Hello there, Canes fans. It’s been a while since we played a game against a team with a strong media presence, but heading into the Duke game on Friday night, I wanted to get a perspective from the Blue Devils’ side of things.
So, to help us in that regard, I got Ben Swain, an editor at Sportschannel8 and Duke reporter for WRAL in Raleigh, NC, to give us some insight into the Blue Devils.
You may know Ben from his very active twitter account, and our intermittent tete-a-tetes. But, Ben is a good guy, and very knowledgeable about Duke, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy and learn from the answers he gave me.
The Q&A starts now:
Q1. Duke is 4-0 this year. What has been the driving force for this early-season success?
Ben Swain: Duke’s a program that will always get backhanded compliments like “well-coached” or “high football IQ”, but the reality is that Duke has some legitimately good football players and have just been more talented than the teams they’ve played so far. They’ve also been healthy, which is something Duke hasn’t had an opportunity to say in a long time. Where the Blue Devils have struggled historically is when the game gets into the bench and Duke’s depth can’t match the depth that other programs have, but that gap is closing, and fortunately guys have been able to stay fresh so far this season.
Q2. What defensive system does Duke run? What do they excel at limiting from the other team?
Swain: Duke used to run some crazy defensive schemes designed to get quarterback pressure with DBs and LBs, but they don’t really need to do that anymore and they’ve gone with a more traditional look. They’ve had 14 QB hurries, 8 sacks, and 22 tackles for loss in the last two games (Baylor and North Carolina), so they’re aggressive and like to play in the backfield. They do a really good job of putting opposing teams in 3rd and medium or 3rd and long, and it shows when you look at third down conversion defense. UNC did the best job out of anyone so far of converting on third down, and they were 3 for 16. Duke’s giving up conversions 14% of the time, which is best in the nation.
Q3. Speaking of Duke's defense, it is much improved, and statistically one of the best in America. Who are the players to know on this side of the ball?
Swain: The linebackers (Ben Humphreys and Joe Giles-Harris) get most of the headlines, but the defensive line has been the most impactful unit for me so far. Mike Ramsay, Drew Jordan, Victor Dimukeje and Trevon McSwain have been phenomenal, and it’s exciting that two are freshmen and one’s a sophomore. Bryon Fields has two interceptions for touchdowns this season so he’s obviously been an impact player, but Duke’s ability to put pressure on the quarterback without blitzing has been a big boost. And it’s not just in the passing game, they’ve been great against the run. Prior to the UNC game, 40% of running plays never crossed the line of scrimmage which is a pretty impressive stat. Duke gave up a couple of big runs to the quarterback last week, but running backs once again did nothing. I’m so excited to Walton, maybe the best back in the ACC, against what’s been the best run defense in the league and one of the best in the country. It’s going to be a fun matchup to see strength on strength there.
Q4. What offensive system would you say Duke runs? What is their bread and butter?
Swain: They run most everything out of the gun or pistol, but they like to do different things out of it. You’d have to say their bread and butter is the read option because Jones is such a good runner, and OC Zac Roper has been really committed to running the ball this year. When they absolutely have to get yards, they’ll generally look to get the backs involved in the passing game, or use TJ Rahming or Johnathan Lloyd in crossing action.
Q5. How has RS Sophomore QB Daniel Jones been so far this year? What are the strongest and weakest parts of his game?
Swain: He’s been good but not outstanding. Honestly, I believe that’s mostly been because he hasn’t had to be anything more than good. He’s hit the deep balls he’s needed to hit, and hasn’t made any huge errors except for a red-zone interception against Baylor that could have been easily avoided. Jones got better as the season went on last year, so I’m interested to see if that’s a trend for him. As for strengths, he’s tough as nails and a good runner. Weaknesses, he’s been holding on to the ball a little longer this year, which probably comes from the confidence to try to make a play out of nothing. I’d rather seem him just make the easy play or throw the ball away.
Q6. Who else on offense will be a factor in Friday's game?
Swain: Duke’s going to have to run the ball to have a chance, so Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown are the two running backs that will have to carry most of the weight. Both are in the top 5 in rushing yards in the ACC among running backs. Brown is the truth, too. He’s a freshman, but he’s going to end up as one of the best Duke’s ever had at the position. He’s got a ways to go to get to Walton’s level, but he’s going to be a big time player.
Q7. Who are the unsung heroes on this year's Duke's team
Swain: Duke’s given up some big plays this year, and they’ve been amplified because they’ve pretty much all gone for long touchdowns so the defensive backs are usually thought of as a weakness for the Blue Devils. But in past years, those big plays were happening 5 or 6 times a game, and so far this year they’ve only given up a total of 7 or 8. They’ve been really good 90% of the time. Jeremy McDuffie has six pass break ups on the year, and Mark Gilbert has four. I’m also a huge fan of Michael Carter and Jordan Hayes back there so far. It’s a young group that’s only getting better.
Q8. Duke has several SoFLA natives. What impact are guys like Edgar Cerenord, Terrell Lucas, Nicodem Pierre, and Chris Taylor having on the team this season?
Swain: They’re mostly depth players, but with the exception of Pierre who’s been converted to a running back, Cerenord, Lucas and Taylor are getting snaps. I think all three will ultimately be impact players. D-line coach Ben Albert loves playing a lot of guys, and there are certainly opportunities for a receiver like Chris Taylor to work his way into heavy rotation. When those guys signed, especially Taylor and Cerenord, it was a big source of excitement for Duke fans who follow recruiting. I think it says a lot that both guys are Juniors and sitting behind better players on the depth chart who were recruited after them.
Q9. Coach Cutcliffe has a long track record of success. What are your feelings about him as Duke's Coach?
Swain: What’s not to like? Every now and then I go back and look at what he took over when he came to Duke, and am amazed he’s even at this point. Since 2013 when Duke’s redshirt seniors got to Durham, Duke’s behind only Virginia Tech in wins among Coastal teams, and they’re only one game back in that department. It’s a far cry from when Duke was consistently winning between 0 and 2 games a year.
Q10. Is Duke's hot start the new normal, or will there be regression to the mean over the course of this season?
Swain: I actually wrote about that recently for our TV station up here, WRAL.
Traditionally, Duke’s leveled off as the competition gets better, but there’s really no reason for that anymore. It’s a great opportunity for Duke to make that the new normal, which is where they should be if they’re right there with the Miamis and Virginia Techs of the Coastal.
Q11. Last question: how do you think Friday's game plays out (with score prediction, please)?
Swain: It’s the top two scoring offenses in the league going against each other, but for some reason I really feel like Duke’s going to try to grind it out with ball possession and solid defense. I like that the game is at home, I like the home team in a short week, and Miami’s definitely dealt with some unfortunate scheduling with much more important issues to deal with back home after the hurricane. I also like that Duke gets Miami the week before the Canes have the best chance of beating Florida State in a long time.
I’m going with Duke in a low scoring game (relatively, for these two teams), with something like 34-24.
Thanks to Ben for joining us and providing his answers ahead of this week’s game. You can follow him on twitter @TheBenSwain
OMG OMG OMG I FORGOT TO ASK BEN ABOUT THE RETURN!!!!
Damnit. Oh well.