, and Helm has the experience and maturity to contribute right away. The Chatham, Ill., native made two starts for Tennessee in his freshman season and will form a big target at 6-foot-4 for Jones to find in short-yardage situations.
ST: WR Scott Bracey—I’m excited to see Bracey take the field. As a four-star recruit, he drew offers from some of the country’s best programs. I expect the Blue Devils to use him in a variety of ways, including at wide receiver and possibly in the backfield, to take advantage of his speed and athleticism.
Best defensive newcomer
AR: DE Chidi Okonya—At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, Okonya has the long arms and build necessary to become a dangerous edge rusher. Given Duke's youth at the defensive end position, I think he can make multiple impact plays in his first year in Durham and give the Blue Devils a bright future at the position along with underclassmen Marquies Price, Terrell Lucas and Tre Hornbuckle.
BM: CB Mark Gilbert—He won’t see a ton of playing time, barring a suspension or injury, but will likely have opportunities at cornerback behind Borders and Bryon Fields. Gilbert enrolled last January, so he has had time to adapt to defensive coordinator Jim Knowles' system and impressed coaches during spring and fall camps.
HT: DE Chidi Okonya—One of Duke’s top recruits in its freshman class, Okonya will have a chance to make an impact right away on a defensive line that returns only one starter from last year. Okonya could become a formidable pass rusher at his size, forming a fearsome duo with Marquies Price at defensive end to replace Deion Williams and Kyler Brown.
BF: DE Chidi Okonya—After a weak pass rush accounted for only 17 sacks last season, Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles knew that change was sorely needed. Enter new defensive line coach Ben Albert, who could shake things up for the Blue Devils. Albert and the coaching staff are expected to rotate in a lot of young linemen to see who can fill the void left by three departing starters from last year. Okonya fits the bill, and the freshman should have ample snaps to make his presence felt with little depth up front.
SP: DE Chidi Okonya—The Blue Devils are placing a premium on getting to the quarterback this season, and that starts with more aggressive play from their front line. Okonya enters as one of the team's top recruits and has the size and physicality to make an impact right away. Expect the defensive end to make the transition to the collegiate game seamlessly and emerge as one of the best defensive players on the team as the season progresses.
ST: S Dylan Singleton—He probably will not receive much playing time, given Duke’s depth in the secondary. But the brother of senior safety Deondre Singleton has potential. Singleton was another top recruit, drawing offers from Ohio State, Georgia and Auburn, among others.
Number of Daniel Jones passing touchdowns
AR: 18—I think Jones will surprise some Duke fans with his accuracy and decision-making early in the season, so even if he struggles against stiff competition on the road, he could easily end up with 18, if not more, touchdown passes. The Blue Devils' weapons at wide receiver are relatively limited beyond Rahming and Anthony Nash, but with Helm and 6-foot-7 tight end Erich Schneider as options, I think Jones has a chance to close in on the 20-touchdown mark.
BM: 16—Jones will find success early on in the season before struggling against some stiff competition as the Blue Devils’ schedule heats up in mid-September. He should tally enough scores in the first few games to match Sirk's 16 touchdown passes from 2015.
HT: 10—I think the majority of the Blue Devils’ touchdowns will come via runs by Shaun Wilson and Jela Duncan, who will be counted on the most in the red zone. Jones has the potential to put up big numbers against N.C. Central and Army, but I don’t see it translating into many games with multiple touchdown passes.
BF: 19—Sirk had 16 passing touchdowns for the Blue Devils in 2015 despite having major struggles throwing the ball down the field. Enter Jones, a pocket passer with a big arm. Although Sirk had plenty of game experience prior to taking over the starting job, Jones is a far more accurate downfield passer and should take advantage of having Rahming and Nash as two of his wide receivers. I expect Jones to surpass Sirk’s 2015 total, but do not quite see him reaching 20 passing touchdowns for the season.
SP: 20—The Blue Devils have a soft enough schedule in the early going to build Jones' confidence and allow the redshirt freshman to put up some gaudy stats in the opening weeks. A few blowout losses against Louisville and Notre Dame may also allow Jones to pad his season total with some garbage-time scores. The quarterback will need time to develop a rapport with a host of unproven options at both wide receiver and tight end, which could make for a challenging first season behind center.
ST: 15—Jones may have won the job in fall camp, but he will struggle at times this year. In fact, I would not be surprised if redshirt junior Parker Boheme replaces him within the first couple of games. After starting against Pittsburgh and frequently rotating with Sirk last season, Boehme has more playing experience and may make better decisions than Jones.