Duke is quietly having its best run of sustained football success right now. Though it’s unlikely David Cutcliffe’s program will ever be able to win the ACC (the last coach to pull it off in Durham was Spurrier, as a co-champion) the Blue Devils are more competitive than they’ve been in a long time and even won the Coastal division in 2013. Cutcliffe won coach of the year for that season, this is a hard job and the expectations are low. Ted Roof, the coach before him, was able to amass a 4-42 record before being fired.
Being at a basketball school keeps Duke football’s ceiling low, but also enables them to ride out leaner years such as 2016/2017 while they rebuild depth. The 2017 Blue Devils were young, started strong, collapsed in the middle of the season, and clawed their way to and through the Quick Lane Bowl. The 2018 Blue Devils appear to have ironed out many of the kinks and have already matched 2017’s win total. Clemson, meanwhile, has a chance to continue their undefeated season and send the senior class out with 51 victories over the last four years, a school record that seems to be broken annually. Cutcliffe, who has been coaching in some form or fashion since 1976, thinks the Tigers may be the most complete team he’s ever seen.
Starting quarterback Daniel Jones is 6’5”, has a strong arm and a fair amount of NFL hype. Last week he set the rushing record for a Duke QB in a game with 186 yards. He’s nearing in on 2,000 passing yards despite having missed games against Baylor and NC Central. The receiving corps is full of productive seniors, and sophomore Deon Jackson is a dangerous running back.
The offensive line is well loved but nowhere near as experienced. When Duke has lost it’s often been because they were unable to win battles up front, such as against Virginia Tech and Virginia (losing to Pitt after putting up 40+ points is both deeply relatable and not the offenses fault). Duke managed only 14 points against both Virginia schools and failed to crack 100 yards rushing against either. Miami, which held Duke to 20 points, gave up over half their rushing yardage of the day on a 75 yard cutback on the first play. Duke is good, but not good enough to score with a one dimensional offense.
The Blue Devils, like most college football teams, spend the majority of their time in 11 personnel. Their tight end is usually in a wing position, to be better able to serve as a lead blocker or release into routes. The base rushing scheme is inside zone, complemented with power and counter. The tight end often lead blocks on a linebacker, making the inside zone play resemble an old school Iso. Zone runs allow Jackson to take advantage his ability to create something out of nothing. Jackson has to create a fair amount, the offensive line allows him to be tackled behind the line of scrimmage about 20% of the time.
Jet sweeps to “quick as a hiccup” senior WR T.J. Ramsey have been dangerous this year as well. Duke will, and should, get the ball into Rahming’s hands however they can. Jones has a quick release on RPO’s and the athleticism to be dangerous in the running game. Duke uses him on zone reads, speed options, and draw plays.
Jones has been very effective on bash (back away) runs which invert the traditional zone read, having the back work as the outside option and the QB running inside.
Runs such as this are far and away the most explosive part of Duke’s offense. What explosive passing plays they do have come on standard downs where the threat of the run helps open up things up downfield. When the running game isn’t working Duke is forced to rely on quick passing, partially by design partially because the offensive line can’t hold up against the pass rush for long. Jones makes the right reads and gets rid of the ball quickly, but a quick passing based offense needs its receivers to make plays with the ball in their hands.
Outside of T.J. Rahming there aren’t many receivers on Duke’s roster who can do that. Jonathon Lloyd is a technician, and they move him around to maximize his value, but he gets open with route running instead of athleticism.
Chris Taylor, an explosive athlete who finally managed to drag his catch rate over 50% this year, has the opposite problem.
Cutcliffe likes to use his RB’s and TE’s as receivers, and moves them around a lot. Last year’s RB, Shaun Wilson, wound up fourth on the team in receptions. Doing this allows the offense to be very versatile without having to substitute, and helps a team that will almost always have depth issues keep its best players on the field. Most of the time when Duke is in an empty formation, and Duke runs empty formations a lot, there’s a tight end and/or running back running routes against a linebacker. That’s a mismatch at any level, although the Tigers linebackers have held up well against the pass lately.
Duke aspires to a balanced offense, which in this case means that when teams have to overcompensate against the run they can beat them with the pass, and vice versa. Usually this is pretty effective. Although Duke has been too reliant on converting third downs for a while now, when things are clicking those are manageable third downs. When things don’t work, Duke is forced to rely on Daniel Jones bailing them out on passing downs. He can do that sometimes, but it’s almost impossible for a quarterback to keep bailing his team out. Against a Tigers front that shuts down the run and rushes the passer as well as anyone in the country, Jones is going to need to do just that in Death Valley for the Blue Devils to have a shot.