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2018 Wake Forest Football Preseason Opponent Preview: Duke

After ending the season on a 3-game winning streak including a bowl win, the Blue Devils hope to keep building momentum with a team full of upside. What should the Deacs expect from their regular season finale?

NCAA Football: Duke at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

David Cutcliffe has a reputation as one of the most respected Head Coaches in College Football, and it is a well-deserved one.

Cutcliffe turned things around on a football program that lived on the shadows of the school’s famous basketball program. This is not to say that Duke is the next football powerhouse by any stretch, but this program has been consistently delivering within reasonable expectations. Since 2012, Duke has made it to 5 bowl games in 6 seasons, including four straight from 2012 to 2015 and a trip to the Peach Bowl in 2013.

Last season, Duke had a promising squad starting the season 4-0 with solid wins against Northwestern and Baylor. Many believed that by the time the Blue Devils were to travel to Winston-Salem they would have already locked a Bowl spot and both teams could be possibly playing for bowl positioning. That was not the case, as Duke lost 6 straight games, including a head-scratching loss at home to a Pittsburgh team that, at the time, had only two wins against Youngstown State and Rice.

However, they flipped the switch once again to finish the season with wins against Georgia Tech and Wake, plus a Quick Lane Bowl victory over NIU. What happened? The most likely answer was due to the growing pains of an extremely young roster. Now, Duke returns the same promising players that beat a strong Northwestern team and a hot Wake team in Winston, but with more experience to prevent some of the rookie mistakes that plagued them last season. Here are some names to keep an eye on:

Offense

After another solid performance, Jr QB Daniel Jones is poised to be the starter for the Blue Devils once again. Jones completed 257 passes in 453 attempts for 2691 yards and 14 TDs last season. He struggled a little with accuracy and turnovers as he connected only 56% of his passes and was intercepted 11 times. Jones also showed his mobility, rushing for 518 yards last season at 3.22 yards per attempts.

Jones showed flashes of better accuracy over stretches last season. Against Northwestern, he completed 64.4% of his passes for 305 yards, two TDs, and one interception. Against Northern Illinois, he completed 67.5% for 252 yards, two TDs, and no interception, according to CFBStats. His mobility inside the pocket and running with the ball shouldn’t be overlooked either. However, he had moments in which he was really careless and forced too many balls.

If Jones can cut down on those forced throws, he can be a really good football player, some even believe he might be NFL-caliber good in 2018. To say that a QB’s production will determine the fate of the team is beyond obvious in most cases, but Jones’ playing will truly be the thermometer for the ceiling of this Duke team, in 2018. Potential he has for sure.

The receiving corps should give Jones plenty of help. Duke brings back a lot of experience at the wide receiver spot with TJ Rahming (Sr.), Johnathan Lloyd (R-Sr.), and Chris Taylor (R-Sr.). Rahming should be Jones’ main target. According to CFBStats, he averaged 12.23 yards per catch with 65 grabs for 795 yards and two TDs.

At the RB spot, the Blue Devils are hoping for a breakout year from redshirt Sophomore Brittain Brown. He is physical enough to run between the tackles and agile enough to make people miss on the outside. Brown is on both the Doak Walker Award preseason watch list (best RB in the country) and the Paul Hornung Award preseason watch list (most versatile player in the country). He rushed for 701 yards with seven TDs alongside 161 receiving yards in just 14 receptions.

Deon Jackson shouldn’t be overlooked for the starting gig either. Both backs should see plenty of carries as the teams two main options, but Brown has the higher upside.

The running game will also depend a lot on how well Duke’s new Offensive Line gel with three new starters coming into the fold. Zach Harmon (C) is the best player on this line and is listed on the Rimington Trophy preseason watch list (awarded to best Center in the country). Robert Kraeling is a former 4* recruit and has been touted as a high-upside player by some pundits.

Defense

While many of the projections Duke has on offense are based on players’ upside and lots of promises, the defense presents two already proven stars in 2017 first-team All-ACC players linebacker Joe Giles-Harris and cornerback Mark Gilbert. Both players have also received lots of consideration for All-American honors this season.

Giles-Harris might be one of the closest players in all college football to the definition of tackling machine. In 2017, He recorded 125 total tackles out of which 16 were TFLs. He also logged 4.5 sacks. Giles-Harris is outstanding against the running game, he is quick to read the blockers and shoots the gaps with the same quickness.

Duke employs a very aggressive defensive scheme with lots of blitzes and different coverage packages that emphasize the opportunity for what Bill Connely calls, on his Duke Preview havoc plays (TFLs, Sacks, Forced Fumbles, Interceptions and Passes Broken Up). Coupled with a strong D-Line, look for Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys (MLB) to have every bit of opportunity to live on offensive backfields.

On the secondary, the guy to keep an eye on is undoubtedly Mark Gilbert. The numbers speak for themselves. Gilbert had three TFLs, six INTs, and 14 Passes Broken Up. He’s sticky in coverage and sets the tone with his aggressiveness and physicality.

This Duke secondary might be one of the best in the ACC. Returning Safeties Jordan Hayes and Jeremy McDuffie make for a solid pair on the back of this defense. According to CFBStats, McDuffie had three INTs and nine PBUs while Hayes added seven PBUs. The starting CB gig opposing Gilbert is the one question mark on this unity with Penn transfer Mason Williams, sophomore Myles Hudzick, and redshirt freshman Josh Blackwell competing for the job.

One possible drawback to this defense is the loss of longtime Defensive Coordinator Jim Knowles. Duke decided to replace by promoting Ben Albert and Matt Guerrieri as co-coordinators. Having two Defensive Coordinators is an intriguing proposition and one worth to keep an eye one throughout the season. One thing is certain, they definitely will have a lot of talent to work with.

Final Thoughts

Duke is projected at No. 40, offense at 73 and defense at 28, on the S&P+ ranking. This is pretty close to Wake projected at No. 34. Duke is projected as slightly favorite for the week 13 matchup with a 52% chance to win at home. Both teams have a considerable amount of question marks heading into this season that could make those rankings fluctuate a lot.

Duke’s offense has enough upside players, like Brown and Jones, that provided they live up to the expectations will make it a very dangerous unit. Wake’s biggest question on offense relies on what should be expected from their starting QB. Outside of the QB spot, Wake has a more established unit with players that already performed at a high-level last season. Provided the starter at Qb does not have a huge production drop-off, advantage Wake.

On defense, both teams have pretty strong secondary units with plenty of upside players. Mark Gilbert might be the best player out of them all, but Essang Bassey is not too far behind. Duke’s front seven has far more established veterans with really good Linebacker duo in Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys and an experienced D-Line. Wake still has a lot of question marks on both groups. Advantage Duke. However, it should be noted that Duke’s aggressive style of defense can also make it more susceptible to allowing the occasional big play. This coupled with the uncertainty of the new defensive coordinators are two possible drawbacks to keep an eye on.

On paper, this matchup is as even as it can get. The momentum heading into this game might play a big factor in this one. This feels like one of those games that will be decided in a handful of plays down the stretch. Recent history favors the Blue Devils, as Duke has won 5 of the last 6 contests. One interesting stat is that all the seasons that Duke has beat Wake they have made it to a bowl, with the only exception being in 2016 when they lost 14-24 at home and had an overall of 4-8. They will face each other on Nov. 24 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, NC.

Stay tuned for more Wake Forest updates and as always Go Deacs!