College Football

Duke looks to bounce back after finishing 4-8 in 2016

Posted August 10
Updated August 11

— Duke's last bowl drought lasted 17 years. The Blue Devils don't expect to wait nearly that long to return to the postseason.

A program that had grown accustomed to bowl bids and winning records took a step back during an injury-ravaged 2016 season, finishing 4-8 and sitting out the postseason for the first time since 2011.

The Blue Devils are confident that was merely a one-year blip.

"I believe in my heart of hearts, this team is the deepest, most talented team we've had at Duke yet," 10th-year coach David Cutcliffe said. "We are young in certain spots. We have concerns in certain little areas. But I think this team will display what we're capable of being at Duke, and we believe we can compete for championships every year. That's where we had gotten to, and that's where we intend to be."

Part of the reason Duke should have better depth this year is because so many players were forced to step in after all those injuries in 2016, when three of the team's captains — including then-starting quarterback Thomas Sirk — suffered season-ending injuries.

Daniel Jones, thrust into the first string a year ago as a redshirt freshman, enters the 2017 season as the dean of quarterbacks in the ACC's Coastal Division with 12 career starts. He threw for 2,836 yards and 16 touchdowns last year and was the team's second-leading rusher with 486 yards and four scores.

"Any quarterback that's ever going to be a great player has to learn to fail and return quickly, and he has proven that he can do that," Cutcliffe said. "You're to have some rocky roads, but he's a special young man from a special family, and he is a special talent. ... The reason he's being talked about is that he is really an outstanding talent."

___

Here are some things to know about Duke for the 2017 season:

DUKE'S D: The Blue Devils return six defensive starters — two at each of the three levels — and the strength of the unit figures to be at linebacker, where LB Ben Humphreys is back for a third season as the starter in the middle and Joe Giles-Harris led all ACC freshmen with 107 tackles and was second nationally among freshmen with 8.97 stops. Humphreys and Giles-Harris are the only pair of linebackers on the same team that each had at least 100 tackles and nine tackles for a loss last season.

NOT-SO-SPECIAL Ks: Duke knows its kicking game has to improve after making only three field goals in 2016 — tied for last in the FBS. Cutcliffe called the position "a point of emphasis, to say the least" and added that last year it "was somewhat of a nightmare." Keep an eye on the open competition this preseason between last year's kicker, AJ Reed, and Jackson Hubbard and Jack Driggers.

KEY GAMES: An early two-game nonconference swing against Power 5 opponents Northwestern (Sept. 9) and Baylor (Sept. 16) could determine if Duke reaches the six-win mark and returns to the postseason.

PREDICTION: Win 6, Lose 6.

SEASON OPENER: The Blue Devils open Sept. 2 against crosstown opponent North Carolina Central of the FCS.

___

More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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