Previewing Duke with Shawn Krest of Blue Devil Country
To preview Saturday's game against the Blue Devils, we spoke with Shawn Krest, publisher of the SI Duke site Blue Devil Country. He gives an insider's perspective on the team and the upcoming game. Make sure to follow him on Twitter as well for analysis throughout the season.
AJ Black: Duke battled hard against Notre Dame on Saturday and came close to pulling off the upset. What did you see that impressed you? Where do you think they need to improve?
Shawn Krest: The Blue Devils gave Notre Dame a fight and were able to hang close until late in the game, a far cry from last year’s 38-6 home loss to the Irish or a 42-3 loss to Alabama in last season’s opener. The two biggest reasons for that are an improved offense that added quarterback Chase Brice and playcaller David Cutcliffe, who has decided to take on that role, and a defense that has elite edge rushers and a deep, talented secondary. The Blue Devils now have the talent level to match the discipline and desire that always seem to come with a Cutcliffe-coached team. The biggest area for improvement is conditioning—despite claims that they came back to campus in much better shape than expected, Duke players on both sides of the ball admitted to getting worn down by the Irish.
AJB: Chase Brice was described as "tough" by Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley. What did you see out of him, and how would you evaluate his first game with the Blue Devils?
SK: Brice’s opener was a mixed bag. He clearly has a powerful arm, but he and the receivers couldn’t connect on the deep ball against the Irish. Brice had to defeat two other quarterbacks to win the starting job in a battle that wasn’t decided until game week, meaning he only had a few days worth of starter reps. His timing with the receiving corps should improve as the season goes on. He also showed mobility on called runs, scrambles and passing on the move. His first game showed potential and a high ceiling
AJB: Talk a little about the wide receivers, Boston College struggled last year with tackling and the Blue Devils were able to extend plays by breaking tackles against ND. Who are the names to watch for and what do they bring?
SK: I love these guys! Four receivers played last year as freshmen, including Jalon Calhoun, who started from day one as a true freshman. Eli Pancol was in Calhoun’s shadow in their rookie year but may end up being the more productive player in the long run. He’s 6-foot-3 to Calhoun’s 5-foot-11 and caught a long pass from Brice in Duke’s preseason scrimmage and another in the opener and is the odds-on favorite to catch Brice’s first Duke touchdown.
The third player to watch is Damond Philyaw-Johnson, best known as the NCAA record-tying kick returner last season. He starred at receiver in the preseason and is supposedly one of the fastest players Cutcliffe has every coached.
The receiving corps is deep—Dennis Smith and Darrell Harding Jr. are the other two members of last year’s explosive freshman class. Junior Jake Bobo has battled injury but always seems on the verge of breaking out, and a true freshman from this year’s class—Jontavis Robertson—has impressed coaches in preseason and had a big catch in the opener.
AJB: This is David Cutcliffe's 13th year with Duke. What will his legacy be at the school?
SK: It’s complicated. Football at Duke was virtually non-existent prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival. The job description might as well have been similar to the joke political bumper stickers this year “Any Functional Adult, 2020.” What he’s done in his time at Duke has been nothing short of a miracle. Inheriting a team that went 2-33 in the thiree years prior, He’s gone to six bowls in 12 years. The program went to eight in the previous 86. Unfortunately, football still doesn’t register on the Duke Athletics Geiger counter. So he likely won’t get the fame, adulation, statues and building names he deserves.
AJB: What are you expecting from Duke the remainder of the year?
The Blue Devils were picked 12 in the ACC, which seemed extremely low, given the level of talent on the roster, and the opening performance against Notre Dame seems to bolster that opinion. They won’t challenge for the top tier of the league, but a winning record and middle-of-the-pack finish seems likely. The offense has playmakers and an experienced line, and the defense is strong in back and on the edge.
SK: What are you expecting from this game on Saturday?
David Cutcliffe has not pulled any punches this week. While it’s nice to play well and put a scare in Notre Dame, he wants wins. The Blue Devils will work on getting the run game and deep passing game clicking this week. The defensive line will get another chance to show it has enough wind to go four full quarters against a big, experienced O-line. Look for the Blue Devils to give up more yards on the ground than they want but put up enough points to win their home opener.