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DURHAM — Finding some middle ground at Middle Tennessee State might help Duke define what type of team it can be this year. So far, the Blue Devils failed to live up to expectations in their opener yet dominated their next opponent.
Middle Tennessee State (1-1), a Conference USA member, falls somewhere in between Duke’s 42-3 loss to No. 2-ranked Alabama and a 45-13 romp over N.C. A&T, a quality lower-division program ranked No. 14 in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Duke began the N.C. A&T game down 11 scholarship players and finished without 13, so head coach David Cutcliffe feels early season injuries have clouded the picture.
“We have the right people,” he said. “We have a lot of people that have played and been in a lot of different environments and won games. I don’t have a lot of question marks all over the place. The biggest thing that we don’t know while we grow back toward somewhat full strength is ‘how good can this team be?’
“We have to continue to see freshmen grow. We saw that against A&T. We are going to need those guys because we have so many people out. We need play-makers on offense. Defensively, that’s a pretty veteran group for the most part. We have to continue to grow some depth there.”
A “growing” true freshman is Jalon Calhoun, who has started two games at wide receiver after the shoulder injury to Jake Bobo. He caught only one ball for two yards against Alabama, but he followed with Duke’s first touchdown pass of the season among eight receptions for 105 yards.
The 5-foot-11, 185-pounder was a quarterback at Greenville (S.C.) Southside High who enrolled in January to make the transition to receiver. Duke had a recruiting edge on the three-star prospect when other schools viewed him as a cornerback.
“What I thought — and this is what helped us with him — he needed to get the ball,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s dynamic with the football and deep in his mind I think he wanted to play offense and that’s why he ended up at Duke.”
MONTGOMERY BACK AT WORK
Other than Maryland’s Mike Locksley, there isn’t a head coach in the country happier than Cutcliffe with the Terrapins’ explosive offensive start to the season.
Maryland (2-0) routed overmatched Howard 79-0 in the opener, but the Terrapins validated that performance with 63-20 rout of No. 21-ranked Syracuse. The result knocked Syracuse out of the Top 25 and vaulted Maryland in its place at No. 21.
Cutcliffe is happy for new Maryland offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery, his former Duke OC, getting back on his coaching feet. Montgomery left Duke as a first-time head coach at East Carolina in 2016, but he was fired with one game remaining last season in what finished as a third straight 3-9 record.
“I’m thrilled for Scottie,” Cutcliffe said. “We talked over the summer about getting back into the offensive coordinator mode. He did a great job for us. I don’t know much about Maryland’s personnel, but getting Mike Locksley and Scottie Montgomery together is a good staff.”
Locksley is a former New Mexico head coach; he also is a rare example of a black head coach getting a second chance compared to white coaches. Cutcliffe, citing Montgomery is 41 and only began coaching in 2006 after five pro seasons, believes Montgomery deserves a second opportunity.
“Scottie is a good coach; he’s in a good situation,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t think there is any question he can get another chance. He’s young in this business.”
Tom Shanahan is a freelance writer based in Cary and author of “Raye of Light,” a book featuring Fayetteville’s Jimmy Raye as a pioneering black quarterback for College Football Hall of Fame coach Duffy Daugherty on Michigan State’s Underground Railroad football teams of the 1960s.