A 56-27 Independence Bowl win over Temple allowed Duke to posted its fourth season with eight or more wins in the last six years.
The Blue Devils (8-5 in 2018) have played in bowl games in six of the last seven seasons, winning their last three postseason games.
That’s the source of the good vibes around the program David Cutcliffe has taken from the worst in Division I to a consistent winner.
The challenges remain constant, though. Two of Duke’s better players, quarterback Daniel Jones and all-ACC linebacker Joe Giles-Harris, are entering the NFL despite having a year of college eligibility remaining.
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Duke opens the 2019 season on Aug. 31 against national runner-up Alabama in the Chick-Fil-A Classic at Atlanta. That’s just the beginning of a challenging schedule which includes a home game with Notre Dame, yet another College Football Playoff participant.
Duke’s crossover opponent from the Atlantic Division is Syracuse, which posted a 10-3 season in 2018.
Even Duke’s Football Championship Subdivision foe is worrisome. N.C A&T won at East Carolina last season as part of a 10-2 record that included its second consecutive MEAC championship.
The quest to return to a bowl game begins with offseason work and spring practice.
Duke looks strong at running back with junior Deon Jackson (847 yards, seven TDs) and Brittain Brown (369 yards in an injury-plagued year) returning. They’ll run behind a line that returns four starters. But the rest of the skill players on offense will be new starters.
On defense, no seniors started the bowl game as injuries forced young players into starting roles. That should bode well for the future.
Here are five areas to watch exiting 2018 and looking ahead to 2019:
Who takes over for Daniel Jones at QB?
Quentin Harris has the edge in experience entering spring practice. The redshirt senior has played in 23 games over the last three seasons behind Jones. Harris started two games last season when Jones was out with a broken collarbone, leading Duke to wins at Baylor and at home over N.C. Central.
He threw three touchdowns at Baylor, but completed only 12 of 30 passes. His game does have limitations but he’s currently the top choice
Chris Katrenick and Gunnar Holmberg will get serious looks as Duke looks for a new starting quarterback.
Katrenick and Holmberg both stand 6-3, two inches taller than Harris. Both played in just one game in 2018, meaning Holmberg still has four years of eligibility. Katrenick will be a redshirt sophomore in 2019.
That also means neither have much game experience. That puts Cutcliffe in a similar position he was in back in 2016. Jones redshirted in 2015 yet was chosen over the more experienced Parker Boehme to take over as starting quarterback when Thomas Sirk suffered two offseason Achilles’ tendon injuries.
Cutcliffe is not averse to going with a younger quarterback if he believes that gives the team the best chance to win.
Spring practice will go a long way toward deciding who is Duke’s QB1 entering the Aug. 31 game with Alabama.
Who will man Duke’s defensive secondary?
The headliner is Mark Gilbert, an all-ACC selection at cornerback in 2017 who played just two games in 2018. He’s rehabilitating the dislocated hip he suffered last Sept. 8 at Northwestern that caused him to miss the rest of the season.
Prior to his injury, Gilbert looked likely to join Jones and Giles-Harris as early entrants into the 2019 NFL Draft. Instead, he is preparing to play as a redshirt junior for the Blue Devils in 2019.
Recovering from this hip injury is tough. So it won’t be clear until August how effective Gilbert will be.
The positive aspect to Gilbert missing 11 games last season was Michael Carter and Josh Blackwell moved into starting roles at cornerback. While neither played as well as Gilbert did in his all-conference 2017 season, both will be better in 2019 for their experiences.
Four-star recruit Tony Davis could see game action as a true freshman. He enrolled in January and will take part in spring practice.
At safety, Duke has plenty of options, beginning with senior Dylan Singleton. While recording 73 tackles, Singleton looked like an all-ACC player until he broke his foot in November and missed Duke’s final three games.
Junior Marquis Waters and redshirt sophomores Leonard Johnson, Damani Neal and Lummie Young all started multiple games in 2018 and are in position to earn starting jobs in 2019.
Something new at linebacker
Ben Humphreys and Giles-Harris, Duke’s starting linebackers the last three seasons, have both completed solid careers. Their knee injuries during 2018 left them mostly unavailable in November and in the bowl win over Temple.
As tough as that was for the Blue Devils, it allowed Koby Quansah and Brandon Hill to get starting assignments to prepare them to take over those jobs in 2019.
Quansah has already proven effective when he started in three-linebacker lineups against option teams. He had nine tackles in the 34-14 win over Army last Aug. 31. Hill, at 6-3 and 225 pounds, is a smart player with the physical tools to be an impact player in 2019.
Xander Gagnon gained experience as a sophomore and projects as a solid reserve. Shaka Heyward, a 6-4, 230-pound freshman, showed enough promise during his redshirt season he could factor into things in 2019 as well.
New look in the passing game
Duke’s top four players in receptions -- wide receivers T.J. Rahming (75), Johnathan Lloyd (51), Chris Taylor (31) and tight end Daniel Helm (26) -- have all exhausted their eligibility. The same with tight end Davis Koppenhaver, whose seven touchdown catches were only one fewer than Rahming’s team-leading eight.
Strong recruiting over the last three years gives Duke plenty of options to replace them.
Wide receiver Jake Bobo showed he has the best hands in the team while catching 10 passes as a freshman last season. Damond Philyaw-Johnson and Jarrett Garner will get a chance to earn starting jobs as sophomores. Philyaw-Johnson is the faster of the two, while the 6-3 Garner is a big target who can also move well.
The most experienced player, who also has a large upside, is redshirt senior Aaron Young. A hamstring injury suffered in a September practice limited the 6-2 Young to only two games last season. One of them was a four-catch, 114-yard game against Army. A healthy Young would give Duke a strong receiving corps for its new starting quarterback.
At tight end, the 6-4 Noah Gray has already impressed with is play-making abilities in limited action. Playing behind Helm and Koppenhaver, Gray has 25 catches over the last two seasons. He’s poised for big jumps in playing time and production as a junior.
What will Duke’s strength be next season?
It will start up front on defense, where the Blue Devils have athleticism, size, depth and, now, experience.
Getting veteran Edgar Cerenord back to anchor the middle at defensive tackle is a bonus. The NCAA awarded him a waiver to play a sixth season due to the ruptured Achilles’ tendon that ended his 2018 season in October.
He is surrounded by returning starters in junior defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo and junior defensive ends Drew Jordan and Victor Dimukeje.
Tahj Rice, a four-star recruit in the 2018 class, showed promise as a freshman at defensive tackle. At defensive end, senior Tre Hornbuckle gives Duke experienced depth. Same goes at defensive tackle with redshirt senior Trevon McSwain.
Sophomore defensive tackles Ben Frye and Elijah Brown will push for playing time in the middle.
Athletic defensive end Chris Rumph will force the coaching staff to get him on the field. His three-sack, seven-tackle performance at Georgia Tech as a freshman last Oct. 13 was eye-opening.