Cautiously optimistic about Duke football's future

<p>Redshirt senior captains Thomas Sirk, Jela Duncan and DeVon Edwards all missed significant time during an injury-plagued 2016 season.&nbsp;</p>

Redshirt senior captains Thomas Sirk, Jela Duncan and DeVon Edwards all missed significant time during an injury-plagued 2016 season. 

During Duke’s Senior Day festivities before its matchup with North Carolina Nov. 10 at Wallace Wade Stadium, it was evident why the Blue Devils’ season had gone off the rails.

It seemed like every senior that walked out to shake head coach David Cutcliffe’s hand was in sweats with his arm in a sling or either using crutches or a scooter to get around. Team captains DeVon Edwards, Thomas Sirk and Jela Duncan and departing seniors Anthony Nash and Breon Borders—five of Duke’s best players—could not take the field for the final home game of the season.

They could only watch from the sidelines as a group of mostly freshmen and sophomores played an excellent football game to take down the then-No. 15 Tar Heels 28-27 and inject some life into a disappointing season.

But Duke did not win again the rest of the year, dropping its last two games in blowouts on the road to fall short of the postseason for the first time since 2011.

It was not hard to see the team’s losing campaign coming, considering all of the key pieces it lost from last season’s Pinstripe Bowl champions. The Blue Devils’ 4-8 record this year did not surprise me, but I was surprised at how they got there.

Duke looked even worse than I thought it would to start the season. Its 34-20 home loss to Virginia was one of the worst performances of head coach David Cutcliffe’s nine-year tenure in Durham, with redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones throwing four first-half interceptions against a Cavalier squad that won only one other game all season.

The Blue Devils turned a corner after that loss, though, in a resurgence sparked by a first-year signal-caller who gives reason for future optimism. In Duke’s last seven games, Jones threw 10 touchdown passes and just one interception, and he finished the year with four ACC Freshman of the Week honors under his belt. If the Blue Devils return to a bowl next season, Jones’ newfound discipline under center will likely be a big reason why.

The improved level of play did not always translate into victories, but Duke competed well during the most difficult part of its schedule. The Blue Devils held then-No. 7 Louisville to its second-lowest scoring output of the season in a close 24-14 loss and came within three points of then-No. 23 Virginia Tech before the breakthrough victory against North Carolina.

Sixteen of Duke’s 22 starters on offense and defense against the Tar Heels will be back next year and showed why the Blue Devils have the potential to compete with almost any team on the 2017 schedule and win seven or eight games.

But the last two weeks of the season revealed lingering question marks that could derail Duke again next year.

The Blue Devils’ offensive line gave up a season-high five sacks in a 56-14 loss to Pittsburgh Nov. 19, and it surrendered three sacks in the season-ending 40-21 loss at Miami. Duke will return three starters on its offensive line, but will have to go without starting left tackle Gabe Brandner in spring camp while he recovers from a broken ankle.

The most glaring weakness remains in the kicking game. The Blue Devils made the fewest field goals in the FBS this year, as true freshman A.J. Reed was just 3-for-10 on field-goal attempts and missed one in each of Duke’s last two games.

Cutcliffe is unlikely to use another scholarship on a kicker, so Reed either has to get a lot better or the Blue Devils will have to find a capable walk-on to take over kicking duties next season. Cutcliffe and his staff will also need to make offseason adjustments as they incorporate young talent on the defensive line and in the secondary to make up for the loss of defensive tackle A.J. Wolf.

The ACC Coastal Division is only getting better. The Blue Devils capitalized on a weak year for the conference foes to win the division three years ago, but that era appears to be over. New head coaches Mark Richt and Justin Fuente have Miami and Virginia Tech on the rise again, Larry Fedora has molded North Carolina into a perennial ACC contender and Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh will both be solid opponents.

Throw in a conference game against Florida State and a nonconference showdown with Baylor, and next year’s schedule might be even tougher than this year’s for Duke.

Jones may lead the Blue Devils to a couple of surprising upsets like he did this year, but Duke cannot afford to once again lose to teams it should beat like Wake Forest and Virginia, to get back into bowl consideration.

I expect a more experienced team to string together solid performances more consistently next year.

But as they ready for 2017, the Blue Devils now know all too well not to take the postseason for granted.


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