After a disappointing, yet promising performance against Notre Dame in the season-opener last week, the Blue Devils will return home to a fan-less Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday at 12 p.m. to face Boston College, who will kick off its season. But how do you prepare for a team playing its 2020 opener under a brand new head coach and system?
Making his head coaching debut, Jeff Hafley inherits the Eagles’ program after a one-year stint as co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State. The former Sienna wide receiver has made stops around college football and the NFL as a coach in the secondary, but the ACC has yet to catch a glimpse of how a Hafley-led team will run in all phases of the game, presenting an interesting wildcard this weekend.
“Pretty much, they have the same defense as last year,” transfer quarterback Chase Brice, who completed eight passes for 97 yards and a touchdown when Clemson took on Boston College in 2019, said. “I know they got a couple grad transfers. But, for the most part, from what I remember playing against, they have a lot of people coming back. We know a little bit of their personnel, just not really their scheme and what they’re going to do yet.”
The Eagles return some familiar faces on defense, mostly in their linebacking corps with leading tacklers John Lamot and Max Richardson, whose totaled 108 tackles last season en route to All-ACC Second Team honors.
“We know it will be another physical game against a very physical team on both fronts, offensively and defensively with Boston College,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We do know their personnel is extremely physical. They’ve had a few grad transfers come in there to increase that physicality in the defensive front.”
Facing a head coach with experience coaching defensive backs, establishing the run will be important for Duke. The Eagles ranked toward the bottom of the ACC in rushing yards surrendered per contest in 2019.
Against the Fighting Irish, Blue Devil starter Deon Jackson kicked off the opening drive with four rushes for 23 yards, but hit some roadblocks and finished his stat line with just 29 yards on his next 11 carries.
“I think we’re going to run the ball better this year,” Cutcliffe said. “But the way you get better at running the football is doing it, and it’s got to be some of it live to get your timing. So I think we learned a bit more about ourselves and we’ll be better this week than we were a week ago.”
Another difficult aspect of Duke’s preparation is that Boston College’s quarterback situation is still up in the air. Junior Dennis Grosel took care of the ball well in a dual-threat role as quarterback last year, though the Ohio native completed just 48.4 percent of his passes in limited action as the starter. Meanwhile, the program welcomes Notre Dame graduate transfer Phil Jurkovec, who threw just 15 passes for the Fighting Irish in 2019, completing 12 of them.
In 2019, the Eagles ranked No. 8 nationally in rushing yards per game, but most of that can be attributed to All-American running back A.J. Dillon, who now plays for the Green Bay Packers. Though Boston College will certainly miss the 1,685 rushing yards Dillon posted last year, junior David Bailey will take the role of starting running back after a sophomore campaign where he averaged almost six yards per carry and found pay-dirt seven times despite playing behind Dillon.
With major question marks surrounding the quarterback position, expect the rushing game to be a major part of the Eagles’ offensive attack.
“I’m definitely expecting some smash-mouth football,” defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo said. “When you have a big offensive line, you can take control of the game. But we have a big defensive line as well. So it’s going to be experience on experience, big on big.”
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Duke is hovering around as a touchdown favorite in its home-opener. However, if losses last year to the likes of Syracuse and Wake Forest say anything, it’s that the rough-and-tumble nature of the ACC can knock some unexpected blows throughout a season.