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Takeaways: Duke football shows off first-team offense, new-look defense in modified spring scrimmage

Rising junior quarterback Riley Leonard in Duke's April 6 spring practice.
Rising junior quarterback Riley Leonard in Duke's April 6 spring practice.

While April is in the middle of the spring sports season, it also represents the heat of spring football. This is the chance for teams to showcase their offseason progress and provide a glimpse of what is to come in the fall. 

The Blue Devils played a modified scrimmage Saturday as the entire depth chart got quality reps. Here are the takeaways from all three facets of the game. 

Offense: Year 2 of Kevin Johns and Riley Leonard

Led by quarterback Riley Leonard, Duke had a prolific offense a season ago, and the Blue Devils are returning every starting skill player. Therefore, this is certainly a different experience for the players from last year, the first season for offensive coordinator Kevin Johns. 

“When we came in [last year] we didn't know what we're walking into, now we know the ropes of the offense,” said graduate wide receiver Jalon Calhoun. “Now it's just getting that time together with Riley in the pass game and the run game and being in our spots.” 

The first-team offense looked as advertised, and it was clear that Leonard has developed increased chemistry with his wide receivers. In a two-minute drill, the offense methodically worked its way down the field, capped off by an Eli Pancol touchdown catch. 

“The biggest thing is really just having the experience back. We have that chemistry so now it's just taking it up another notch,” said Calhoun. 

Duke has a plethora of running backs at its disposal, and the elite backfield was on display Saturday. Graduate Jordan Waters demonstrated his hard-nosed running ability, scoring a touchdown and barreling through multiple defenders. In addition, Jaquez Moore and Jaylen Coleman ran the ball well, helping the offense stay on schedule. 

Sophomore Terry Moore was moved to safety from running back during this offseason, leaving room for others to step up. A name to watch in the backfield is freshman Peyton Jones, and Calhoun complimented his play as Jones was productive in second and third-team reps.

The offensive line had two starters injured — senior Graham Barton and graduate Jacob Monk — so the group produced mixed results. There were some penalties and miscues from the younger players, but they did a good job in protecting the quarterbacks. Last year, the Blue Devils gave up the least amount of sacks in the ACC, a large part of their offensive success. 

In addition, Duke got a glimpse of its future as redshirt freshman quarterback Henry Belin IV led the second team. Belin was extremely effective on the ground, showcasing his ability to move out of the pocket and gain positive yards while under duress. His decision-making and accuracy should continue to improve as he progresses, but the talent was unmistakable. 

“Henry stepped up. The game slowed down to him and he's going through his progressions slower now and making the right reads,” said Calhoun. “He’s being a more vocal leader and putting guys in the right position so I feel like that's gonna carry him to the next level.”

Defense: New coordinator, same focus

Last year, the Blue Devils improved remarkably on the defensive end, but there still is room to grow. Tyler Santucci was hired as defensive coordinator in January and has already gotten off to a good start this offseason. 

“I think the defense performed well today,” said junior defensive back Brandon Johnson. “We tried to put an emphasis on communication and I think we communicated well, which led to the defense's performance.”

It was evident that energy and communication were big focuses for the defense. The atmosphere was vivacious, as enthusiastic players on the sidelines cheered on their fellow teammates throughout the scrimmage. 

A key statistic last year was the Blue Devils’ ability to turn opponents over, forcing 26 turnovers and 16 fumbles. In Saturday's scrimmage, Duke recorded two turnovers and multiple pass breakups. 

“That's the emphasis every day for us. We practice turning the ball over so just so it can carry over to the game,” said Johnson.

Despite losing its two leading tacklers in Shaka Heyward and Darius Joiner, Johnson believes the unit is up to the task of replacing this production. Senior linebacker Dorian Mausi had a great game, recording multiple tackles including a big sack on Belin. 

Overall, the secondary limited big plays on the offensive end. Even as the team moved down the field, the defense made sure to keep everything in front of them. Johnson commented on the flexibility and depth of the defensive backs.

“The [cornerback] room itself is a competitive room, I think that's pushing everybody to be better,” said Johnson. “Availability is the best ability, so being able to move around is good as well. I like moving around in the secondary and being able to showcase I can play multiple positions.”

Special teams: Solid performances across the board

Although the modified format of the scrimmage limited the scope of the special teams' performance, there were still glimpses of this important group. 

Primarily, graduate punter Porter Wilson was outstanding. Wilson consistently downed the ball inside the 15-yard line, even with limited attempts. 

Despite the fact that there were no live punt returns, Calhoun and sophomore wide receiver Sahmir Hagans took the reps fielding punts. Notably, Duke led the ACC in average punt return yardage with this duo last year. On kickoff returns, senior safety Jaylen Stinson joined Calhoun.

Graduate Charlie Ham and sophomore Todd Pelino split the kicking duties on a perfect day as each connected on their only field goal attempts. Special teams can be the difference between wins and losses, and having a sound unit is essential come fall. 

Following a 9-4 season a year ago, a new life was injected to Duke’s program. To add on to this, there is increased optimism based on the amount of returning production for the team. 

Calhoun is part of a large group of returners for the Blue Devils, and he has embraced his role as a leader for this team. The Greenville, S.C., native was clear when asked why he chose to return for his final year of eligibility. 

“Chemistry … the guys coming back,” Calhoun said. “We can do a lot more than just nine wins.”

The Blue Devils will compete in their annual Blue & White game April 22. 

Caleb Dudley contributed reporting.

Ranjan Jindal profile
Ranjan Jindal | Assistant Blue Zone editor

Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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