By Jim Sumner, GoDuke the Magazine
David Cutcliffe says spring football is “about the players, not the plays.”
Zach Harmon will be Duke’s starting center next season, a fifth-year senior. He elaborates:
“Today (the first day of practice) we ran eight plays against the defense. We spent a good hour and ten minutes on individual drills, working on technique, on the fundamentals you learn in high school, translating that into a faster pace, because once the season starts, you’re working on opposing teams, relying on the fundamentals you’ve perfected over the spring and summer.”
But all that development has to help answer questions. Duke has a few, even after turning around the 2017 season and winning its final three games — including the Quick Lane Bowl — to finish 7-6.
Duke returns 48 lettermen from that team, 16 starters, including such notables as linebacker Joe Giles-Harris, quarterback Daniel Jones, cornerback Mark Gilbert and safety Jeremy McDuffie, the latter sitting out spring ball following knee surgery.
Most position groups return all or most of their key players. But not all.
Perhaps the biggest questions involve special teams, a group that took a huge hit when Austin Parker was dismissed from the team for academic reasons shortly after the end of the regular season.
Parker was Duke’s punter and placekicker. He was replaced for the bowl game by William Holmquist. But Holmquist was a grad student, so he’s gone. And Parker’s dismissal occurred too late in the recruiting cycle for Duke to replace him.
Duke has one recruited kicker on the roster, rising junior AJ Reed. He’s experienced but was 3-for-10 on field goals in 2016 and did not see the field last season.
Jack Driggers kicked off last season and averaged almost 62 yards per kick. He has the leg but can he kick it between the uprights? Like Driggers, Jackson Hubbard is a rising sophomore walkon. He could challenge for the placekicking position but might be a better option for punter, having averaged 41 yards per punt as a high school senior.
Walkons Collin Wareham and Matthew Cone are getting looks at placekicker and punter, respectively.
“Duke has not regressed in talent,” special teams coach Kirk Benedict says. “AJ is in the mix. Jack has a powerful leg. He just needs to focus on consistency. Jackson is a great athlete, with good hands. He also needs consistency. Competition breeds excellence. But we’re going to have a starter at those positions.”
Long snapper Ben Wyatt also returns. Benedict calls him “one of the most reliable players on the team.”
Starting running back Brittain Brown may have a leg up on replacing Wilson. Brown returned kicks in high school and says he’s ready to do it at Duke.
“I feel like I’m a home run threat,” he says. “They’re going to throw me in there this year. I’m excited. I’m going to get myself into condition for running back and special teams.”
Benedict says wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd or Hubbard should be the holder and that Rahming remains the top option as punt returner, with wide receiver Keyston Fuller and defensive back Myles Hudzik also getting long looks.
“Speedy defensive backs” are the name of the game for kick coverage, according to Benedict, as many as possible. But he also cites 230-pound linebacker Koby Quansah as an emerging special teams star, a “warrior, capable of striking fear on coverage.”
He’s a 2010 Davidson graduate who served in the Army in Afghanistan, leaving as a captain. He says his goal is to allow “kids to make plays. Leading and developing men is an on-going process.”
Bridge cites Benedict’s military background in calling Benedict “a great, great leader. He’s led men in battle. He understands how to accept orders and he’s tireless.”
Benedict got promoted after Bridge moved to offensive line, following Marcus Johnson’s decision to leave for Mississippi State, right before Duke’s bowl game.
It may sound like coaching musical chairs but Bridge has been a college coach since 1992 and has been an offensive line coach at NC State, among other stops.
Harmon says Bridge “is a fiery guy and great on technique. He’ll critique us, point out little things that help you win a play.”
“We’re going to put a very hard-working group on the field,” Bridge says. “We’re going to be the engine of the football team. We’re going to play with a chip on our shoulder.”
Bridge coached the offensive line when Duke shredded the Northern Illinois defense in Duke’s 36-14 bowl win. But that starting O-line unit included All-ACC center Austin Davis, left tackle Gabe Brandner and right tackle Evan Lisle, along with key reserve Sterling Korona, all of whom used up their eligibility in that game.
Harmon may be the key to a rebuild. He’s started at guard for Duke but center is his natural position and Bridge says Harmon is ready.
“Zach is an outstanding leader,” Bridge notes. “He’s a dependable young man. Everyday he’s going to come out here earning that spot and as he earns it, he’s earning trust in himself and in his teammates.”
“I want to be a motivator and understand what everyone else is doing,” Harmon says. “So, in that sense, I’m a mother hen.”
But tackle is what Bridge calls “a work in progress.” Christian Harris got some starts at left tackle last season when Brandner was out injured and Robert Kraeling got some work at right tackle. But neither has a lot of career snaps, perhaps opening the door for someone like redshirt freshmen Jacob Rimmer and Patrick Leitten, or even incoming freshman Casey Holman, one of four recruits who enrolled this spring, although a spring knee injury leaves Leitten’s season up in the air.
Cutcliffe says the freshmen are “going to have a chance. How willing are they to compete in practice, in scrimmages, in the video room, in the weight room?”
Bridge says he’ll continue Duke’s efforts to build depth and versatility, training linemen to change positions.
“What that does is help make you a complete football player. You understand how your job impacts the guy next to you.”
Harmon loves the idea of growing depth on the line. “It just speaks to how well we’re doing in recruiting. The success we have on the field translates to recruiting and the talent level keeps going up. Building depth is important. The fresher you keep guys, the more games you are going to win.”
Benedict and Bridge aren’t the only returning coaches with new roles. Jeff Faris has moved from wide receivers to tight ends, while veteran coach Gerad Parker has moved from football operations assistant to wide receivers. Lanier Goethie is the new linebackers coach.
How will that work? Cutcliffe says “we’re working out a list of responsibilities.”
Benedict says, “There’s energy, first and foremost,” among the coaches. “There’s some cross-training going on. But we’re all familiar with how the system works.”
“I work with a bunch of really smart, talented men, who have the ability to do lots of things,” Bridge adds. “Coach Cut has a tremendous eye for finding exciting, young talent.”
Cutcliffe, Bridge and Benedict agree that the depth charts at the end of spring won’t necessarily stay that way.
“There’s constant competition,” Benedict says. “Nothing is set in stone.”