Head-to-head: Duke Blue Devils
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, September 11, 2020
Notre Dame Passing
There’s no shortage of new faces in the Irish receiving corps this year. Though quarterback Ian Book returns under center, most of his favorite targets are missing following the departures of Chase Claypool, Chris Finke and Cole Kmet. The three will be replaced by 5th-year Javon McKinley, joined by seniors Avery Davis and Brock Wright. Rounding out the first string wideouts will be graduate transfer Ben Skowronek, a transfer from Northwestern who appeared in 36 games for eight touchdowns with the Wildcats. The Duke secondary is poised to take advantage of Book’s inexperienced offense, with a talented returning group led by redshirt junior Leonard Johnson. With him as one of three returning cornerbacks, the Blue Devils have the advantage of experience in this matchup.
Notre Dame rushing
Kyren Williams has emerged as the starting running back for the Irish but he has plenty of depth behind him. Chris Tyree gives the Irish a strong one-two punch and C’Bo Fleminster, Jafar Armstrong and Jahmir Smith provide a sense of security as they work down the lineup. Williams had just four carries for 26 yards for the Irish last year in his freshman campaign, but Brian Kelly has seen enough in practice to deem him the starter. The offense will have the advantage due to the simple fact defenders may not be completely used to taking guys to the ground because of this strange offseason.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Notre Dame offensive coaching
The Notre Dame offense enters a (sort of) new era on offense as former Irish quarterback Tommy Rees takes over as offensive coordinator. Rees has one game of experience as a play-caller, as he dismantled a tough Iowa State defense last year in the Camping World Bowl. Rees will have a somewhat unproven batch of talent to work with on offense outside of quarterback Ian Book, and one of the biggest headlines is how he will use the athleticism of junior receivers Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys, freshman running back Chris Tyree and other offensive playmakers. He faces an intriguing first test against Duke, led by co-defensive coordinators Ben Albert and Matt Guerrieri, who have been members of the Duke staff since 2016 and 2012, respectively. In three of the last four years, Duke has been 66th or worse in points allowed per game while running a unique 4-2-5 (four linemen, two linebackers, five safeties/cornerbacks) on defense. That being said, the defense was top-25 in 2017 and is working with some pretty decent talent this season. While there is a lot of experience and athleticism on this defense, the track record with the Blue Devils is shaky. Giving them the edge seems like a poor call, but giving Rees the edge here over a more experienced defensive coordinator seems overly optimistic regarding the prospects of Notre Dame’s new play-caller.
Notre Dame offensive special teams
A good special teams unit can make or break a team, and thankfully for the Irish, they have got a rock-solid group taking the field, particularly on their offensive special teams. Senior kicker Jonathan Doerer is coming off an outstanding junior season in which he was 17-20 on field goals and an impeccable 57-57 on extra points. Junior receiver Lawrence Keys has potential as a punt returner, while classmate and fellow receiver Braden Lenzy could return kickoffs as he did in the 2019 Camping World Bowl. For now though, freshman running back Chris Tyree is listed as the go-to kickoff returner in the opener, which is by no means a downgrade speed-wise. The Irish have a bevy of talented options to slot into the returning game, and they have an excellent kicker to lock up points when the offense falters in the red zone. Meanwhile, Duke is replacing its punter and may struggle to figure out ways to disrupt Notre Dame’s stellar special teams.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Duke loses Quentin Harris at quarterback and adds Chase Brice from Clemson. They also return a young receiving corps that, while lacking depth, got a bevy of experience last season in a trial-by-fire sort of way. The Notre Dame secondary has question marks outside of Kyle Hamilton at safety, although NC State transfer Nick McCloud is a quality starter they’ve plugged in. With how defenses will struggle to find a footing tackling-wise to start the year, the Blue Devils could do some damage through the air. Ultimately though, the Irish should adjust and this should come down to Brice not having a spring to work with the Duke staff and — outside of tight end Noah Gray — a lack of proven weapons at the pass-catching positions.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Duke senior running back Deon Jackson is a Doak Walker Award candidate and All-ACC caliber back, and junior Mateo Durant is a solid backup. They also brought back four of five starters along the offensive line and a Stanford transfer O-lineman. It’s arguably the deepest offensive line David Cutcliffe has had in his Duke tenure. However, they just lost redshirt-senior Jack Wohlabaugh, their All-ACC caliber starting center and the crux of their O-line, to an ACL injury. With Cutcliffe taking over play calling duties and an Irish defense still working on rebuilding their tackling skills, expect the first half to look sloppy. It will be up to Clark Lea making his customary halftime adjustments to stifle the run game, but it’s unclear just how much damage may be done by then.
Duke offensive coaching
David Cutcliffe has groomed some legendary quarterbacks — the Manning brothers to name a couple. But Chase Brice is starting his senior campaign with Duke, not Ole Miss or Tennessee. Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and Cutcliffe have a well-documented relationship, so play calling should flow smoothly and, with the limited crowd audibles, should be simple to call at a moment’s notice for Chase Brice. Although Duke has these advantages to level the field a bit, they don’t stand too much of a chance forcing their might on a Clark Lea defense, even if that defense is a little unprepared for a full contact game of football.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Duke offensive special teams
It may be strange to think the Blue Devils could lose a starting kicker who was 15-18 with a long of 51 yards last season as a transfer and still be deadly on special teams. But that’s the case thanks in large part to Damond Philyaw-Johnson, their stud redshirt sophomore wide receiver and kick returner. Philyaw-Johnson averaged 32 yards per kick return, thanks in large part to an NCAA record-tying two kickoff return touchdowns (a 97-yarder and a 98-yarder) in one game against Wake Forest last season, as well as a school record 251 kickoff return yards in the same contest. All that said, the fact that they lack an established kicker, everyone is going to be rusty in their tackling skills after abbreviated offseason workouts and considering Brian Polian’s Irish special teams unit showed drastic improvements last season, we can call this one a push.