It’s been an offseason filled with variables under center for the Blue Devils…and that’s not what you’d expect from a program with a returning redshirt senior signal caller. Not to mention one who guided his team to the first bowl win in half a century. But, Thomas Sirk got hurt against Indiana in the 2015 Pinstripe Bowl and then got hurt again in a preseason workout. So it wasn’t out of the question to believe that a return would be out of the question for 2016.
But Sirk’s back - at some level - and so Duke will head into the season opener with a familiar face at quarterback. As a junior he started 12 times and completed 251-of-427 (.588) pass attempts for 2,625 yards with 16 TDs and eight INTs. On the ground he added another 803 yards (4.9 yards per carry) and eight TDs. We’d expect him to improve his completion percentage this year while also improving his ability to take shots down the field under his new offensive coordinator.
Simply put, If he’s healthy, Sirk will lock down the QB1 role for his final season in Durham, but if injury or rust or some combination of factors renders Sirk less efficient, then there are options behind him.
Junior Parker Boeheme started against Pittsburgh last year and showed himself as a capable backup by completing 23-of-42 passes for 248 yards and adding another 80 yards on the ground. The fourth year Florida prospect entered camp as the No. 2 quarterback on the roster, but has been pushed by redshirt freshman Daniel Jones who could be in the conversation to be the starter in Week One if Sirk isn’t fully ready to go.
UPDATE: Thomas Sirk appears to have suffered another injury and, thusly the depth chart will adjust. We would expect Daniel Jones to win the starting job and Boehme’s role increasing as the No. 2.
When discussing camp, starting middle linebacker Ben Humphreys told TDD “I think Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson are one of the top backfields in the country”. That’s high praise for the upperclassman tandem, but you can certainly see the reasoning for it.
At 5-foot-10 and 220 pounds, Duncan is a powerful back who will appear on many award watch lists including the Doak Walker Award. Suspensions and injuries have dotted Duncan’s path to his final season in Durham, but the Charlotte native has drawn rave reviews for his preseason performance - one that builds off a junior season in which Duncan returned from a preseason injury to average 6.8 yards per carry. With Duke likely reducing the number of quarterback options for Sirk this year, look for Duncan to register career highs in carries and yards in 2016.
If Duncan beats you with power, then Shaun Wilson is a guy who will beat you with speed. In his two seasons in Durham, Wilson has been one of, if not the most electric offensive players on the roster. When he finds himself in space with the ball, Duke is usually moving a good distance downfield, if not setting up for extra point attempts. Like Duncan, Wilson is on the Doak Walker Award list and has a career 6.3 yards per carry average.
Behind the two starters Duke will have both upper and underclassman options. Fourth year junior Joe Ajeigbe is more of a power back and could find himself in short yardage and passing down situations based on his blocking ability and strength (he’s arguably the strongest player on the team having a three-lift max (bench press, squat, and power clean) of 1,228 pounds. However, to this point, the California prospect has played somewhat sparingly (21 appearances in three seasons), rushing 45 times for 158 yards in his career.
Freshmen Brittain Brown and Elijah Deveaux both enter Duke physically ready to step on the field as true freshmen, and with Duke’s depth chart as it is, it’s not unlikely that at least one of them will play in 2016, and that one is likely Brown.
Perhaps no position on the field (with the notable exception of the specialists) is more defined by an unknown that wide receiver - at least through the eyes of the fan base. That’s because former four star and top 100 overall recruit Scott Bracey committed to Duke and stuck with that decision. At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Bracey has a unique combination of athleticism and talent that should instantly translate to the college football world. Unfortunately, Bracey suffered an early hamstring injury in camp and has been limited for much of the festivities. While it’s almost certain that he’ll play in 2016, Bracey may not push his way to the top of the depth chart for several weeks.
The top returning producer at receiver is sophomore T.J. Ramming, a former US Army Bowl participant who excelled as a freshman to the tune of 43 catches and 571 yards. It was a good enough first season to earn Rahming several Freshman All-America honors from various outlets. Heading into year number two, Rahming has added some weight and strength which should allow him to avoid being jammed at the line.
At 6-foot-5 and with 4.5 speed, Anthony Nash has all the measurable traits to be a very productive upperclassman for Duke. He entered camp on top of the depth chart, and has seemed to remain so slotted. Assuming Duke holds true to the plan of taking more shots down field, Nash could benefit as he’s a potential match-up problem against smaller DBs.
Last year Duke entered camp with then redshirt freshman Chris Taylor as a potential first team receiver. However, Taylor bounced in and out of the depth chart throughout the year. He entered camp charting as a starter, but may be overtaken by classmate Jonathan Lloyd who has taken first team reps in two scrimmages so far.
At tight end Duke will have several different options and looks. The most notable addition to the roster is former four star and Scout Top 150 recruit Daniel Helm who transferred in from Tennessee before sitting out last season. Helm played in 12 games for the Volunteers in 2014 and earned praise for both his ability to block and catch.
While Helm has SEC game experience, he entered camp slotted behind starter Erich Schneider who returns for a fifth year. Schneider appeared in all 13 games last year and recorded 15 catches in those games - the most notable being the game winner against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
True freshman Mark Birmingham is another four star, Scout 300 recruit to enter the program this Fall. While he could certainly push to play in 2016, there’s enough depth at the position to wait a season if need be. That depth is made up of upperclassmen Davis Koppenhaver and Dan Beilinson.
Building depth in the trenches has long been a priority for Coach Cutcliffe and company at Duke. The coaching philosophy has been for recruits to come into the program and learn each of the five lineman positions so as to better understand responsibilities and how they intermingle with one another. Heading into 2016, Duke has a very experienced group up front.
At tackle Duke will likely start fourth year junior Gabe Brandner on the left and fifth year senior Casey Blaser on the right. Blaser has been an All-ACC performer while Brandner has helped the line rank sixth in the country in fewest tackles for loss allowed.
On the interior Duke got good news as Tanner Stone returned from off-season surgery to man the right guard position while left guard will likely be redshirt freshman Zach Baker who has pushed his way into the starting role after an offseason that saw him rank in the top five overall in the strength and power weight room measurements (he led the team with a power clear of 330 pounds). In the middle of the line will be fourth year junior Austin Davis. Davis will have big shoes to fill in taking over for the departed captain, Matt Skura. Davis appeared in six contests a year ago for a total of 66 snaps.
A potential dark horse to break into the line rotation is true freshman guard Julian Santos, a 6-foot-3, 315 pound former three star recruit from Florida.