A strong season for Duke unraveled down the stretch following a controversial loss to Miami and a blowout at the hands of rival North Carolina, but David Cutcliffe’s crew salvaged a silver lining by doing something no Blue Devils team had done in more than a half-century: They won a bowl game. Now Duke is looking build on that milestone, but it’ll have to start the spring without its focal points on both offense and defense from 2015.
1. Is Parker Boehme filling in or taking over?
Cutcliffe addressed the situation earlier this week, essentially saying Duke is moving forward with Boehme at quarterback, and the status of last year’s starter, Thomas Sirk, is uncertain. Sirk tore his Achilles, so a return in time for the season might be a stretch, but there’s a real question about whether Boehme might be a better option anyway. Sirk was an elite runner who helped Duke to numerous wins with his legs, but he played cautious as a passer and finished with the second-fewest yards per attempt among qualified ACC QBs (including a mark of just 5.4 against Power 5 teams). Boehme got just limited work throughout the year, and he didn’t exactly ignite the offense, but his yards per attempt (7.4) was markedly better than Sirk’s (6.1). With a full spring getting first-team reps, it’s possible Boehme could take that next step and open up a Duke offense that was far too buttoned-down at times last year.
2. Can the defensive line take the next step?
Through the first seven games of the season in 2015, Duke had 14 sacks and a record of 6-1. In the final six games of the year, the Blue Devils recorded just three sacks total, and lost four of those games. During those second-half struggles, Duke saw its points allowed go up by 24 per game, and while the pass rush struggled, the secondary was left on an island, allowing nearly 200 more passing yards per game over the final six contests. Now, Duke must replace five seniors from its two-deep up front. Still, the Blue Devils like their young talent, and with another year to grow into the role, the fresh blood inserted into starting jobs may actually lead to a better overall performance.
3. Is there another Jeremy Cash on the roster?
It’s hard to put into context how much Cash, an All-American, meant to the Duke defense. Replacing him will be an impossible task, but Duke still might have one of the better secondaries in the country. Bryon Fields returns from injury to team with Breon Borders at corner, while Deondre Singleton and DeVon Edwards add more veteran talent to the defensive backfield. There’s no doubting the talent on the roster, but whether anyone can live up to the on- and off-field leadership Cash displayed is a far bigger question.