Duke

Last season, Duke was the worst FBS field-goal kicking team in the country. Where will it rank this season?

Duke defensive end James Hornbuckle, left, attempts to tackle Virginia Tech running back Travon McMillian on Nov. 5.
Duke defensive end James Hornbuckle, left, attempts to tackle Virginia Tech running back Travon McMillian on Nov. 5. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Duke’s football players will reveal plenty on Saturday about how much fun it could be to watch the team play this season.

The Blue Devils are scheduled to hold their first intrasquad scrimmage, and it’s annually the most extensive look the coaches get at their players after practice starts. It also helps shape the depth chart.

After going 4-8 last season, Duke needs improvement along its offensive and defensive lines, on special teams and at wide receiver. Since practice started on July 31, Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe has reported seeing some of that in all of those places. This weekend offers a more in-depth look.

Here are four key things we’ll know after the scrimmage:

Which receivers prove reliable?

Duke needs to surround redshirt sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones with skill players to best take advantage of his talents. Cutcliffe said this week that junior TJ Rahming, the team leader in receptions and yards last season, has separated himself from the pack. Same is true for junior tight end Daniel Helms.

So now it’s time to see what else Duke has. While redshirt juniors Johnathan Lloyd and Chris Taylor have experience, the intriguing young stable of receivers and tight ends includes redshirt sophomore Aaron Young, redshirt freshmen Scott Bracey and Keyston Fuller and freshman Damond Johnson-Philyaw at wide receiver.

Tight ends David Koppenhaver, a redshirt junior, and Mark Birmingham, a redshirt freshman, will vie for playing time behind Helms.

They all must prove to be sure-handed as well as precise route-runners. And don’t forget about blocking because Jones likes to run the ball, too.

Is the offensive line up to its task?

Cutcliffe is putting a premium on physical play along both lines. He’s said it’s the best way for Duke to get dramatically better as a team compared to last season.

The offensive line returns three starters in redshirt senior left tackle Gabe Brandner, redshirt senior center Austin Davis and redshirt junior right guard Zach Harmon. That’s plenty of experience.

At right tackle, graduate transfer Evan Lisle is playing his first season at Duke after coming from Ohio State. Let’s see how good he really is after three seasons as a reserve with the Buckeyes.

At left guard, sophomore Julian Santos is the other new starter. He played as a true freshman last season, a rarity under Cutcliffe at Duke. He learned his lessons well, according to Cutcliffe.

“I think Julian Santos is a much better second-year player than he was a first-year player,” Cutcliffe said.

Behind those five, we need to see what the young linemen are showing to see how Duke’s depth will be up front.

Redshirt sophomores Reno Rosene (guard) and Zach Baker (center) should be ready to contribute in their third year in the program. Redshirt freshmen Liam Smith (tackle) and Jaylen Miller (guard) are promising as well.

Cutcliffe likes how true freshman Rakavius Chambers is playing so far.

Young guys up front on defense

Just as the offensive line needs to shove people around, Duke needs its defensive line to pressure opposing quarterbacks into mistakes.

Duke has recruited well in this area over the last three years, and Cutcliffe is ready to let the kids go to work.

Sophomores Tre Hornbuckle and Terrell Lucas played plenty as freshman a year ago. Look for freshmen ends Drew Jordan, Ben Frye and Chris Rumph plus freshman tackles Axel Nyembwe, Derrick Tangelo and Victor Dimukeje to do the same

“All six of our true freshmen have at different times caught my eye,” Cutcliffe said.

The scrimmage will show where those young players stand compared to older linemen like redshirt junior tackle Edgar Cerenord, redshirt sophomore tackle Trevon McSwain and redshirt sophomore end Twazanga Mugala.

Scrimmage built around kicking?

That’s not an overstatement. The Blue Devils were the worst FBS team in the country in field-goal kicking last season. So Cutcliffe and his staff are spending plenty of time on that unit this month. The same will be true in the scrimmage.

“Not just the field-goal kicking put every element of our kicking game will be worked,” Cutcliffe said. “We will be as game-like as we can possibly be, maybe as much as we’ve ever been for that reason and that particular reason.”

Sophomore punter Austin Parker exited spring practice as the No. 1 placekicker ahead of sophomore AJ Reed, who struggled as a freshman. Walk-on Jack Driggers, Jackson Hubbard and William Holmquist are also in the running for the job.

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC

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