Non-Conference Opponent Preview: Duke
Last Season: 8-5, 4-5 ACC
Key Returnees: QB Thomas Sirk, CB DeVon Edwards, WR Anthony Nash, WR TJ Rahming, OG Tanner Stone
Key Departures: S Jeremy Cash, LB Dwayne Norman, WR Max McCaffrey, RB Shaquille Powell, C Matt Skura
The Duke Blue Devils head into the 2016 season looking to make their fifth-straight bowl game with David Cutliffe at the helm. Unfortunately for Duke though, the path to the postseason is filled with plenty of questions, first and foremost surrounding quarterback Thomas Sirk. who is vying to be back in time for the season opener after rupturing his Achilles in February.
Last season the Blue Devils went 8-5, defeating the Indiana Hoosiers in the Pinstripe Bowl, 44-41 in OT. But with a tougher schedule, questions at quarterback, and the loss of star defensive back Jeremy Cash, the Blue Devils could miss their first bowl game since 2011.
The biggest question surrounding the Blue Devils’ offense is whether or not Sirk will be ready for the opener. If not, Duke will have to start Parker Boehme, a junior who threw just 78 passes for 579 yards last season. And if Sirk isn’t able to go early on, it could spell trouble for the Blue Devils, who face two tough tests early on in their schedule, traveling to Evanston and South Bend.
Either way, Sirk or Boehme will have some veteran receivers to work with, including sophomore Anthony Nash, who finished with 32 receptions for 475 yards last season, and senior TJ Rahming, who tallied 43 catches for 571 yards and two touchdowns a year ago.
However, the Blue Devils do lose Max McCafferty, who led Duke in receiving with 52 catches for 643 yards and five touchdowns in 2015. Along with Rahming and Nash, the Blue Devils will turn to Scott Bracey and RB Shaun Wilson to make up some of the lost production, with the hope that either Sirk or Boehme can also be more accurate, as neither topped a 59 percent completion rate last year.
On the ground, the Blue Devils lose Shaquille Powell, their leading rusher from last season, but Jela Duncan and Wilson, along with whomever is under center, should slide right in and make up for some of, if not all of Powell’s production. Duncan rushed for 460 yards and four touchdowns last year, a 6.9-yard average, while Wilson rushed for 424 yards and three TDs, with a 5.0-yard average.
The Blue Devils have three returning starters on their offensive line, including seniors Tanner Stone and Casey Blaser, who each started 13 games last season, but Duke will have to replace two All-ACC picks: Matt Skura, who was a First Team All-ACC pick last season and OG Lucas Patrick, who was Third Team All-ACC.
Over the first six games last season, the Blue Devils allowed just 253 yards per game, but over the final six, they allowed 516.3. Duke does return six starters on defense, but losing Second Team All-American Jeremy Cash will be a big loss.
AJ Wolf, a senior, is the only returning starter along the Blue Devils defensive line, but last season they shuffled 10 different players through the rotation, so the line does have some experience. Wolf, who had 3.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks last season, will be joined by junior Dominic McDonald Jr. and sophomores Edgar Cerenord and Marquies Price, as they look to improve upon a 2015 performance of allowing 154 yards per game.
Similarly, Duke loses two of their three starting linebackers, with DeVon Edwards moving to the secondary and returning Tinashe Bere, who had 58 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for a loss last year. But similarly to the defensive line, four of the top six linebackers from last season return for the Blue Devils, so they should be able to fill the void.
And even with Cash last season, the Duke secondary allowed 335 passing yards per game, but with all four returning starters and DeVon Edwards slotting in at corner, the senior-laden secondary should certainly improve on last year’s abysmal performance.
Duke loses their kicker and punter on special teams, both of whom were four-time All-ACC honorees, so the unit figures to take a decent step back in 2016, starting true freshman A.J. Reed at kicker and redshirt freshman Austin Parker at punter.
Both of their kick and punt returners return however, as DeVon Edwards, who averaged 29.2 yards per kick return, should once again be back returning punts along with Shaun Wilson. The two combined for four kickoff returns for touchdowns last season. Ryan Smith is back as well to return punts, looking to improve on a 7.1 yard average from last season.
Outlook: How Duke fares this season depends a lot on the health on Thomas Sirk and which defense shows up from last season. If Sirk is healthy and good to go early on, the Blue Devils’ offense will have a chance to replicate last season’s performance of a 439 yard per game average. If not, the Blue Devils could be in trouble, especially if the defense doesn’t take a few steps forward. Cutcliffe has done a great job over the past few years getting the most out of his Duke team, but with a tough schedule, facing Louisville and Notre Dame instead of Boston College and Tulane, the question becomes can he get enough this year to secure their fifth-straight bowl berth?
Best Case: Sirk is healthy by week one or two, last year’s early season defense shows up and the Blue Devils ride Sirk to 8-9 wins for the second-straight year, propelling them to yet another bowl game.
Worst Case: Sirk misses most, if not all of the season, Boehme struggles even with a veteran receiver corps and the defense continues to struggle after last season’s late woes as the Blue Devils miss a bowl game for the first time since 2011, finishing the year 5-7.