The independent news organization of Duke University

Offensive line overhaul will determine Duke football's 2018 fate

Duke is losing three starters on its offensive line to graduation and its offensive line coach to Mississippi State.
Duke is losing three starters on its offensive line to graduation and its offensive line coach to Mississippi State.

Almost all the big names are coming back. 

Daniel Jones, Brittain Brown, T.J. Rahming and most of Duke’s top offensive weapons will return, as will all of its front six on defense—minus Mike Ramsay. 

But three huge departures could leave the Blue Devils in a rut heading into 2018. 

Three starting offensive lineman—Evan Lisle, Gabe Brandner and Austin Davis—will all be graduating this year, leaving a huge void for head coach David Cutcliffe to fill in arguably the most important position group in football. This isn’t meant to be a downer after Duke’s demolition of Northern Illinois in the Quick Lane Bowl, but rather to manage expectations that Blue Devil fans might have with Jones and all of his key threats, save for running back Shaun Wilson, returning. 

With Jones finally steady, Duke’s offense came together and turned the corner in its last three games, but it is uncertain whether the Blue Devils will be able to sustain their offensive resurgence. Cutcliffe indicated just this on Tuesday night—that the offensive line needs to take a step up to support the weapons Jones has to work with. 

“It’s not fixed, but we have another level we can reach with our offensive front,” Cutcliffe said. “Our skill people speak for themselves offensively—they can be special.”

The defense should be fine, with just Bryon Fields—who really struggled at times—and Alonzo Saxton II departing from a secondary that was No. 11 in passing yards allowed. Jeremy McDuffie should be back alongside young studs Dylan Singleton and Mark Gilbert to anchor what could be an intimidating pass defense. Cutcliffe said that it will be the fastest defense he has ever had, especially up front. 

A young front six should continue to grow and build on the early success it saw this season, especially with linebackers Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys returning to guide it. But to avoid squandering the strong defense like it did at times last year, the offensive line is going to have to grow—and fast. 

With just Zach Harmon and Julian Santos returning to the offensive front, the Blue Devils will have just one returning offensive lineman that has more than one year of starting experience, with a new offensive line coach as well. 

Translation: that’s not good. 

Cutcliffe has certainly assembled a menagerie of talent on the offensive line with his recent recruiting classes, but whether or not they can coalesce quickly will determine Duke’s fate next year. 

The Blue Devils will start right out of the gates and face a physical Army team that manhandled them this year, then go right on to face Northwestern on the road. That means no time for rookie mistakes. 

Cutcliffe should have former highly-touted recruit Will Taylor back from injury, as well as 2016 four-star linemen in Robert Kraeling and Jaylen Miller. He also has three-star talent in Liam Smith from that class and Josh Blackwell, Patrick Leitten and Jacob Rimmer in the Class of 2017. Whoever fills in for ex-line coach Marcus Johnson, who bailed to take the same position at Mississippi State, will definitely have the pieces to mold a strong unit. 

But whether or not the new coach can put all the pieces together will determine if Duke can make its sixth bowl in seven years—something once unfathomable. This was a program that made just three bowls from 1961 to 2011. 

The truth is that the Blue Devils squandered too many opportunities this year. If they had found a way to get into the end zone in four early trips to Miami territory in late September, instead of coming away with just three points, maybe the tide could have turned. Duke showed it could compete with talented teams—it pushed around Florida State enough to be one play away from taking the game to overtime and stayed within striking distance of the Hurricanes until the fourth quarter. 

With a packed house at Wallace Wade Stadium that Friday night, the Blue Devils had a chance to improve to 5-0 and become a legitimate contender in the ACC's Coastal Division. But once they failed to cash in early, the students filed out—a gut punch that reverberated throughout the rest of the season. 

Duke just seemed deflated—six-game losing streaks happen for a reason. Especially when the Blue Devils lost four of those six by a touchdown or less. 

Duke should have beaten Virginia. It was better than Pitt. It sure as hell should have beaten Army before it regrouped to win its last three games and salvage respectability. Perhaps a more experienced Jones will be more steady and keep his team from spiraling out of control next year.

But only if his line can hold it together. 

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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