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Duke football aiming for consistency after up-and-down 2017 season

<p>Redshirt sophomore Brittain Brown was tied for the team lead with seven rushing touchdowns last season.</p>

Redshirt sophomore Brittain Brown was tied for the team lead with seven rushing touchdowns last season.

Last December, Duke stood on Ford Field as champions. Even after a rocky campaign, one in which they started 4-0 before losing six straight, the Blue Devils were able to earn a second bowl victory in three seasons. 

But if Duke wants to play in December yet again, it will need all-around consistency to maneuver its most daunting regular-season slate in years.

The Blue Devils were picked to finish fourth in the ACC Coastal Division in the league's preseason poll, just a year removed from a fifth-place finish following a 3-5 conference ledger.

The Blue Devils, however, will need to avoid patches of stagnant offense and rely on an experienced group of starters in order to dominate in Durham. Duke is favored, per ESPN's Football Power Index, in all but one of its home matchups, yet the Blue Devils are underdogs in five of six road contests—a slate which includes games at Northwestern, Miami and Clemson.

“At one point, we were at the top of the mountain, you're feeling good about yourselves, and next thing you know you're trying to crawl out of a ditch,” redshirt junior Joe Giles-Harris said of 2017 at ACC Media Day last Wednesday. “We have to be consistent, we have to be humble, and we have to be ready to go, and that's the biggest thing. Learning from those mistakes and knowing what to do to avoid that this year.”

Duke will be reminded of its low points from 2017 immediately, opening the season against a run-heavy Army team that handed the Blue Devils their sixth consecutive loss in a 21-16 defeat on Veterans Day.

The key for Duke will be to help quarterback Daniel Jones find a rhythm and get its offense running north-south rather than east-west. 

Despite leading Duke to early victories against the Wildcats, Baylor and North Carolina, the Charlotte native became less effective as the season progressed—his completion percentage decreased in each of the Blue Devils’ first six contests, with the low point a 14-for-42, 124-yard performance in a 28-21 loss at Virginia. 

The dual-threat quarterback rediscovered some effectiveness towards the end of the season, though, completing better than 60 percent of his passes as the Blue Devils finished the year 3-1. And he’ll look to stretch the field more this season with his favorite downfield target, the explosive T.J. Rahming, returning for his senior season.

“It's certainly an exciting position to be in as a quarterback with the receivers we have coming back and a lot of the same faces in the same positions,” Jones said. “This summer, growing with those guys, we've been able to take the next step with a lot of them. And older guys that kind of know what's going on and know what we expect have made it easier for the younger guys to step in and get going.”

Jones should receive some assistance carrying the offense with redshirt sophomore Brittain Brown looking to build on a strong freshman campaign. The Canton, Ga., native rushed for 701 yards and seven touchdowns, leading the team with 5.4 yards per carry. 

Brown should take on the bulk of the load in the Blue Devils' backfield this fall after the graduation of leading-rusher Shaun Wilson, and he will be essential to Duke’s ability to drive the ball downfield and generate long possessions.

“[Brown's] the complete package,” Jones said. “He's physical, he's a big guy, he can run through people, but also run around people and make people miss. You know, like they say, a running back is a quarterback's best friend, and having a strong running game will be big.”

In order for Duke to reach bowl eligibilty, it will once again rely on lockdown defense to secure victories. The Blue Devils had a top-25 defensive unit last season, holding opponents to a mere 20.2 points per contest. 

Duke returns three of its top four tacklers including Giles-Harris and senior Ben Humphreys. Giles-Harris led the team with 125 tackles and placed fourth in the ACC with 16 tackles for loss en route to first-team All-ACC honors. 

In the secondary, the Blue Devils will have to replace leading cornerback Bryon Fields, but return junior Mark Gilbert, who’s coming off a breakout sophomore campaign. Gilbert led the ACC with 21 passes defended and tied for third in the nation with six interceptions, putting his name in the conversation to be a preseason All-American.

Duke still needs to improve its defense on explosive plays after allowing nearly 15 yards per reception and constantly being plagued by long touchdowns throughout the 2017 season.

The Blue Devil defense has anchored the team in recent years, and there is little reason to expect that to change in 2018. But if Duke is inconsistent offensively and unable to dominate its home turf, there's a decent chance David Cutcliffe's team could be watching postseason play from home come December.

“We want to be consistent," Giles-Harris said. “There were also moments in games where we had mental breakdowns and we beat ourselves more than we let somebody else beat us.... If you're going to beat Duke's defense, you'd better give it your whole shot."

Winston Lindqwister contributed reporting.