Duke needs to get physical up front. David Cutcliffe liked what he saw in practice

The first day a team practices in pads is really the first day coaches can evaluate how physical a team they have.

For Duke coach David Cutcliffe, that first day couldn’t have come soon enough.

The Blue Devils have been able to practice full speed for the past few days in the same set of pads they would in a game.

Cutcliffe had expressed some concern with his team’s lack of consistent play after Friday’s practice where only shoulder pads and helmets were used.

But he saw improvement on consistency and with the team’s physical work on both lines after Sunday’s 90-minute practice.

“They responded to what I asked them to respond after day three,” Cutcliffe said. “We were able to go Friday, Saturday and Sunday. You can tell they’ve hydrated better. They are into that mentality of camp mode. Both lines of scrimmage up front were physical.”

That physical play on the lines is important to Cutcliffe. He’s confident the team has plenty of athletic, skill players on both sides of the ball.

But to restore Duke to a bowl team after last season’s 4-8 campaign, the big guys up front have to set the tone.

“There were some new faces doing some physical things,” Cutcliffe said. “There were some older faces doing some better things. That’s our best opportunity to grow as a team is to be more physical in those places.”

Duke returns three starters on its offensive line – senior left tackle Gabe Brandner, senior center Austin Davis and junior right guard Zach Harmon. Sophomore Julian Santos is currently the starter at left guard with Evan Lisle, a graduate transfer from Ohio State, the starter at right tackle.

On defense, Duke’s lone returning starter up front is senior tackle Mike Ramsay. Sophomores Tre Hornbuckle, Terrell Lucas and Twazanga Mugala are important players at defensive end along with freshman Drew Jordan. Junior Edgar Cerenord plays alongside Ramsay in the middle at tackle.

Yes, but how is the team’s health?

Cutcliffe is mildly concerned that a couple of players missed part or all of practice Sunday with muscle strains.

Redshirt freshman linebacker Brandon Hill, expected to push for playing time as a reserve behind starters junior Ben Humphreys and sophomore Joe Giles-Harris, strained a muscle in the first practice on July 31.

On Sunday, wide receiver Scott Bracey suffered a muscle strain late in the full-pad practice. A redshirt freshman, Bracey missed all of last season with a hamstring injury. So it was good news when he returned to practice on Tuesday.

When healthy, he’s expected to be a key target for quarterback Daniel Jones.

“I’m a little disappointed that we had some people with some strains close to where you’d like to be practicing,” Cutcliffe said Sunday night. “Brandon Hill missed today. Scott Bracey. We’ve got to have these guys. They are great athletes. The muscular makeup of them. They’ve got to understand, it’s a year-round thing to avoid these circumstances that you can’t practice because you’re feeling a strain in a quad or a groin or a hamstring or something. We’ve got to get past that.”

Two other players were out of practice due to injuries.

Sophomore defensive end Chidi Okonya had offseason foot surgery and has yet to be medically cleared to resume practicing. He’s attended practices and is moving normally without the use of crutches or a protective boot, a sign he’s progressing toward a return to play. Okonya played as a true freshman last season.

Freshman center Will Taylor suffered a knee injury last week and had successful surgery that will most likely sideline him all season. Duke normally has all freshmen linemen take a redshirt season – Santos is the only exception to that rule in Cutcliffe’s first nine seasons. So Taylor likely wouldn’t have factored into this season. But his injury could slow his adjustment to the college level by keeping him from important practice time.

What’s next

Cutcliffe hasn’t decided if the team will practice on Thursday. Friday will be a light practice because Duke’s first scrimmage is Saturday night at Wallace Wade Stadium. It is closed to the public.

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC