For all the discussion about Daniel Jones’ bright future, the outlook for the sophomore quarterback dims if his support system fails.
After struggling with turnovers early in his freshman season in 2016, Jones threw his final 173 passes without an interception.
So as the Blue Devils opened practice Monday morning, the pressure was on the team’s wide receivers, running backs and tight ends.
Center Austin Davis, one of three redshirt seniors currently among the starters on the offensive line, is confident the Blue Devils can be a more potent offense this season.
“Speaking from the offensive line, we have to give our running backs and our quarterback more time, better protection, stuff like that,” Davis said. “I know that as long as we’re blocking, guys like Shaun Wilson, Brittain Brown, Daniel Jones, they are going to make some plays. So if we do our job, I have so much faith in them that they are going to get the job done no matter who is back there.”
Junior wide receiver TJ Rahming, who caught 70 passes for 742 yards last season, and senior running back Shaun Wilson, who led Duke with 623 rushing yards, both need to be better this season.
Last season, Duke averaged 23.3 points per game while going 4-8 overall and 1-7 in the ACC.
Wilson got off to a good start in the first practice, said Duke coach David Cutcliffe.
“I thought Shaun Wilson looked like a senior today,” Cutcliffe said “I thought he separated himself.”
Wilson is clearly Duke’s starter at running back with Nico Pierre running at second team along with promising redshirt freshman Brittain Brown. Last August, as a true freshman, Brown so impressed the coaching staff that the decision to redshirt him was difficult.
At wide receiver, Rahming is proven. Two other experienced players, redshirt junior Johnathan Lloyd and redshirt junior Chris Taylor, are also listed as starters on the depth chart even though their combined catches last season (63) are fewer than Rahming’s 70.
Behind them, redshirt sophomore Keyston Fuller and redshirt freshman Scott Bracey are loaded with potential.
Fuller sat out the 2015 season as a redshirt and missed last season after having surgery to repair a broken bone in his knee area. Bracey arrived at Duke as a four-star recruit from Richmond but missed the 2016 season due to a hamstring injury suffered last August.
“We are excited for all those guys,” Jones said. “Keyston and Scott have looked great all summer. It’s exciting to see them improve. But you think about the whole wide receiver room. It’s very deep and talented. Those guys are poised for a big season. So many guys who can do so many things is a dangerous weapon for an offense.”
Cutcliffe offered one bit of caution about the receivers, with the caveat that this was just the first day of practice.
“A couple of them,” he said, “I want to see a little more of a conditioning level out of them.”
At tight end, redshirt junior Daniel Helm caught 21 passes for 235 yards last season. Redshirt junior Davis Koppenhaver had 17 catches. So there’s experience there and room for more production.
A new name to watch is redshirt freshman Mark Birmingham, who looked good last spring.
The coaches believe their roster is the most talented as it’s been in a decade. That means the competition for playing time is fierce. Duke needs that talent to show well for Jones to lead the team back to a bowl game this season