With the 2020 season right around the corner, The Chronicle breaks down each of the eight major position groups for the Blue Devils: Quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, defensive backs, linebackers and specialists.
In the midst of three impactful departures, Duke will need to find stability quickly in an area that head coach David Cutcliffe places a heavy amount of value on. While the vacancies at punter and kicker were anticipated due to graduation, a recent development means that a new long snapper will also take the field this season. Despite the need for replacements in those spots, the Blue Devils can rest easy knowing that they have two talented returners ready to break loose in the open field.
Key players lost: Austin Parker, A.J. Reed, Ben Wyatt
For the first time since 2015, Duke will be starting the season without punter Austin Parker. While at Duke, Parker was called on when the offense fell apart, which was becoming more frequent during his senior season. Last year, Parker averaged 45.7 yards per punt, over four yards longer than the previous season. Additionally, Duke will be losing kicker A.J. Reed, who also saw massive improvement over his time as a Blue Devil. Reed’s newfound accuracy will be sorely missed, as he went from 3-of-10 on field goal attempts in his freshman year to 15-of-18 last season.
In more recent news, long snapper Ben Wyatt opted out of the season Aug. 7. With Wyatt failing to miss a game over the last three seasons and the late notice of his departure, Duke may struggle to find an adequate replacement.
Projected starters: Damond Philyaw-Johnson, Josh Blackwell, Porter Wilson, John Taylor, Charlie Ham
The headliner for Duke’s special teams will without a doubt be Damond Philyaw-Johnson. Last year at Wake Forest, the redshirt junior receiver finished his game with two kickoff returns for touchdowns and 251 kickoff return yards, both school records. Since then, he's received Second Team All-ACC accolades and been named a CBS Preseason All-American for his skills as a kick returner.
Josh Blackwell, a veteran in the secondary, will likely take the field again on punt returns. Blackwell averaged 10.9 yards per return in 2019, with a 32-yard scamper against Georgia Tech serving as his longest.
To take Parker’s place as punter will be Porter Wilson, a redshirt freshman who was ranked as the No. 12 punter in the country before coming to Duke last year. Due to Wyatt’s decision to sit out, Wilson’s long snapper will likely be experienced short snapper John Taylor, who was integral to Duke’s PAT success last year. The new kicker will be Charlie Ham, who averaged 56.4 yards per kickoff last season on five attempts.
Dark horse: Jack Driggers
While Charlie Ham made his impressive debut last season, he did so on just five kicks. He has yet to prove longevity and hasn’t experienced the toll of a full season. In the event that his performance falters, his relief will be senior Jack Driggers. Although Driggers did not see the field last year, his prolific kicking in the 2017 and 2018 seasons landed Duke a No. 3 ranking in ACC kickoff coverage both years. Assuming he has kept his leg in shape, Driggers could have a standout final season as a Blue Devil.
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