Duke

This freshman walk-on could be the key to fixing Duke’s kicking game

Jeremy McDuffie, a safety on the Duke football team, practices with the Duke track team in April.
Jeremy McDuffie, a safety on the Duke football team, practices with the Duke track team in April. ctoth@heraldsun.com

When Duke hits the practice field Monday for a 7:20 a.m workout, its first official practice of the new season, answers to the questions the team faces as it tries to climb back to bowl eligibility will begin to emerge.

The Blue Devils are strong at quarterback, with redshirt sophomore Daniel Jones entering his second season as a starter. They’re deep but inexperienced at wide receiver with junior T.J. Rahming the lone known quantity. They have a senior running back in the speedy Shaun Wilson.

On defense, Duke will build around its returning starters at linebacker who happen to also be best friends -- junior Ben Humphreys and redshirt sophomore Joe Giles-Harris. But the front line and the defensive secondary have new faces.

To help sort things out, here are five key players to watch in Duke’s camp as the Blue Devils (4-8 overall, 1-7 in the ACC last season) prepare to open the 2017 season with N.C. Central on Sept. 2:

Jack Driggers, kicker

Driggers, a freshman just arriving on campus this summer, could be the answer to one of Duke’s most crucial questions. The Blue Devils need a reliable place kicker after AJ Reed made just 3 of 10 field goals in 2016. A recruited walk-on from Tallahassee, Fla., Driggers is one of a host of players battling to replace the sophomore Reed. Driggers, 5-11 and 170 pounds, has the reputation of a strong leg but has to prove he’s accurate as well. South Carolina also targeted him before he opted for Duke.

Jeremy McDuffie, safety

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Pitt wide receiver Dontez Ford, right, reels in a touchdown pass over Duke cornerback Jeremy McDuffie in 2015. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

A converted cornerback, McDuffie mans a key position in Duke’s 4-2-5 defensive alignment. His combination of speed and strength has the coaching staff expecting him to be an impact player. He’ll be expected to provide support against the run, cover receivers and sometimes blitz. McDuffie, a 5-11. 175-pound junior, has played in 24 career games as a reserve cornerback. He participated on Duke’s track team last spring, recording the fourth-best 60-meter hurdle time and the second-best triple jump in school history.

Scott Bracey, wide receiver

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Scott Bracey Les Todd Duke Photography

Duke needs playmakers at wide receiver to take full advantage of Daniel Jones’ talents at quarterback. The 6-2, 210-pound Bracey will get the chance to be a major difference maker. A four-star recruit when he arrived on campus a year ago from Richmond, Bracey injured his hamstring on the first day of practice in 2016 and took a redshirt season. Now healthy and even stronger, Bracey joins Rahming (5-10, 165 pounds), junior Chris Taylor (6-1, 185 pounds), junior Johnathan Lloyd (6-0, 190 pound), sophomore Keyston Fuller (6-0, 190 pounds) and sophomore Aaron Young (6-2, 205 pounds) in Duke’s receiving corps. Everything points to him being a special player if he remains healthy.

Gabe Brandner, offensive tackle

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Duke place kicker Ross Martin, middle, is congratulated by teammate offensive tackle Gabe Brandner, right, after kicking an extra point in September 2015. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Duke’s most experienced player on offense, senior Brandner mans left tackle and is charged with protecting Jones’ blind side. He started Duke’s first 11 games last season before suffering a broken ankle last November. Recovery kept him out of the contact portion of Duke’s spring practice. But he’s fully healthy and ready to go for the start of fall camp. Duke needs a solid line to make its offense go. Brandner, who’s 6-6, 285 pounds, is one of three returning starters there and has to be at the top of his game.

Twazanga Mugala, defensive end

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Mugala Twazanga Reagan Lunn Duke Photography

Despite his lack of experience (he’s played in just two college games), Mugala starts practice in an important role for the Blue Devils. A 6-3, 240-pound redshirt sophomore, Mugala played well enough last spring that he’s listed as a starter on Duke’s depth chart entering the new season. Duke’s coaches need the defensive front to put pressure on quarterbacks without resorting to an abundance of risky blitzes. At 6-3 and 240 pounds, Mugala will get a chance to show he has the speed and strength to get that job done.

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC

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