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While the Duke football team ended last year with a 4-8 record and no bowl game for the first time in four years, there is a lot of optimism heading into this year. Head coach David Cutcliffe said that quarterback Daniel Jones has the chance to be the best quarterback he’s ever coached, and yes, that’s including Peyton and Eli Manning. Jones, a former walk-on from Charlotte who won the starting job in fall camp last year, has added muscle and speed to an already solid foundational understanding of the game of football and the quarterback position. Returning starters Shaun Wilson (running back), T.J. Rahming (wide receiver), Chris Taylor (wide receiver) and Johnathan Lloyd (wide receiver) gives Jones one of the most dangerous collections of skill position players in program history. That’s not even counting Tennessee transfer Daniel Helm at tight end and reserve Davis Koppenhaver, who played a number of snaps last year.
What will make the difference between a successful season and a disappointing one will be the play of both lines, including the offensive line which has three returning starters from last year and adds Ohio State transfer Evan Lisle and sophomore Julian Santos, who became the first true freshman to start on the offensive line under Cutcliffe at Duke last year. The defensive line projects to be better this year, if not only for the tutelage of former Boston College defensivel line coach Ben Albert and the addition of three talented freshman defensive linemen including one starter, Victor Dimukeje, and two guys who appear on the two-deep depth chart in Drew Jordan and Derrick Tangelo.
Behind those road graders along the defensive line are the only two returning All-ACC defensive players from last year, linebackers Ben Humphreys and Joe Giles-Harris, who will be the quarterbacks of Duke’s 4-2-5 scheme. The defensive backfield turns over a number of starters, but has an impressive cadre of youngsters to go along with veterans Bryon Fields, Alonzo Saxton and Jordan Hayes.
Duke should have no problem returning to a bowl this year, and if they can stay healthy like they are right now, could contend for an ACC Coastal Division championship.
IMPRESSIVE HOME SCHEDULE
The Blue Devils host bowl teams in week two (Northwestern), week three (Baylor), week five (Miami), week seven (Florida State), week eight (Pittsburgh) and week 12 (Georgia Tech). If you’ve been on the fence about getting over to the newly renovated Wallace Wade Stadium, this is the year to do it. This weekend’s opener against North Carolina Central in the annual Bull City Gridiron Classic is nearly sold out, with mostly single tickets remaining.
BOWL GAME CHANCES
The Atlantic Coast Conference has between nine and 11 bowl tie-ins this year, depending on how things shake out with the College Football Playoff and how other conferences perform. If Duke gets to 5-7, they can backdoor their way into a bowl game due to their excellent work in the classroom, but they’d much rather get in the traditional way with at least a 6-6 regular season record. Winning half of their scheduled games will show that last year’s disappointing finish is in the rear view and the program is heading on a positive trajectory.
NO. 1 BASKETBALL RECRUITING CLASS
While it wasn’t the way anyone would have drawn it up when the 2017 basketball recruiting cycle began, Duke finished with the No. 1 recruiting class in the country after top-rated player Marvin Bagley decided in August to reclassify up a grade and enroll at Duke this fall. With the addition of Bagley, the Blue Devils leapfrogged Kentucky in the rankings and added seven players to the roster, including four five-stars (Bagley, big man Wendell Carter,Jr., point guard Trevon Duval and shooting guard Gary Trent, Jr.) Once Bagley committed, a number of basketball writers pegged Duke as the favorites to cut down the nets in San Antonio next April, but as we’ve seen in recent years , the most talented team doesn’t always win the title in a single-elimination tournament.
COACH K SURGERY CANCELS OVERSEAS TRIP
Duke was supposed to take an overseas trip this summer to the Dominican Republic, the program’s first since a trip to China and Dubai, but it was canceled at the last minute due to Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s immediate and unexpected need for knee surgery. While not going on the trip will allow the full roster to gel better (Bagley would not have been able to make the trip), the relative inexperience on the roster could certainly cause some speed bumps along the way this season. Fortunately, the nonconference schedule is much more forgiving this year. The full schedule is expected to be released sometime next week. Duke starts practice officially at the end of September with “Countdown to Craziness,” the program’s midnight madness festivities, on Oct. 20.
Adam Rowe covers Duke basketball, football and recruiting for 247Sports.com. Check out more of his work at duke.247sports.com.