Photo: Daniel Jones
Duke coach David Cutcliffe said some things most coaches avoid at a spring game. He raised expectations.
Midway through the Spring Showcase Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium, he had his players take a knee at midfield. He took a microphone and introduced the Blue Devils’ most improved offensive and defensive players. Then, before the live scrimmage began, he volunteered how excited he was with the team’s progress, talent and depth.
The Blue Devils’ 11th-year head coach is from Alabama, but he’s definitely not from the Nick Saban School-of- Sparing -Praise.
“The fact he’s behind us and giving us that support and encouragement helps us,” said senior wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd. “We go out there every day to produce and get better and better. We feel great about where we’re at. We’ve progressed a good deal. Come fall we’ll be ready to go.”
Duke returns 16 starters and 47 lettermen from a team that won its final three games, including the Quick Lane Bowl over Northern Illinois, to finish with a 7-6 record.
One reason for the optimism – in the eyes of the coaches and players – is backups stood out as much as the returning starters.
“Our starters realize there are people behind them that can play,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got competition at every position, and we’ll benefit from that. The dream is to play 22 regularly, but we’ve got people maybe third on the depth chart fighting for playing time. It’s something we’ll continue to push.”
Redshirt junior quarterback Daniel Jones leads the returning starters. He threw two touchdown passes in the 50-play scrimmage. He was eight-of-15 for 83 yards with touchdown passes of 11 yards to backup sophomore tight end Noah Gray and eight yards to senior wideout T.J. Rahming.
Gray adds to a tight end corps that was already deep with the return of juniors Daniel Helm and Davis Koppenheimer, who combined for 39 catches and five touchdowns.
That opens up possibilities on offense for Jones to keep the defense guessing.
“It’s a good circumstance for us,” Cutcliffe said. “We can go three wide receivers, one tight end, or two receivers and two tights or three tight ends. You’ll see more personnel groupings than we’ve had. We’ll get more out of backs.”
That led Cutcliffe and Jones to mention sophomore running back Deon Jackson, one of the two most improved offensive players along with sophomore right tackle Rob Kraeling.
Sophomore Brittain Brown, who led the ground game with four carries for 16 yards, returns to replace lost starter Shaun Wilson, but Jackson adds another weapon. The 6-foot, 215-pounder dropped 15 pounds from last year when he arrived from Atlanta Pace Academy.
“He’s found the right playing weight,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s in good shape and learning and understanding the offense. That’s what we’ve seen all spring. I’m thrilled about that.”
The defensive most improved players were sophomore cornerback Myles Hudzick, junior linebacker Koby Quonsah and sophomore safety Marquis Waters.
“We have the most we’ve ever had,” Cutcliffe said of the five spring improved players awards. “It was hard not to name more.”
Following the scrimmage, Cutcliffe said he was most pleased with the aggressiveness of the defense. He cited the windy conditions limiting the passing game, but mostly he praised the defense.
“The biggest thing we saw was the defensive aggressiveness and the ability to play a lot of people,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re pretty excited about where we are.”
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