With the 2017 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.
If Daniel Jones is Duke's most important individual player this season, then the most crucial position group has to be his pass-catching corps. The Blue Devils return nearly their entire crop of wide receivers and tight ends, but amongst them is just one player—T.J. Rahming—that tallied more than 34 receptions.
With Jones poised to take the next step in his development, he will certainly need reliable targets both outside and in the slot. And Duke's balanced eight-man receiving unit should together provide consistent support, along with the chance for a couple of breakout stars.
Key players lost: Anthony Nash and Erich Schneider
The veteran member of the Blue Devil wideout corps last season, Nash broke his clavicle in Week 7 against Louisville and did not see the field the remainder of the season. Yet even in a little more than half the season, the West Chester, Pa., native was a security blanket for Jones—he averaged 13.7 yards per catch to lead Duke and tied for third on the team with a pair of touchdowns. His 56.9 yards per game were also second among all Blue Devil pass-catchers, and at 6-foot-5, Nash measures two inches taller than any receiver on this year's squad.
His biggest moment came late against Notre Dame, when his 64-yard score brought Duke level late in the fourth quarter, and that veteran experience will be sorely missed. With Rahming manning one spot on the outside, it will be interesting to see who takes over for Nash on the other side.
Projected starters: T.J. Rahming, Johnathan Lloyd, Chris Taylor and Daniel Helm
There is no question who will be one of the two on the outside—Rahming caught more than twice as many passes as any Blue Devil last season, was named to the preseason All-ACC third team by Phil Steele and at just 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds has the speed to blow past defenders with ease.
Beyond him, however, it becomes a series of question marks. My best guess is that Lloyd gets the first opportunity to step into a starting role after he caught 11 passes for 69 yards and a touchdown in Duke's final two games last season. The Graham, N.C., native was once a two-sport athlete but has now turned his attention solely to football, and the extra practice time could pay dividends this fall.
Redshirt junior Chris Taylor is listed as the final starter on the depth chart and could share significant time with newcomer Scott Bracey, who redshirted last season and will now get his first opportunity to don a Blue Devil uniform. Bracey was a four-star receiver at the Benedictine School in Maryland, earning a spot in the Rivals.com 100 as the country's 13th-ranked wideout.
And expect Duke to lean on its tight ends once again, with Helm leading the group. His 6-foot-4, 235-pound frame was frequently a safety valve for Jones, who, even with more experience, will once again need plenty of help from his pass-catchers if he is going to lead the Blue Devils to success.
Dark horse: Aaron Young
To some extent, trying to pick out a surprise among this group is a bit like pulling names blindly out of a hat. Of the 18 rostered wide receivers and tight ends, seven are either redshirt freshmen or true freshmen and two are redshirt sophomores—the sample size is incredibly small, especially since no one other than Rahming caught all that many passes last year.
But do not look past Aaron Young. Although he is one of those redshirt sophomores, Young was another guy who took advantage of opportunities in a lost season at the end of the 2016, tallying nine receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown in Duke's last four matchups. Young is one of the taller returners at 6-foot-2 and was named co-Most Improved Offensive Player at the Blue Devils' spring game earlier this year along with Shaun Wilson. Although he was not a highly-recruited player coming out of Murrietta, Calif., three years ago, Young has the skills necesary to assert himself early on as a surprising offensive weapon this season.
Check in tomorrow to see how Duke's offensive line will benefit from an experienced returning group as well as the transfer of Evan Lisle from Ohio State.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."