DURHAM, N.C. – With four practice sessions in the books, the Duke football team makes its final preparations for having next week off with the university on spring break. Following the time away, the Blue Devils will return to the gridiron on Monday, March 18.
GOALS FOR THE DEFENSE THIS SPRING
With eight defensive starters returning, and a wealth of experience gained last fall due to a number of injuries, Duke’s defense has many goals for this spring.
“The goals for us as a defense as we go through spring practice are trying to find the best 11 players we have,” Co-Defensive Coordinator/Recruiting Coordinator [Defense]/Defensive Secondary coach Matt Guerrieri said. “You then build depth behind those guys and create a competitive atmosphere. Then you get great at your fundamentals. For us on defense that’s, first off, running to the football. If we’re not going to do anything else great this spring, we’re definitely going to run to the football. I can promise you that.”
Depth was key to the Blue Devils’ 2018 defensive unit as Duke lost four defensive starters throughout the course of the campaign. The squad pushed through the injuries and finished with consecutive years of holding opponents to 201 or fewer passing yards a contest for the first time since 2004-05.
“It was unfortunate we got as injured as we did this past season,” Guerrieri said. “The fortunate thing is that you saw, not only the defense that was probably going to play this fall, but also the year after that. We got a bunch of guys get experience.”
RUMPH II A VERSATILE PIECE FOR DUKE DEFENSE
One of the Blue Devils’ most versatile defensive options is rising redshirt sophomore defensive end Chris Rumph II, who earned Freshman All-America honors from USA Today last fall. The Gainesville, Fla., product collected 24 tackles, 8.0 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, two quarterback pressures, one fumble recovery and one pass breakup.
“Chris is a really special guy,” Guerrieri said. “He is very savvy player. Anytime you’re a Freshman All-America, you’ve made a bunch of plays. Chris has a great knack for rushing the passer. He has great length and athleticism. He can play with his hand on the line of scrimmage, but also be off the ball and play that way. He is in the hybrid role. He can play along the defensive line or at linebacker. We can highlight him in a bunch of different ways.”
“This spring, I’m trying to get stronger, faster and get the playbook down,” Rumph II said of his goals for these 15 practices. “That way the game is secondhand and I can play faster on the field next year and make an even bigger impact. I’m trying to continue to get better.”
Rumph II tied for 36th in the ACC in sacks and tied for second among the league’s freshmen. His 8.0 tackles for loss were the sixth most in a year by a rookie at Duke and tied for the second most by an ACC rookie.
“Practice does make the game easier,” Rumph II said of what he learned last fall. “Practice does make perfect. If you practice like you play, you’re going to be a better player on the field. I’m just taking that to heart and practicing hard every day.”
SUCCESSFUL PLAYERS LEAD TO RECRUITING IMPACTS
Duke lost two Blue Devils to early entries in the 2019 NFL Draft with former All-America linebacker Joe Giles-Harris and three-year starting quarterback Daniel Jones. The program’s goal is that the departed players will lead to more talented student-athletes coming to Duke.
“Anytime that you have marquee players and wins, you are able to recruit better talent,” Guerrieri said. “I was fortunate enough to able to coach Jeremy Cash. The year Jeremy graduated, we signed Dylan Singleton. You’ve been able to see what he’s done here. I hope the same thing happens for our quarterbacks with Daniel Jones. That’s the reality of recruiting here. You’re going to see our linebacker position go through the same thing. Joe Giles-Harris was one heck of a player. We signed Shaka Heyward, who is a guy who has flashed early. He is going to continue to improve for us. I’m excited about our guys. Anytime you win and build a program like Coach [David] Cutcliffe has done here, there are guys who want to be a part of Duke football.”
REASONS IN THE RED ZONE
Duke has used a two-quarterback system for much of the past seven years, utilizing a red zone option behind center in certain situations. Rising redshirt senior Quentin Harris is one who has experienced many snaps within the opponent’s 20-yard line.
“That’s part of what that red zone package is about, in case you do end up in a situation where you need to play your second quarterback,” Baxter Family Deputy Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Zac Roper said. “Quentin is a guy who has been in our different red zone packages throughout the last two years. You’re not talking about a completely inexperienced player. He is a guy who has been in the fire. That’s one of the reasons we’ve done the red zone packages here, going back to Brandon Connette a couple years ago. Then to Thomas Sirk and Quentin the last couple years. Quentin has played some football and the lights won’t be too bright for him.”
Harris enters the 2019 season having played in 23 career games with two starts, completing 41-of-81 (.506) passes for 510 yards and eight touchdowns to go along with one interception.
OFFENSIVE LINE DEVELOPMENT
For the fourth time in the last five years, Duke returns three starters along its offensive line. Last fall, the unit provided pass protection for an aerial attack that featured 31 touchdown passes, setting the program single-season record.
“We have talented guys who we’re excited about,” Roper said of the potential for the 2019 offensive line. “It goes back to what does the quarterback do well and what do those five offensive linemen do well. That’s a big part of what spring practice is about.”
Last fall the unit also allowed Duke to close the year as one of four ACC teams to compile 2,000 or more rushing yards and 3,100 or more passing yards, joining Clemson, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.
“We have a lot of guys who are experienced up front,” Harris said. “Robert Kraeling is back at right tackle and Rakavius Chambers has played a lot at right guard for us. Jack Wohlabaugh played a lot at center for us. At left guard you have Julian Santos and Zach Baker, who are very experienced. At left tackle, hopefully we can get Jaylen Miller back. For right now, we’re getting Casey Holman some meaningful snaps. It’s a younger group if you’re looking at their classes, but they’re very experienced and have done really well so far this spring. I’m looking forward to them continuing to grow throughout the spring.”
ONE NEW ADDITION TO THE STAFF
Duke added one new assistant coach to its staff in January, bringing in Trooper Taylor, who spent the last five seasons at Arkansas State. Taylor coaches the Blue Devil wide receivers and is reunited with head coach David Cutcliffe as the two served together on the staff at the University of Tennessee during the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
“This spring with coach Taylor has been amazing,” rising redshirt sophomore wide receiver Damond Philyaw-Johnson. “He is very demanding and has high standards. But he also knows what it takes to get to the next level. He knows what it takes to be a great man.”
On the staff at Auburn when the Tigers captured the 2010 BCS National Championship, Taylor has coached in 14 bowl games during a career that includes stints at Baylor, New Mexico, Tulane, Tennessee, Oklahoma State, Auburn and Arkansas State. He has been named one of the nation’s top 25 recruiters by Rivals.com on three occasions (2005, 2007 & 2010).
“He has taught us to never complain and to work,” Philyaw-Johnson added. “He says, ‘if you want to be great, you have to do the things to be great.’ You can’t just talk about it. You have to be about it. Another thing he has taught us is to catch 100 balls a day without a drop. If we can have no drops as receivers, we’ll get our jobs done.”
Roper believes the honesty and care from Taylor will make an impact on the entire squad.
“There’s a lot of energy and excitement,” Roper explained. “You always know where he is. It’s not an act. It’s who he is. I think the guys, especially the wide receivers, have taken to him. The entire team has taken to him really quickly. He’s a very, very genuine person. He cares for these young men, as more than just football players. You can’t fool young people. These guys know he’s going to care for them and push them and prod them. These young, talented receivers who we have are going to be well served by his coaching methods.”
YOUNG WIDE RECEIVER GROUP LEARNING UNDER TAYLOR
Duke must replace all three starters at wide receiver from a year ago in Johnathan Lloyd, T.J. Rahming and Chris Taylor. Rahming (75), Lloyd (51) and Taylor (31) combined for 157 of Duke’s 278 receptions (56.5 percent) last season.
This spring, the Blue Devils have 11 wide receivers on the roster, but just three upperclassmen.
“I feel really good about our new group,” Harris said. “We have a couple guys who have played a lot of football for us in their time here. I’m really encouraged by the job our mid-year guys have been doing with Eli [Pancol] and Darrell [Harding Jr.]. They’ve been flashing their potential a lot. They’ve caught the eyes of me and our coaching staff. I’m confident in the group. I think they’ll grow and continue to get more comfortable with the playbook.”
“We’re excited about the entire group,” Roper said. “It’s a young and talented group. We are very inexperienced and there is a lot of work to be done. Coach Taylor and all the offensive coaches are having a lot of fun with those guys right now. We certainly think we’re going to be able to put a group of guys out there who are going to be able to be successful. We have some time. These guys are working and we’re excited about them.”
HARRIS MENTAL GAME DEVELOPING THIS SPRING
One of the biggest differences for Harris going from primary backup to primary starter has been the mental side of the game.
“From a mental standpoint, you really try to focus on understanding the schemes that go into everything,” Harris said. “It’s one thing to know how a play operates and know where to go with the ball. It’s another thing to understand why you’re doing it. I think that’s kind of the next mental step I’m taking – understanding the schemes behind plays, why we’re doing things, why we go to a certain receiver on certain coverage and things like that. I think that’s been the biggest step mentally for me. I feel pretty good with the grasp of the offense and playbook.”
Jones’ 33.5 vertical jump was the third highest among quarterbacks while his 4.81 40-yard dash was good for ninth among the QBs.
The trio will continue to prepare for the NFL Draft, which is scheduled for April 25-27 from Nashville, Tenn.
The current list of Blue Devils in the NFL includes Breon Borders (Jacksonville Jaguars), Jeremy Cash (Arizona Cardinals), Ross Cockrell (Carolina Panthers), Jamison Crowder (Washington Redskins), Thomas Hennessy (New York Jets), Max McCaffrey (San Francisco 49ers), Lucas Patrick (Green Bay Packers), Vincent Rey (Cincinnati Bengals), Matt Skura (Baltimore Ravens), Laken Tomlinson (San Francisco 49ers) and Shaun Wilson (Tampa Bay Buccaneers).