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Don't take your eyes off Duke quarterback Daniel Jones

<p>Duke offense will struggle without Daniel Jones behind center.</p>

Duke offense will struggle without Daniel Jones behind center.

Daniel Jones probably wished the 2017 season didn't have to end. When the Blue Devil quarterback lifted the Quick Lane Bowl trophy in Detroit, it was the culmination of the best stretch of his collegiate career.

In Jones' first season, Duke never won back-to-back games and it missed out on the postseason for the first time since 2011. And although his second season began with four consecutive victories, one was a blowout of an FCS side and another came against arguably the worst Power 5 team in the country.

The Charlotte, N.C., native then found a way to help his team overcome six straight losses, close out the regular season with a pair of wins, and then earn the Blue Devils' second bowl title in the last 56 years.

But much can change in an offseason. Duke will begin its 2018 campaign with at least four new offensive starters, including three on the offensive line.

One thing, however, can't change: Jones' steady play.

During the Blue Devils' session at ACC Media Days last month, the word "consistency" was mentioned 14 times.

In Jones' 25 games as a starter, he never strung together three games with multiple passing touchdowns—until the end of 2017. The Charlotte native had also never rushed for at least one touchdown in three straight games—until the end of 2017, when he did so in the last four contests.

And perhaps most importantly, Jones completed better than 60 percent of his passes, the median for qualified FBS quarterbacks in 2017, in three of Duke's final four games.

"They say people are measured when your back's to the wall," Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said last month when asked about his group's late-year response. "This team never quit working."

Thursday morning Duke will return to the field, kicking off its 2018 preseason with less than a month until it opens at home against Army. 

In that time, there will be plenty of discussion about linebacker Joe Giles-Harris and cornerback Mark Gilbert, a pair of potential All-American defenders that could make this Blue Devil defense one of the best units in the conference. There will also be chatter surrounding running back Brittain Brown, a redshirt sophomore who showed flashes in his first on-field season for Duke, but could finally break out as a full-time starter.

Other names like sophomore tight end Noah Gray or former four-star defensive tackle Tahj Rice could make waves by the end of fall camp.

If Jones isn't at his best from Day 1 this year, though, none of that matters. Just as likely as it is that the Blue Devils start 2018 with a 3-0 mark, they could also begin 0-3.

Consider this: In 2016, Clemson used Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson on 60.9 percent of its offensive plays (either pass attempts or Watson rushes). Alabama leaned on its quarterbacks for less than 55 percent of its offense in both 2015 and 2017. Those teams were all national champions.

Duke, albeit with less overall talent, relies on Jones more. He made up more than 61 percent of the Blue Devils' offense each of the last two years, and given that Jones is now a redshirt junior playing behind an inexperienced line, chances are that Cutcliffe and his staff will ask even more of their quarterback.

None of that is unreasonable. 

A little more than a year ago, Duke's head coach called Jones "a special young man" and "an outstanding talent," superlatives that seemed like empty words until late in the fall. But the end of Jones' second season hinted that the young quarterback may be on the ascent.

A season opener against what was a top-25 Black Knight pass defense last season should be a strong litmus test of Jones' continued evolution.

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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