Last season, as a redshirt freshman, Daniel Jones had rougher days in other ways than he did in last Friday night’s loss to Miami.
He threw five interceptions and lost a fumble in a 34-20 loss against Virginia last. Playing while Hurricane Matthew hit the state last October, Jones completed just 46.7 percent of his throws against Army.
But even in those circumstances, Jones led the Blue Devils to the end zone. He threw at least one touchdown pass.
Duke accomplished neither of those things in its 31-6 loss to Miami. Jones completed 21 of 41 passes (51.2 percent) with one interception and the Blue Devils managed just two field goals.
Since then, with Saturday’s game at Virginia looming, Duke has spent the week focusing on fixing pass protection issues and hoping its receivers do more to handle their end of things.
Even though Duke is 4-1 overall and 1-1 in the ACC, Jones has absorbed 16 sacks. Miami recorded five of those sacks.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe is concerned but not alarmed with his offensive line.
“We have guys who can win individual battles,” he said. “There are some things that can be done schematically better. I think we are seeing some things that can help us grow quickly in that direction.”
That leaves the guys who catch passes in more of a spotlight.
Even five games in with an impressive win-loss record, Duke is still looking for consistency at wide receiver.
Cutcliffe called it an “ongoing evaluation” as the Blue Devils look for answers.
“They have been challenged,” he said.
Redshirt junior Johnathan Lloyd is performing best there. He’s been the target of 29 passes and has caught 21. That 72.4 percent catch rate is tops among Duke’s receivers who have had more than five passes thrown their way. Lloyd has amassed 216 receiving yards with one touchdown.
Junior TJ Rahming led Duke with 70 receptions last season and looked to be the Blue Devils’ top receiver this season. Jones certainly thinks he should be because he’s thrown a team-high 44 passes to Rahming.
But Rhaming has caught only 26 for a 59.1 percent catch rate.
Duke’s other wide receivers, with their catch rates, are:
Chris Taylor (18 targets, nine catches, 50 percent),
Aaron Young (13 targets, eight catches, 61.5 percent)
Quay Chambers (Nine targets, five catches, 55.6 percent)
The two Duke tight ends aren’t much better:
Daniel Helm (10 targets, six catches, 60 percent)
Davis Koppenhaver (10 targets, six catches, 60 percent)
Compare that to, say, N.C. State, which entered Thursday night’s game against Louisville with the ACC’s top completion percentage at 72.7.
The Wolfpack’s top three receivers, using the same stats, are:
Kelvin Harmon (43 targets, 27 catches, 62.8 percent)
Jakobi Meyers (27 targets, 19 catches, 70.4 percent)
Stephen Louis (26 targets, 22 catches, 86.4 percent).
That doesn’t include the versatile Jaylen Samuels, who has turned 50 targets into 43 catches (86 percent).
Following Wednesday’s practice, Jones described the problems with Duke’s passing game and what’s being worked on to fix them.
“I think there were plenty of issues,” Jones said. “I think the protection, and my responsibility in protection to adjust it and make sure we count for all the people could have been done better. I’ve been working to improve there. I think being on the same page with the receivers in certain situations. Coming out of breaks and coming out of cuts and making sure we are thinking the same thing in terms of depth and leverage. We’ve worked on that and feel like we are improving.”
Lloyd aside, Duke has a much of guys at wide receiver but no one that’s really the main guy like Rahming was last season.
Younger receivers, like redshirt sophomore Keyston Fuller and redshirt freshman Scott Bracey, have the talent to help but haven’t shown enough to earn more playing time. Perhaps they’ll get more chances against Virginia. The coaching staff would welcome seeing players practice well enough to force their way on to the field on game days.
“I think there is some competition right now,” Cutcliffe said “I think all of them are improving to some degree. But I want to see some drastic improvement. I want to see a competitive edge. There’s an opportunity right now. I would think somebody is going to step up and take advantage of it.”