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Things were looking great for Duke halfway through the year at 6-1, having beaten ranked Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech on the road. And then the losses piled up before winning their final two games, including against Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl. The Blue Devils finished with eight wins, but had four losses in ACC play and would like to challenge in the Coastal division this year.
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The issue with that is at starting quarterback where Thomas Sirk tore his Achilles in February and his status for the season is up in the air. While head coach David Cutcliffe believes Sirk will be ready for the opener, that probably won't be known until sometime in August. Sirk was most of Duke's offense last year, so that could be a problem. But at the least, Parker Boehme got some experience last season (78 pass attempts, 45 carries) and should keep the offense afloat if Sirk misses any time.
While that's true, the Blue Devils' options at skill positions are a little more unknown. Jela Duncan (460 yards) and Shaun Wilson (424 yards) will take over as the lead backs and will probably split time. Receiver is in a similar situation with Duke hoping that T.J. Rahming (571 yards) and Anthony Nash (475 yards) can improve on what they did in 2015. The line is battling some issues, having lost two starters on the inside and dealing with injuries to other guys. They should be fine, but it could be a problem, especially with a new line coordinator.
And of course, defense has been problematic for Duke's recent teams and will be again. The Blue Devils had some nice outings last year, but then gave up 43 points to VT, 66 to UNC and 42 to Virginia in the second part of the season.
The front seven loses plenty of talent, with leading tacklers gone. A.J. Wolf will provide experience on the interior, while sophomores Marquies Price and Brandon Boyce are expected to make jumps along the line. Duke's secondary was gashed a year ago, but should look better this season, even with Jeremy Cash gone. They return every other starter and get back corner Bryon Fields, who tore his ACL. DeVon Edwards is expected to step into Cash's spot and looks to build on his 101 tackles a year ago.
But if Duke wants to finish with a better record, it's going to take a lot. The Blue Devils have a tougher schedule that includes a lot of difficult road tests. That starts early on with back-to-back road games at Northwestern and Notre Dame in non-conference play. And throughout the ACC schedule, the Dukies travel to Louisville, as well as close the season with trips to Pittsburgh and Miami. It's hard to see them surpassing last year's eight wins. In addition to that, they still need to take down UNC at home after losing by 35 points to them last year.
The Blue Devils need Sirk back to get some improvement on the offensive side, while the defense could remain an issue against better teams. Expect another mediocre season from Duke, and they'll probably be out of the race for the Coastal.
2016 Duke Blue Devils Football Schedule
Sept. 3 vs. NC Central
Sept. 10 vs. Wake Forest
Sept. 17 at Northwestern
Sept. 24 at Notre Dame
Oct. 1 vs. Virginia
Oct. 8 vs. Army
Oct. 14 at Louisville
Oct. 29 at Georgia Tech
Nov. 5 vs. Virginia Tech
Nov. 10 vs. North Carolina
Nov. 19 at Pittsburgh
Nov. 26 at Miami (FL)
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