With the 2021 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.
There’s three phases of the game in football, and to be a winning football team, success at each one is of the utmost importance. Duke is dealing with the loss of its former standout kick returner Damond Philyaw-Johnson but it returns the rest of the pieces of a special teams unit that made impacts all of last season.
Key players lost: Damond Philyaw-Johnson, Jack Driggers
Philyaw-Johnson came into last season with lofty expectations, and didn’t quite meet them. He missed three games in the middle of the season and did not find himself as high on the national kick return yard average as many anticipated prior to the season. Nonetheless, Philyaw-Johnson and his ability to turn what looks like a harmless kickoff into six points for Duke will be missed, and more importantly, will need to be filled this season. Driggers took care of a lot of the kickoff duties last season, but Duke will not have his leg to lean on this time around.
Projected starters: John Taylor, Porter Wilson, Charlie Ham, Jontavis Robertson, Jaylen Stinson
John Taylor returns as the starting long snapper and will once again compete for the Patrick Mannelly Award given to the best long snapper in the nation. This is his second year as a starter, and he’ll be snapping the ball back to punter Porter Wilson on fourth down all year.
Wilson averaged 42.9 yards per punt last season and showed his ability to flip the field time and time again for the Blue Devils. Duke called on Wilson nine times against Virginia Tech and although the Blue Devils lost 38-31, it certainly was not because Wilson did not do his job of pinning the Hokies as deep as possible after he averaged 45.4 yards.
Kicker Charlie Ham made the most of his first season as the starter. He converted on 13 of his 15 attempts, and even notched a career-high 12 points in Duke’s biggest win of the season against Syracuse. He’s on the Lou Groza Award Watch List and will be Duke’s go-to option on field goals. Ham split kickoff duties for most of last year, and it’s unclear whether he or Jackson Hubbard will serve that role this season.
Punt and kick returning is more open than it was last year for the Blue Devils, but it’s looking like Jontavis Robertson and Jaylen Stinson will get a hand at it, at least to start. Robertson returned punts for a spell last season and Stinson started to take the reins from Philyaw-Johnson in the last three games of the season.
Dark horse: Nakeie Montgomery
He can already score lacrosse goals and run the football, so why not throw him in to return a few kickoffs and punts and see what happens? Montgomery is joining the football team for the first time this season after playing lacrosse for four years, and the running back room is going to be dominated by Mataeo Durant all season. That being said, the Blue Devil faithful and Duke coaches have got to want to see what Montgomery can do on a football field, and squeezing him in on special teams could be the way to go.
For the rest of our Duke preseason coverage, click here.
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Jake Piazza is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.