Less than two weeks remain before Duke opens its football season against N.C. Central.
The Blue Devils held their second scrimmage of the preseason at Wallace Wade Stadium Friday night, and what came out of that is that the team has made progress toward being ready to open the season.
Part of the reason for the improvement was timing. There were no classes in session at Duke for the week between the two scrimmages; summer school has ended and the fall semester has yet to begin. The players could focus 100 percent on football.
Here are five things we’ve learned about Duke as it heads into its Sept. 2 opener:
Confidence increasing in offense
After a dip in scoring last season, the Blue Devils believe they are equipped to reach the end zone more this season. Duke coach David Cutcliffe liked the way the first-team offense, led by sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones (6-5, 215 pounds), turned in more sustained drives in the second scrimmage.
“We ran the ball more consistently, and I thought Daniel threw the ball exceptionally well,” Cutcliffe said.
Senior running back Shaun Wilson (5-9, 185 pounds) caught four passes in the scrimmage, which is important because he has breakaway speed. It’s another way for Duke to get him the ball in open space.
Redshirt junior wide receiver Chris Taylor (6-1, 185) also had four catches. Duke needs him to be consistent. If he, Wilson and junior tight end Daniel Helm (6-4, 245) are reliable catching the ball, it will help junior deep threat T.J. Rahming (5-10, 165) have a chance to be open downfield for explosive plays.
Last season, Duke benefited from only 19 turnovers. Only Virginia and North Carolina forced fewer among ACC teams.
In the two scrimmages this month, Duke’s defense has recorded five turnovers. Four of them were credited to first-team defensive players – interceptions by sophomore safety Jordan Hayes (6-0, 180), junior linebacker Ben Humphreys (6-2, 225) and junior tackle Edgar Cerenord (6-1, 300) and a fumble recovery by senior safety Alonzo Saxton (5-11, 180).
That’s the kind of plays the defense is determined to make all season.
“Our motto is turnovers and big hits, so whenever we take the field we try to get as many turnovers and tackles for loss and big hits as we can,” Hayes said.
This plays came while two key defensive players, senior cornerback Bryon Fields (shoulder) and junior safety Jeremy McDuffie (broken thumb) have been slowed by injuries. Both expect to be ready for the season-opener which would further strengthen Duke’s defense.
Cutcliffe has made no final decisions yet on kicking but plenty of attention has been paid to this part of Duke’s team. The coach said he could announce a decision by the end of the week.
Graduate transfer William Holmquist (6-1, 190) has impressed on field goals and extra points and sophomore punter Austin Parker (6-1, 190) remains in the running for those duties as well along with sophomore A.J. Reed( 5-11, 180). Holmquist and Parker are getting the most repetitions in practice.
But Cutcliffe is taking his time choosing. After last season’s problems (3-of-10 field goals), he’s making sure everything is as strong as it can be.
Senior quarterback Parker Boehme (6-2, 220) and junior wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd (6-0, 190) are splitting holder duties. Walk-on freshman Jake Driggers looks like Duke’s kickoff man.
Depth at running back
As a senior, Wilson is in line for a strong season running the ball again for Duke. He led the team with 623 yards last season.
But Cutcliffe always prefers to use multiple backs to keep fresh players on the field. Redshirt freshman Brittain Brown is clearly in line for regular carries.
The 6-1, 200-pound Brown carried 19 times for 143 yards in the two scrimmages. He has the size and speed to be a major contributor this season.
Freshman Marvin Hubbard (6-4, 190), who gained 119 yards on 23 carries in the first scrimmage, could avoid taking a redshirt season.
Hubbard’s not the only true freshman making a strong push to play this season. Guard Rakavius Chambers is playing well enough to find himself on the two-deep chart. He’s playing right guard with the second-team offense.
Last season, guard Julian Santos (6-3, 305) became the first offensive lineman to play as a true freshman in Cutcliffe’s Duke tenure. The 6-3, 325-pound Chambers could make it two in a row.
Wide receiver Damond Philyaw-Johnson’s speed has opened eyes in practice that could earn him chances this season.
On defense, defensive end Drew Jordan (6-2, 225) and safeties Marquis Waters (6-1, 200) and Michael Carter (5-10, 190) have played on the second-team defense.