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Duke football set for return to a bowl game on the back of Daniel Jones

<p>Although Duke went just 4-8 last season, Daniel Jones improved as the year went on with 10 touchdown passes in his last seven games.</p>

Although Duke went just 4-8 last season, Daniel Jones improved as the year went on with 10 touchdown passes in his last seven games.

Sullied by injuries and a brutal schedule, the Blue Devils cratered at the end of last season, losing five of their final six games.

But during that stretch, Duke showed that it is ready to return to the postseason.

Sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones flourished, priming the Blue Devils for an offense that will be much-improved with an experienced offensive line and deep receiving corps. In the second half of the season, Duke proved it could compete with some of the nation’s best teams—and with a much more favorable home schedule, it could win more of the close games that it lost last season.

Pessimists will point to the Blue Devils’ thin secondary and defensive line as reasons not to have faith that they can rebound. But with one of the best linebacking corps in the ACC and three of the team’s top five tacklers returning, Duke will limit the big plays that plagued the defense last season and the Blue Devils will bend, but not break—enough for Jones’ offense to work with.

Jones took the next step down the stretch last season, finishing with a 77.1 adjusted QBR in his last six games against Duke’s top opponents. If he continued that pace for the whole season, he would have been better than Heisman contender and Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph and in the company of fellow Heisman contender and Florida State signal caller Deondre Francois.

After the freshman initially struggled to adjust to the college game, he settled in and threw one interception down the stretch. He’ll continue to grow from the shotgun for the Blue Devils, which will help establish the run game that they sorely missed last season.

Jones returns junior receivers Johnathan Lloyd and T.J. Rahming, and will get four-star redshirt freshman Scott Bracey, which will force defenses to sell out to try and stop the pass. That will leave bigger holes for Shaun Wilson to run through, giving Duke a much more balanced offense. The Blue Devils were one of the worst rushing teams in yards per carry in the nation last season—don’t expect that, or anything remotely close to it, to happen again.

It certainly won’t hurt that Duke will have a more experienced offensive line, returning three upperclassmen starters and picking up graduate transfer Evan Lisle from Ohio State. The lone projected starter who lacks that sort of experience, left guard Julian Santos, was a four-star prospect and played in nine games last season as a true freshman, logging 101 snaps.

With improvements at every offensive and special teams position—the Blue Devils’ kicking situation is still up in the air, but it’s not possible for it to be any worse than it was last year—David Cutcliffe’s offense will have a breakthrough year.

Although Duke will once again face a daunting schedule, it will do so mostly in the friendly confines of Wallace Wade Stadium. The Blue Devils will face eight teams in the top 44 of ESPN’s Football Percentage Index, but will get to play six of them at home.

Outside of those games, Cutcliffe’s squad has four games that should be gimmes—Wake Forest, Virginia, North Carolina Central and Army. If the offense clicks as it should, Duke is very capable of starting the season 3-0 after wins against the Eagles, Northwestern and Baylor, which would put it in great position to make a bowl.

Even during the 1-5 stretch to end the season, the Blue Devils showed they could hang with strong teams. They were a mindless roughing the kicker penalty, a late stop and a blocked field goal away from beating then-No. 7 Louisville, Georgia Tech and then-No. 18 Virginia Tech before toppling then-No. 17 North Carolina.

A more experienced squad will start to make more of the plays it needs to win games, and is due for some better breaks—and will certainly turn the ball over less. Gone are the days of Jones’ five-pick game against Virginia.

Although some of the concerns about the secondary and defensive front are legitimate, an improved running game and more successful offense will decrease the amount of time the defense has to be on the field and take some pressure off the unit.

With the leadership of Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys steadying the defense, big plays will be less of an issue that they were last year, when Duke was 98th in the nation in stopping opponents from making explosive plays, according to S&P+. Cutcliffe has assembled a much deeper group than in seasons past due to years of improved recruiting, which will only help the Blue Devils make stops and withstand injuries.

Riding Jones’ right arm and a much-improved rushing attack, the Blue Devils will jump right back into the postseason for the fifth time in six years.

Ben Leonard

Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor 

A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks. 


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