Renewed focus might spark Blue Devils

Aug 14, 2017 - 4:17 PM Duke slipped to a 4-8 mark last season after reaching a bowl game in four consecutive seasons, which had represented the best stretch for the Blue Devils in a generation.

"I wish it was a blip on the radar," coach David Cutcliffe said. "I don't want anyone around here to forget (what that felt like)."

The reminders are constant as Duke heads toward a season in which it is tagged as a major underdog following five losses in its last six outings a year ago.

That might have been the jolt needed to draw the Blue Devils back in line in some ways. From what fifth-year senior center Austin Davis has seen, the focus has returned.

"I think a lot has changed because our attitude has changed," Davis said. "It was painful to watch all those (bowl) games. We don't plan on sitting home in December ever again."

Despite what might be described as growing pains last year, there was value in the process. The payoff could come this season.

"The familiarity," said Cutcliffe, who enters his 10th season with a 52-61 record at the school. "We have a very young team, but at the same time we have enough veterans."

Much attention will be on redshirt sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones, who was rushed into duty last year when an August preseason injury to incumbent Thomas Sirk left the reins in his hands. Sirk has since transferred to East Carolina.

Cutcliffe regularly praised Jones for being savvy enough to figure things out along the way last season. He might have seemed overmatched in some situations, but Jones also showed toughness and a calm demeanor that helps set the tone for him going into another season.

"I need to be more assertive," Jones said. "Naturally, I'm not the most vocal guy, but I'm willing to do that."

Now, his improvements are evident in many ways.

"His strength, his speed," Cutcliffe said. "He had an incredible touch on the ball (in a recent practice), which is something we're still working on. ... If he continues to be all in to do every little thing better, he is going to be better than a year ago I can promise you that."

Among the other skill positions on offense, running back Shaun Wilson, receiver T.J. Rahming and tight end Daniel Helm seemed to solidify positions.

"They've certainly had, to this point, outstanding camps," Cutcliffe said.

Throughout the roster, Cutcliffe has noted the potential impact from freshmen. They might simply be needed to plug holes, but their arrivals also serve notice to upperclassmen that the status quo isn't acceptable following the 2016 season.

The schedule is top-heavy with home games as the Blue Devils play four September games in Durham and six of their first eight overall at Wallace Wade Stadium.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Daniel Jones -- He was thrust into a starting role last season as a redshirt freshman; he should be more equipped to handle all that comes at him after a season of experience. His durability last year was commendable on several levels, and now he looks physically stronger, listed at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds. He completed 270 of 430 passes last season for 2,836 yards, with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also ran for 486 yards in what became a pass-oriented offense as the Blue Devils often were playing catch-up.

BREAKOUT STAR: LB Joe Giles-Harris -- He's a redshirt sophomore coming off a season when he led the team with 107 tackles, one more than Ben Humphreys (who's generally viewed as the leader of the defense). Giles-Harris has a knack for making key plays and could step into a more visible role, though his 9.5 tackles for losses last year was a pretty good start. That also helped him to some freshman All-American accolades.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Scott Bracey -- He's a redshirt freshman with a reputation as a big-play receiver. He likely would have suited up for games last year if not for a preseason injury; by the time he recovered it wasn't worth using a season of eligibility. He checks in at 6-foot-2 with a nice stride. If Bracey is as good as advertised, he'll solve some of the questions regarding the team's receiving corps.

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