Duke has versatility, depth as Blue Devils prepare for 2019 football season

Duke’s Cutcliffe on the Blue Devils’ first football practice

Duke Blue Devils football coach David Cutcliffe talks about the first practice of the 2019 season.
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Duke Blue Devils football coach David Cutcliffe talks about the first practice of the 2019 season.

The Duke Blue Devils took to the practice field for the first time Friday morning, kicking off fall camp in preparation for the season opener against Alabama on Aug. 31.

The Blue Devils are coming off an 8-5 campaign, with a 56-27 win over Temple in the Walk-On’s Independence Bowl to build off as camp begins.

With more than 100 players in helmets and shorts on a rare, cool August morning, veteran head coach David Cutcliffe talked about the importance of the first day, including players and coaches learning things they can do better.

“The players, what you find out is what you kind of know from an assignment level,” Cutcliffe said. “You really embrace your conditioning level and to use time properly.”

Cutcliffe saw a lot of balance from both sides of the ball, the defense highlighted by a pick-six interception by Leonard Johnson, a redshirt sophomore who made the switch from safety to cornerback in the offseason.

Cutcliffe told the media after practice there weren’t any major position changes this offseason. Johnson’s switch is just one example of the versatility the Blue Devils have in the secondary, one of their strengths on defense.

“We have a lot of people who can play different positions,” Johnson said. “We have some young guys, it’s just a lot of competition around with the young guys and the veterans we have.”

Quarterback Quentin Harris drops back to pass during drills as Duke holds its first football practice of the season Friday, August 2, 2019. Scott Sharpe ssharpe@newsobserver.com

Cutcliffe likes his depth at defensive line, linebacker (even though they must replace two starters) and offensive line.

All eyes will be on quarterback Quentin Harris, who replaces Daniel Jones, a first-round selection of the New York Giants in April in the NFL Draft. Harris started two games last season while Jones was injured and saw action in all 12. He used his legs mostly, rushing for 195 yards and five scores, but was effective with his arm when given the opportunity, completing 50 percent of his passes for 437 yards and seven scores.

Harris spent the summer getting to better know his receivers, throwing three days a week to get the timing down.

“The biggest adjustment now is running them under a game-like scenario and adapting to the play calls by the coaches,” Harris said. “The biggest thing is getting used to how the defense is going to play us because we didn’t do a whole lot of competition stuff (this offseason).”


Cornerback Mark Gilbert, a Fayetteville native who only played in two games last season because of a hip injury, underwent a second surgery during the offseason, Cutcliffe said Friday.

Gilbert suffered a dislocated left hip against Northwestern and first had surgery in September. His status for fall camp was unclear before undergoing the second surgery, and Cutcliffe wouldn’t say Friday when Gilbert, a first-team All-ACC selection in 2017, might be able to return.

“We don’t know long-term outcomes to this point,” Cutcliffe said.

Cutcliffe counted nine players out of the first practice due to injuries they suffered a year ago.

“I’m ready to leave that injury thing to last year,” Cutcliffe said. “Hopefully sooner than later we’ll get that situated.”

Duke coach David Cutcliffe watches drills as the Blue Devils hold their first football practice of the season Friday, August 2, 2019. Scott Sharpe ssharpe@newsobserver.com

Marvin Hubbard, who missed all of spring practice while recovering from surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles, also had another surgery this off season. In both cases, Hubbard and Gilbert, Cutcliffe said they were issues that needed to be addressed right away.

“These were not as major of surgeries,” Cutcliffe said. “These were more cleanup circumstances. They’re not out here, that’s the bottom line.”


The Blue Devils can brag about the depth in the secondary this year, but the fact remains that group had a hard time picking off passes in 2018.

Duke finished last season with four interceptions, last in the ACC. Johnson had one of those four and said the defense has placed an emphasis on picking off more passes in 2019.

“We’ve been doing a lot more conditioning,” Johnson said. “I feel like we are going to get a lot more picks because we are in better shape. Plus the pressure, our defensive line this year is really going to get after it. I can tell by today.”


Johnson, for one, said opening the season on the big stage -- The Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game -- against a program like Alabama is definitely a good way to start the season.

It’s a nationally televised game, against one of the premier programs in college football. While Johnson said the team’s normal approach to a season opener hasn’t changed, taking on the Crimson Tide is a perfect measuring stick to find out where they stand.

“Obviously, we are going to have to play at our full potential,” Harris said. “We are very respectful of what they do and what they’ve accomplished the last few years, but this will be a great stepping stone for us the rest of the season.”

Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.