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Five observations from Duke football's spring showcase

Quentin Harris' rushing ability will be heavily relied upon.
Quentin Harris' rushing ability will be heavily relied upon.

Duke wrapped up spring practice with its annual spring showcase Friday evening. Here are five observations from the scrimmage at Wallace Wade Stadium.

Quentin Harris ready to take over

With Daniel Jones preparing for the NFL Draft, it’s finally Quentin Harris’ turn to run the offense for good. And in the 65-snap scrimmage, the soon-to-be redshirt senior impressed, completing seven of his 11 pass attempts for 69 yards and accounting for three of the game’s four touchdowns—one aerial and two on the ground.

Harris has always been able to run the ball well—it’s his inconsistent arm that has caused concern about whether he has what it takes to lead Duke's offense. But that right arm of the Wilton, Conn., native looked fine Friday evening, proving accurate in short-yardage situations and completing a beautiful 38-yard deep ball to fellow redshirt senior Aaron Young.

“I think it really helped,” Harris said of how his playing time while Jones was hurt last season prepared him to be the starter. “[Jones] helped me navigate those two starts, how to prepare for each week, how to look at film, what to evaluate, what to look for. So I think having those two starts under my belt helped me kind of craft a a pre-game or pre-week method or process.”

Defense looking for new leadership

In the past few seasons, the Blue Devils’ identity has been stingy defense, led by one of the most talented linebacking corps in the country. But with All-American Joe Giles-Harris and All-ACC honorable mention counterpart Ben Humphreys also leaving Durham, that defense must find some new leaders this fall.

One person who could potentially fill that role is defensive end Victor Dimukeje. The rising junior posted two tackles for loss during the contest and one pass breakup, and he is more than ready to mentor his new younger teammates.

“It went by fast. I cannot believe I am a junior already,” Dimukeje said. “I am just here embracing it, trying to take the next step."

Receiving corps is talented, and young

Underclassmen were making a name for themselves catching the football. Rising sophomore Jake Bobo—who caught 10 balls for 167 yards as a true freshman last fall—seemed to be Harris’ favorite target, reeling in a game-high five catches for 31 yards as well as the evening’s only receiving touchdown. Expect Bobo to be a big contributor this season.

Incoming freshman Darrell Harding Jr. also showed glimpses of future stardom. The Winter Garden, Fla., native was honored with one of Duke’s two offensive Most Improved Player awards prior to the scrimmage and hauled in the game’s first big play—a 37-yard over-the-shoulder completion from rising sophomore quarterback Chris Katrenick.

“They have all been really, really special,” Cutcliffe said of his young receivers. “[Bobo]—you think he is not young [but] he is. He is a freshman in college right now. He certainly has separated himself. [Harding Jr.] won that award for a reason. He is a 6-foot-5 guy that makes plays and he has made plays all spring.”

Brittain Brown impresses on the ground

Down the stretch of last season, Brittain Brown became an afterthought. With Deon Jackson serving as the team’s feature running back as Brown dealt with injuries, the then-redshirt sophomore totaled just 18 carries after the month of September. But Friday, Brown reminded everyone why he was once thought of as the future of the Blue Devils' rushing attack.

Despite a struggling offensive line, Brown totaled 51 yards and a score on eight carries. His ability to dance around the defense drew wows from the scarce crowd at Wallace Wade Stadium, and his knack for finding open holes forced the defense to stay on its toes. If he keeps it up, don’t be surprised if the former four-star recruit plays a big role in Duke’s 2019 offensive gameplan.

“[Brown] is healthy, I think you should see that tonight,” Cutcliffe said. “He played well.”

Pass defense could be this season’s X-factor

The Blue Devils’ 2018 pass defense looked solid on paper, ranking 36th in passing yards allowed per game. But in reality, it was the cause of Duke’s downfall. Injuries led to a complete lack of size at cornerback, and opponents that had big wide receivers—such as Virginia Tech—easily took advantage.

That may not be as much of an issue in 2019. Former All-ACC corner Mark Gilbert didn’t play Friday for precautionary reasons while he recovers from a serious hip injury he suffered at Northwestern last year, but he is expected to be ready to go this fall. And while he continues to sit out, Duke looks to build depth in the secondary.

Rising redshirt sophomore Josh Blackwell has played well all spring after seeing an increased role at the end of last year, and the Blue Devils had solid coverage on the vast majority of the deep-ball attempts the offense threw at them Friday night. Even true freshman Jalen Alexander got in on the action, with a touchdown-saving deflection near the end of the scrimmage.

“I believe you are only as good as your twos,” Cutcliffe said. “If you look at plays that were made by people on our two defense, that made me smile tonight. This team has enough depth to be a good football team.”

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