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Deep but inexperienced receiving corps could make or break Duke football's success

<p>T.J. Rahming caught more than twice as many passes as anybody else on Duke's roster last year.</p>

T.J. Rahming caught more than twice as many passes as anybody else on Duke's roster last year.

There is no question as to who the most important member of this Blue Devil squad is. Quarterback Daniel Jones is the one player who can potentially carry Duke back to bowl eligibility—and maybe even beyond in seasons to come.

But no group will be more important to his success than the Blue Devil receiving corps. Even with the loss of Anthony Nash to graduation, Duke's wide receivers and tight ends make up one of its deepest and most talented position groups this season.

"A large part of any quarterback's success is the people around them," Jones said at ACC Media Days in July. "You know, I would say collectively as an offense, we have a great chance to be a dynamic, explosive offense when you look at the people we have coming back and some of the guys that even haven't played as much that maybe y'all haven't seen as much. We're certainly excited of the possibilities and what we can be as an offense. That's a big part of my success."

Of all the targets Jones will have at his disposal, T.J. Rahming will certainly be the top option yet again. Last season, Rahming pulled in 70 receptions—more than twice that of anyone else of the roster—averaging 61.8 yards per game.

This summer, Jones and his top target made it a priority to further their relationship. And it showed right from the start of summer camp with the junior wideout and his quarterback "clicking from day one" according to Rahming, something that has caught the eye of Duke's head coach.

"T.J. is a talent," David Cutcliffe said at his first weekly press conference Tuesday. "His short-space quickness and his explosiveness and his route-running ability do rival [former Blue Devil standout] Jamison [Crowder], and not just the number resemblance."

Over and over, though, Cutcliffe also expressed his desire for consistency from his wideouts. Last season, excluding Rahming, no receiver tallied more than 398 yards or three touchdowns, and although the Blue Devils ran nearly twice as many times as they passed, it is hard to foresee either senior Shaun Wilson or redshirt freshman Brittain Brown carrying Duke from the backfield.

And with all of Rahming's success in his sophomore season, he will not be able to do it alone in 2017. The solution: Johnathan Lloyd and Chris Taylor.

"Competition makes everybody better, because you know whoever’s behind you is going to just step in and play and make plays," Lloyd said in early August. "It pushes everybody every day to go out there and work their hardest because everybody wants to play, and if you’ve got a stop, you don’t want to let up off of it."

Lloyd's consistency from last season should at least help ease some of Cutcliffe's major concerns. He caught at least one ball in every game but two and tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns. Plus, the redshirt junior is no longer playing baseball and completed his undergraduate degree last May, allowing him to focus solely on football this summer.

The same cannot be said, however, for Taylor's consistency. A 6-foot-1 redshirt junior, the Miramar, Fla., native caught just seven balls in the first seven games before pulling in 22 during the final five contests of 2016. 

That trio still excludes Aaron Young, whose 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame makes him one of Jones' bigger targets among the wide receiving corps. And on top of that group, the Blue Devils have a pair of former three-star recruits in Keyston Fuller and Damond Philyaw-Johnson, a veteran presence in redshirt senior Quay Chambers and perhaps the biggest puzzle of all, redshirt freshman Scott Bracey.

"I’m just anxious and he’s anxious," Cutcliffe said of Bracey following the team's August 12 scrimmage. "I think it’s probably been amazingly frustrating to him to have as many issues as he’s had to this point. When he’s been well, we’ve been enthused. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s a good runner. I think he can make contested catches for you."

But the same health issues that plagued Bracey last summer and fall have popped up again. A hamstring injury kept the 6-foot-2 wideout off the field for all of his first year in Durham, and Cutcliffe mentioned Tuesday that Bracey's conditioning is not yet up to par after getting banged up in preseason camp.

Currently, Bracey is listed a a second-stringer behind Taylor, but beyond Rahming, things remain very much up in the air. So if Bracey can show what earned him that four-star billing and scholarship offers to schools like Clemson, Florida State and Notre Dame, it could be a game-changer for Duke's air attack.

"At the end of camp, I thought [Bracey] really came on strong," Jones said. "He made an impact and really stood out, so I think he's in a position to show what he can do throughout the season."

All of this goes without even mentioning the Blue Devil tight ends, who have had plenty of skin in the passing game during the Cutcliffe era. Redshirt juniors Daniel Helm and Davis Koppenhaver return as the leaders of the group after pulling in a combined 38 receptions and four scores last year.

On Tuesday, though, there was a new name listed right behind the duo on the season's first depth chart.

"[Noah Gray's] had a tremendous camp, so we've made that decision to go with him," Cutcliffe said. "He's going to be a guy that can play at tight end, he can play in the area of special teams and we really feel good about what he's accomplished in camp."

Any true freshman listed on a Cutcliffe depth chart is notable—this year, just eight of the 51 offensive or defensive spots are filled by players in their first year with the Duke program. If Gray adjusts well enough to play this year, that gives Jones three options at tight end, all at 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds or bigger.

Altogether, that makes for 11 different weapons in the Blue Devil quarterback's arsenal. He may use some every game and others might see little or no action this season.

The point is, the pieces are there. Whether Jones, Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Zac Roper can put them together properly to build a winning puzzle remains to be seen.


Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

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." 

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