Pete Sampson: When Duke lost starting quarterback Thomas Sirk in the off-season it felt like a season-altering injury in moving to red-shirt freshman Daniel Jones. How has Duke been forced to adjust and what have you seen from Jones through three games?
John Watson: You see a player who has, perhaps, a higher overall ceiling than Sirk if he can get some help and overcome the usual and expected growing pains of a freshman quarterback. Sirk was a much better runner and he managed a game better. However, Jones has flashed the ability to make about any throw you’d want to see from your drop back signal caller. Of course he’s also made mistakes, which have been costly at times.
PS: One area where Notre Dame has struggled consistently is against the pass, particularly big plays. Duke has three different players with a 50-yard reception already, so can the Blue Devils push the pass vertically?
JW: Duke can throw the ball downfield thanks to the ability of Jones. But the caveat is whether or not the receivers can get off the line quick enough and can the Duke offensive line protect well enough to give the freshman the time to get the ball downfield. So far the answer has been an occasional yes, but not very often as Jones is being forced to evade would-be tacklers that have either broken or pushed their way into the pocket area.
PS: What is your feeling about Duke’s offensive line? Notre Dame has solid talent in the front seven despite some of the statistical issues that have shown up to date.
JW: I haven’t seen much that would give Duke fans a reason to feel confident heading into a big match-up like this. For the last eight quarters of football it is pretty clear that Duke has not won the battle of the trenches on either side of the ball, but especially on offense. The line struggles in pass protection and struggles in opening holes for the running backs. Notre Dame will have, easily, the most talent Duke has seen this season.
PS: How much of a concern if the kicking game with kicker AJ Reed? Starting 0-of-3 on field goals definitely jumps off the stat sheet.
JW: It’s a massive concern. Duke has gone from a pair of first team all-conference guys to a couple of freshmen who have, unfortunately, not been ready to answer the bell. Reed has been a major struggle. Punter Austin Parker has also had some game-changing mistakes, including another fumble last week that led to the eventual game winning score. With regard to Reed, I am wondering when David Cutcliffe opts for a walk-on kicker.
PS: Cutcliffe is generally regarded as one of the most underrated coaches in college football. From your perspective around the program, what makes everything work under his watch?
JW: Accountability and belief. When he took over there wasn’t anything resembling an infrastructure to the program. And there wasn’t a real belief that Duke could compete at any level in the ACC. This season isn’t turning out like he would have hoped, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s built a program from the ground up and established standards and achieved results that nobody would have believed a decade ago.
PS: How critical is the suspension of safety Deondre Singleton for the first half after his targeting call at Northwestern?
JW: It hurts because, frankly, it was a horrific call that should have been overturned on replay. Still, the defensive backfield has a lot more talent and depth and Duke should be able to find some help from the backups.
PS: If we’re talking Sunday morning about a major Duke upset in South Bend, what happened the afternoon before? Which players really have to play well and what areas of the games would Duke have to make a major push forward?
JW: If we’re talking about a Duke upset on Sunday I think you would need to check the collective health of the Duke football fan base as the celebrations would have been epic. But, in this potential situation, the offensive line would have had to have completely shocked the world for starters. You’d also be hearing about the linebackers and secondary having played incredibly well and having forced several turnovers.