The struggles of a disjointed year are in the past, Duke certainly hopes, as practice begins for a new football season on Thursday.
A year ago, pandemic restrictions curtailed offseason work. The players and coaches went 140 days — nearly five months — without seeing each other in person. While these restrictions were in place for teams around the country, Duke proved unable to endure them without it greatly impacting the team’s on-field play.
The Blue Devils suffered through a 2-9 season, their fewest number of wins since 2007 — the season before David Cutcliffe took over as their coach. Duke led the nation in turnovers (39) and allowed 38.1 points per game, a combination that left the Blue Devils noncompetitive in a number of games late in the season.
“There are no excuses,” Cutcliffe said. “You go play to win, and regardless of what your team looks like. I think I learned the culture, the chemistry of a team is built from January. I’ve had an old saying, there’s an old farmer’s saying that you plant well in the spring or beg well come fall. I think I realized more and more how critically important planting from January all the way through the summer is to be able to sustain a season.”
That is the lesson Cutcliffe wants everyone in the program to learn from last season’s failures. Always a believer that every experience has value whether positive or negative, Cutcliffe now wants his team to put those lessons into action as practice begins again.
“I learned a lot of lessons for a 45th year of coaching just how important my job as a head coach is of putting everybody in the best position they can be,” Cutcliffe said.
With that in mind, here are four topics to watch as the Blue Devils look to improve on last season’s dismal showing.
It all starts up front
Duke has question marks along the lines on both sides of the ball.
On offense, the team’s projected starters at both tackle positions will be new to their positions. Graham Barton got starts at center as a true freshman last season due to injuries. But the 6-foot-6, 315-pound sophomore’s future is at tackle and he’ll work on the left side in preseason camp.
John Gelotte, a 6-7, 295-pound redshirt sophomore, has played 27 snaps as a college player. He transitioned from tight end back to offensive tackle in spring practice and will compete for the starting right tackle job in August.
The good news on the offensive line is center Jack Wohlabaugh is ready to go full speed after missing all of last season with a torn knee ligament. He’s a big key to any success the Blue Devils could have.
On defense, Duke saw defensive ends Chris Rumph (Chargers) and Vic Dimukeje (Cardinals) drafted into the NFL last spring. Another end, Drew Jordan, transferred to Michigan State to use the fifth season of eligibility allowed due to the pandemic.
Ben Frye, a senior who has played at tackle, will move out to defensive end. Sophomores fill the top slots of the depth chart at the other three line positions from Caleb Oppan and R.J. Oben at defensive end to tackles DeWayne Carter, Gary Smith, Aeneas Peebles and Christian Rorie.
Chemistry in the passing game
Duke will be using its fourth starting quarterback in the last four seasons with Gunnar Holmberg entering practice at No. 1 on the depth chart. In his fourth season in the program, Holmberg said he’s learned plenty as an understudy and is now fully prepared to lead Duke’s offense to success.
To do so, he’ll need his receivers and tight ends to make big plays. The good news is the Blue Devils have experience there in returning starting wide receivers Jake Bobo, Jalon Calhoun and Eli Pancol.
With Noah Gray now in the NFL with Kansas City, Duke has a new starting tight end in Jake Marwede. As a redshirt senior, he has plenty of experience in the program and with the offense.
Duke simply can’t have the number of turnovers it had last season, so the work in that area is critical.
“I’m asking our squad to own their habits,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m asking our staff collectively to own that habit. But my job, it still falls on David Cutcliffe to ensure as a head football coach this is all happening right. So I take full responsibility. And if you don’t take care of the football, you’re not going to win. That’s been the biggest issue we have faced on the scoreboard. The only statistic that really matters is points per game. I don’t know of anything that affects it more than turning the ball over because every one of those you’re not scoring.”
Can the secondary provide big plays?
The Blue Devils’ defensive backs absorbed plenty of injuries last season and turned in a pedestrian season. While Duke was fourth in the ACC in passing yards allowed per game (231.6), only Pittsburgh (23) allowed more touchdowns through the air than the 22 thrown against Duke.
The Blue Devils intercepted just nine passes in 11 games and the 7.9 yards Duke allowed per catch was 13th among 15 ACC teams.
Duke returns experienced players to man the back end of its 4-2-5 alignment as safeties Nate Thompson, Jalen Alexander and Lummie Young all have starting experience. So do cornerbacks Josh Blackwell and Jeremiah Lewis.
Injuries limited Blackwell to two games last season while Young played in five. Duke needs them to be healthy and back to their full abilities.
Look to the linebackers
For all the questions up front and on the back end for Duke’s defense, the Blue Devils look strong at linebacker.
Shaka Heyward led the team in tackles last season, averaging 7.3 per game. Another junior, Rocky Shelton, returns to start at linebacker. Behind them, Duke has up-and-coming talents in Christian Hood, Sayyid Stevens and Dorian Mausi who will provide depth.