With the 2021 Duke football season getting underway this upcoming Friday, The Chronicle's football beat writers, Jake Piazza, Max Rego, Alex Jackson, Cam Polo, Jonathan Levitan and Micah Hurewitz give their predictions for the upcoming Blue Devils campaign.
Micah Hurewitz: 4-8
With nothing certain, of course, Duke’s nonconference schedule should have it with a winning record come the beginning of the conference slate. Though last year is in the past, not enough has changed regarding the dynamic of the ACC that the Blue Devils are going to be able to run away with a winning season. It’s a modest, yet reasonable assessment to give them two or three nonconference games and then a measly one or two additional victories in the ACC. That one win—with several home games against comparable teams—could be against just about anyone. But I’m not expecting much more than that.
Jonathan Levitan: 5-7
Is this too optimistic? After going through the schedule and marking down prospective wins and losses, I refused to believe that these Blue Devils could come this close to bowl game eligibility in 2021. But with an easy first month, some offensive weapons and a dark horse defensive unit that I believe in, I think Duke becomes a moderate surprise in the ACC and bounces back from last season’s disastrous 2-9 campaign. I don’t expect the Blue Devils to be a juggernaut, but I know in my heart that they will be a much improved team this fall.
Max Rego: 5-7
This prediction is purely a numbers game. With a steady diet of Mataeo Durant and a healthy secondary, the Blue Devils should go 3-1 in September. The early ACC schedule, though, hits Duke like a ton of bricks, as three of the first four are on the road against programs that have been a bugaboo for the Blue Devils in recent years—North Carolina, Virginia and Wake Forest. Gunnar Holmberg should take strides as the conference slate goes on, though, and with Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Louisville all coming to Durham, I’m expecting Duke to take two of those matchups. Hence, 5-7.
Alex Jackson: 3-9
As much as I want to buy into the idea that the Blue Devils are turning it around, this year is not the year. They lost too much talent after last season and don’t have the experience to fill those gaps. Duke is walking into a tough ACC schedule, so it will be crucial to pick up those early season wins against Charlotte and North Carolina A&T and Kansas. But after that, it’s bad news for the Blue Devils. Quarterback Gunnar Holmberg has promise, but I remain skeptical. The shifts on the coaching staff and offensive line are the only things giving me hope, albeit cautious hope.
Jake Piazza: 4-8
This year isn’t exactly going to be a glorious return to the 2013 ACC Championship appearance season. Duke is dealing with significant, and I truly mean significant, losses on the defensive line. Not having Derrick Tangelo, Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimkeje is going to hurt all year long and the loss of defensive backs Michael Carter II and Marquis Waters as patrolmen on the back end of the defense is huge. The Blue Devils are going to get their wins early in nonconference matchups and sneak one or two out in ACC play, but getting to a bowl with six wins this year is looking like the ceiling.
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Cam Polo: 4-8
The fact is, Duke needs to get off to a hot start in nonconference play to even be in a long shot bowl conversation come the end of the season. Out of its first four games, Duke needs to take three from Charlotte, North Carolina A&T, Northwestern and Kansas. Following a lighter September, it gets rough for the Blue Devils in October, and November doesn’t get any easier from there. And while I am high on Holmberg coming in and being a strong pocket presence, he is still a first-year starter operating under a seemingly ever-shifting play-calling structure. While running back Mataeo Durant will be a consistently solid performer, and I think Holmberg will eclipse expectations, losses on the defensive side of the ball will be too much for Duke to take a number of its tough contests in the back half of the season.
Micah Hurewitz: Gunnar Holmberg
If you think Holmberg won’t be Duke’s MVP this year, ignore the stats and inexperience. Cutcliffe’s faith in Holmberg coupled with the Blue Devils’ running threat from Durant may just open the opportunities for the passing game to explode. The fourth-year quarterback has studied under Daniel Jones, Quentin Harris and Chase Brice, and his three full seasons of preparation figures to translate well on the field.
Jonathan Levitan: Mataeo Durant
This is a boring question. Durant is better at football than the rest of the Duke football team. He earned the MVP award last year splitting time with senior captain Deon Jackson, and it stands to reason that he’ll win it again this season with twice the opportunities and even more experience.
Max Rego: Gunnar Holmberg
Boring choice? Maybe, but at the end of the day, Holmberg’s play will have the most impact on how the offense performs. After Chase Brice turned it over 22 times last year, Holmberg simply taking care of the ball will suffice. If the graduate student is accurate, able to hurt opposing defenses with his legs and command the huddle, Duke should improve on its 80th-ranked total offense from 2020.
Alex Jackson: Mataeo Durant
Durant is by far the easiest guy to be excited about. He runs angry and hard, but also swiftly, not to mention he also plays a nice element in the passing game. Almost seven yards per carry last season is all I need to hear. With the increased workload he’s bound to get following the loss of Jackson, the sky's the limit for Durant.
Jake Piazza: Mataeo Durant
Durant got the much-deserved recognition he earned by running all over the ACC last season. And I am confident he’s coming out of this 2021 season as the team MVP and a 1000-yard rusher. He’s the feature back this year and with the lion’s share of the carries, we’re going to get to see Durant use his elite field vision to bob and weave his way to the end zone.
Cam Polo: Gunnar Holmberg
Enrolling at Duke in 2018, Holmberg hasn’t seen much game action as of yet. But anyone who thinks he is not poised to be the driving force of this offense is sorely mistaken. Holmberg has now been under the tutelage of head coach David Cutcliffe for three years, each time working with a different starter. There was a reason that Holmberg was the 28th-ranked quarterback in the nation in his class by ESPN—the kid can throw. Blue Devil fans should expect to see a seasoned pocket presence despite what some suspect is still some wetness behind the ears.
Micah Hurewitz: Shaka Heyward
Heyward is everywhere on the field, evident as he led the team in tackles last season. He has an eagle eye for the ball and a fierceness on the field, pouncing on fumbles and getting to ball carriers in the backfield. In 2020 he added a safety and a punt block touchdown return to his resume of defensive feats, and as a defensive leader, he figures to be the Blue Devils’ do-it-all linebacker again in 2021.
Max Rego: DeWayne Carter
The Blue Devils’ lack of experience upfront is easily the most pressing concern on the defensive side of the ball, but Carter could be poised to step into the spotlight. Duke gave up 213.2 yards per game on the ground last season, so if the redshirt sophomore tackle can be a force in the trenches, the Blue Devils will be operating from a position of strength in passing situations.
Jonathan Levitan: DeWayne Carter
Shaka Heyward may be the motor of Duke’s defense, but DeWayne Carter will add more value to this side of the ball by virtue of the tall task that he faces. The Blue Devils have gone from an elite pass-rush unit in 2020 to a wholly inexperienced one here in 2021, and will need every ounce of effort from the redshirt sophomore and defensive captain this fall to make up for the talent deficit in the trenches. If he’s up to the challenge, this is his award to lose.
Alex Jackson: DeWayne Carter
Captain DeWayne Carter is ready for this season. With the significant losses to the defensive line, Duke will need people to step up and fill the gaps in trenches. Carter has excelled through camp this offseason and has shown real leadership and determination. Besides being a captain on defense, Carter will really have to show his command for the game as the leader of this reshuffled defensive line. The 300-pound tackle is not a guy you want to be lining up against and I expect him to make some big plays for the Blue Devils.
Jake Piazza: Shaka Heyward
How can you not roll with Heyward here? He’s the linebacker of any coach’s dreams both because of his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame and his uncanny knack for finding the football. Like Micah said, if there’s chaos while Duke is on defense, it’s probably because Heyward is wreaking havoc on an opponent’s offense.
Cam Polo: Shaka Heyward
This one seems like a layup, if you’ll excuse my mixed metaphors. Shaka Heyward is an athletic specimen at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, and is ready to pounce on opposing offenses after earning all-ACC honors last year. Make no mistake, if the Duke defense is to stand tall this year, taking games away from tough conference opponents, it’ll be on the back of Heyward.
Micah Hurewitz: Virginia
Homecoming weekend for the Cavaliers may be a prime opportunity for Duke to snatch its first win against Virginia since 2014—the Blue Devils have been outscored by an average of nearly 16 points in the six straight losses to the Cavaliers. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall has a tough squad of experienced players looking to bounce back from last year’s disappointing 5-5 campaign in which the Cavaliers opted out of a bowl game, but Duke has another year of experience, too. Last year’s matchup saw Duke with the lead entering the fourth quarter, but it ultimately faltered due to untimely turnovers. That being said, streaks are meant to end, right?
Max Rego: Louisville
Thursday night football! The Cardinals are coming off a dispiriting 4-7 campaign, with the honeymoon period officially over for head coach Scott Satterfield. Add in the short week and Louisville’s 80th-ranked rush defense last year, and look for Duke to grind out a home win thanks to Durant’s legs.
Jonathan Levitan: Virginia Tech
Remember when the winless Blue Devils almost took down Virginia Tech last year? Granted, the Hokies were missing a massive chunk of roster due to COVID-19, but there’s just something about Virginia Tech—last time Duke traveled north to take on head coach Justin Fuente and the Hokies on the road, the Blue Devils laid down the hammer 45-10. I’m not the biggest Braxton Burmeister guy; I don’t believe in the Virginia Tech defense; and I’m still buzzing about Duke’s last trip to Blacksburg, Va. It feels right. Give me the Blue Devils.
Alex Jackson: North Carolina A&T
The Aggies will be seeking revenge this season against Duke. The last time the two squared off, the Blue Devils crushed North Carolina A&T in the midst of their very successful three-loss season. The Aggies are an underrated squad. They are gritty and entering a new conference, where they are projected to excel. Considering Duke is likely going to be lacking big wins this year, I see North Carolina A&T as one of the biggest victories the Blue Devils will be able to grab.
Jake Piazza: Louisville
I guess I’m siding with Max on this one, and I’ll add in a few more points to go along with. Louisville lost its speedster slot Tutu Atwell and quarterback Malik Cunningham’s stock is trending downward after posting less touchdowns and more interceptions in 2020 than he did in the 2019 season. I’d still expect Duke to be an underdog in this one, and a Thursday game is funky, so I’ll go with the Blue Devils dominating Louisville in Wallace Wade.
Cam Polo: Virginia Tech
There’s something about Duke traveling to Blacksburg, Va., that gets me excited. Maybe it’s the sound of ‘Enter Sandman’ belted by 50,000, echoing off the concrete bleachers that gets the Blue Devil blood pumping in the entire roster. Maybe it’s consistently being rated as road underdogs in that stadium. But nobody can deny that the last time the Hokies saw Duke walk into town, everyone went home shortly after halftime—I think there’s a chance we see the same this year.
Micah Hurewitz: North Carolina
There is always some expectation that Duke-North Carolina matchups are close, but on the gridiron in recent years that has simply not been the case. North Carolina has College Football Playoff potential, so why this will be a bad loss likely comes from the Blue Devils being overwhelmed on both sides of the field—and last year’s 56-24 blowout may just be a taste of what is coming when Duke heads to Chapel Hill for its conference opener. Howell looks primed to keep the Victory Bell painted Carolina blue for another year.
Jonathan Levitan: North Carolina
After an incredibly difficult opening stretch last season, Duke has a legitimate fighting chance at securing three manageable wins before they face North Carolina in Week Five. I do not have the same faith in the Tar Heels as most this fall, and I think that after a mild start they punish the Blue Devils in Chapel Hill here. It’s not a matchup that Cutcliffe’s squad is expected to win, but the manner in which they fall to their crosstown rivals won’t be pretty to watch.
Max Rego: Georgia Tech
This category depends on how you interpret it, but I typically think of this as the most surprising loss. In that case, I have a feeling that Georgia Tech snags an early October win in Wallace Wade. Yellow Jacket quarterback Jeff Sims showed flashes last year, and Jahmyr Gibbs churned out 5.2 yards per carry in 2020—not something that bodes well for Duke if its run defense struggles like it did last year.
Alex Jackson: Miami
My definition of “worst loss” is the game in which Duke gets beat down the hardest. If we can learn from history, it’s that 22 Blue Devils are no match for a Hurricane. With Heisman candidate D’Eriq King still at the helm for Miami, it’s going to be tough for the weakened Duke defense to keep up with a dangerous Hurricane offense. This game will likely be over before it begins.
Jake Piazza: Miami
Duke’s matchup last year to the Hurricanes did not go well, and although the Blue Devils snuck out a win against Miami to end their 2019 season, that history isn’t going to repeat itself here. I’m concerned about Duke’s ability to bottle up King, both as a passer and rusher, and running back Cam’Ron Harris. With this game coming at the end of what will likely be a frustrating season, I see Duke getting blown out.
Cam Polo: Miami
Boy, do I have a lot to say about this one. Something about the Hurricanes just seems to sweep the Blue Devils off their feet. Last season, Duke lost 48-0 on the road to an admittedly streaking Miami team. No part of the team looked prepared, and I expect those demons to persist come Nov. 27. At this point of the season, it would be nice for the Blue Devils to not need this game to be bowl competitive, but if my overall season prediction is remotely true, they will desperately need this one to have a chance.
Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.
Jake Piazza is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.