With the 2020 Duke football season getting underway this upcoming Saturday, The Chronicle's football beat writers Cam Polo, Evan Kolin, Jake Piazza, Max Rego and Shane Smith give their predictions for the upcoming Blue Devils campaign.
Evan Kolin: 6-5
Even if the Blue Devils are able to pull off the upset over one of their stronger opponents (see below), this team has just proven too inconsistent over the past few seasons to not expect a few disappointing losses as well. A change at quarterback will help, but not enough to warrant serious ACC contention.
Shane Smith: 8-3
Ultimately, Duke’s 2020 season is going to come down to its quarterback play, which could either take the Blue Devils back to the Daniel Jones days or mimic the inconsistency of last year. David Cutcliffe’s 2019 squad could never get the offense rolling after a blowout loss to Virginia, but with him now running the offense and a defense that should rank toward the top of the ACC, Duke has more than enough tools to comfortably post a winning season and has the potential for even more.
Jake Piazza: 6-5
Duke’s going to have trouble throughout the first four weeks of the season with their front-loaded schedule, but once the team adjusts to a new quarterback and center, they will find a groove. What concerns me most is the Blue Devils’ run defense with their inexperience at linebacker and defensive tackle, so I can’t project them with a better record than a game above .500.
Max Rego: 7-4
A Week 1 trip to South Bend is no picnic, but Duke should round into form as the calendar shifts to October. There is a promising group of weapons on the offensive side of the ball, and with Cutcliffe calling the plays, I’d anticipate some more aggressive tendencies. The lack of experience at linebacker is a concern, but stellar edge rushers and a veteran secondary should mask that deficiency to push the Blue Devils to seven wins.
Cam Polo: 6-5
A trip to Notre Dame will scare the Blue Devils straight Week 1, ensuring that they don’t fall to 1-3 in an extremely tough first four games. Solid play in the secondary position, as well as fundamentals on the special teams side of the equation will be enough to avoid any embarrassing losses, and weapons at the skill positions on offense will carry the team to a surprising win or two. Inevitably, inexperience in a couple key positions for Duke will prevent them from posting a truly impressive year, but even against a tough conference schedule the Blue Devils should be able to break the .500 mark.
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Evan Kolin: Noah Gray
Gray garnered second team All-ACC honors last season, and that was in a Duke offense that ranked 12th in the conference in passing yards per game. Now with head coach David Cutcliffe calling the plays and the team expected to air it out a lot more this fall, it’s not a stretch to think Gray finishes the 2020 campaign as the ACC’s top tight end.
Shane Smith: Jalon Calhoun
For a true freshman, Jalon Calhoun was a model of consistency in 2019, taking on a role of deep threat, while also establishing himself as a pass catching machine. There’s little doubt that Calhoun will be the go-to receiving target for the Blue Devils, and the South Carolina native could see a jump in his sophomore year similar to that of Jamison Crowder, who posted 76 catches and over 1,000 yards in a massive second year leap.
Jake Piazza: Chase Brice
Chase Brice under Cutcliffe’s guidance? This duo is going to make for a dynamic Duke offense much more reminiscent of the Daniel Jones-led squads. After having to earn the spot and the trust of his teammates this offseason, Brice is poised to unleash all the potential that had been bottled up in his time at Clemson. Duke’s new QB1 is going to put the ACC on notice.
Max Rego: Deon Jackson
Jackson saw major downticks in both yards from scrimmage and yards per carry last season, but look for the senior running back to have a bounce back campaign. If he can get some more wiggle room at the line of scrimmage, the Atlanta native should be able to improve upon that 3.7 yards per carry average from last season. Jackson will provide speed and toughness in the run game, while also being a safety valve for whoever lines up at quarterback.
Cam Polo: Jalon Calhoun
The now-sophomore wideout burst onto the scene last year for the Blue Devils, a threat among a rather inconsistent offense. A quarterback in high school, the South Carolina native will continue to showcase his athleticism all over the field, perhaps expanding on his only pass attempt of his collegiate career, a 25-yard TD toss on a trick play. Under a coaching staff that emphasizes all-around athletic excellence as well as positional soundness, expect Calhoun to take a larger role as the season progresses.
Evan Kolin: Chris Rumph II
I wish I didn’t have to be so predictable here, but this pick is just a slam dunk. Rumph enters the 2020 campaign as not only one of the best players on Duke’s roster, but in all of college football. If the team falls out of ACC contention early, he’ll be the story to watch for the Blue Devils.
Shane Smith: Chris Rumph II
The Blue Devils have quietly produced great defensive talent over the last five years, however, Chris Rumph II may be their biggest impact player not named Jeremy Cash. There’s a reason the redshirt junior is making headlines around the country, and his 3.5 sack performance in the 2019 season finale against Miami is more than enough proof that the Blue Devils may have their third NFL first round draft pick of the decade.
Jake Piazza: Mark Gilbert
I’m a sucker for a good comeback story, but how can you not be excited about Gilbert? The preseason buzz surrounding the redshirt senior has been surprisingly optimistic, and I’m predicting we’ll see a return of Gilbert’s first team All-ACC sophomore year. Gilbert Island is back.
Max Rego: Chris Rumph II
Expect anything different? Rumph is poised to have a dominant season and will create matchup nightmares for opposing offensive lines with his quickness, strength and a few new pass rushing moves that he worked on in the offseason. The redshirt junior defensive end has All-American potential coming off the edge.
Cam Polo: Mark Gilbert
Look, we all love to talk about pass rush, sacks being far and away the most exciting play and statistic on the defensive end of the ball. And I could take the layup here with Rumph, but I too love a comeback story. Corners get little to no love—and the times they do get attention, it’s when they get exposed. We’re talking about a former All-ACC corner here, who had a full year to analyze the game through his recovery. Rumph may be the most noticeable, but reading between the lines, I’m expecting Gilbert to have the biggest impact.
Evan Kolin: North Carolina
Many seem to be jotting this one down in the loss column already. Have people forgotten that Duke enters this season having won three of the past four Victory Bells? Yes, Mack Brown has revamped North Carolina into an ACC power. But this is the Tobacco Road rivalry—nobody can ever be counted out.
Shane Smith: North Carolina
The Tar Heels come into the 2020 season with a lot of warranted fanfare, ranking No. 18 in the preseason AP Top 25 behind rising star quarterback Sam Howell. However, you can’t forget that Duke was one play away from a big victory in Chapel Hill last year, and if the Blue Devils can establish a passing game by the Nov. 7 matchup, the Victory Bell should return to Durham.
Jake Piazza: Florida State
Once Duke hits its stride, this team is going to have some serious offensive firepower to go with its suffocating defensive secondary. Defensive ends Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje will greet Seminole quarterback James Blackmon with pressure all game long and show people that it’s time to start giving Blue Devil football some recognition.
Max Rego: Virginia Tech
The Blue Devils embarrassed the Hokies on a Friday night in Blacksburg last fall, and I expect more of the same when Virginia Tech rolls into Durham on the first Saturday in October. An experienced Duke secondary should pose problems for Hokie quarterback Hendon Hooker, and this also marks the first season since 1986 that Virginia Tech will not have defensive guru Bud Foster on the sideline.
Cam Polo: Virginia Tech
The Hokies looked absolutely pitiful against the Blue Devils last fall in front of 50,000+ roaring fans—take away ‘Enter Sandman’, and I don’t see Virginia Tech faring any better this season. If Duke can figure out its run defense after a tough first matchup against the Fighting Irish, they have a good chance to neutralize Tech’s talented backs, and wide receiver turnover for the Hokies will have the talented Duke cornerbacks licking their chops.
Evan Kolin: Syracuse
Duke’s worst loss last season was undoubtedly its blowout to Syracuse, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Orange handed the Blue Devils another surprising defeat this year. A Week 4 trip all the way up to New York is far from ideal for a team that’ll need time to build chemistry on offense, and Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito is ready to break out after an impressive sophomore campaign.
Shane Smith: Virginia
Yes, Virginia rolled through the ACC Coastal in 2019 en route to the ACC Championship Game, however, with the departure of star signal caller Bryce Perkins, this could be a rebuilding year for the Cavaliers. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, Virginia dominates the line of scrimmage in every matchup and even in a down year, could take its sixth consecutive win in the series.
Jake Piazza: Boston College
I know Boston College isn’t a football powerhouse, but they added a transfer quarterback in Phil Jurkovec to aid their already potent running game. This matchup is too early in the season for Duke to iron out their defensive tackle and linebacker situation, so a combo of Jurkovec’s arm and the Eagle ground attack will lead to a disappointing loss.
Max Rego: Syracuse
Syracuse handed Duke a brutal 49-6 loss last year, and Dino Babers has built a sustainable culture in Upstate New York. Tommy Devito proved to be a viable option under center, and Syracuse’s rebuilt passing attack will put constant pressure on the Blue Devil secondary. This might just be a case of a difficult matchup for a Duke team that struggled with consistency on the road in 2019.
Cam Polo: North Carolina
I hate to be that guy, I really do. But after a tough loss last year to the Tar Heels, the Blue Devils aren’t looking at a matchup that’s any easier. North Carolina is ranked in the AP Top 25 for a reason, and I expect quarterback Sam Howell to expose key positional deficits in the middle of the field on the defensive end. The Victory Bell likely stays in Chapel Hill this year, though I would welcome the harsh words following a wrong prediction here.
For more preseason coverage of the 2020 Blue Devils, check out our football season preview for features, predictions, and more.