Week 4 will see the Fighting Irish take on the first ACC team of the year. The last meeting between Duke and Notre Dame came back in the dark, dark 2007 season. On a rainy, dreary South Bend afternoon Notre Dame prevailed 28-7 on Senior Day.
Starters Returning: 6/11
Key Losses: RB Shaquille Powell, WR Max McCaffrey, WR Johnell Barnes, TE David Reeves, TE Braxton Deaver, LG Luke Patrick, C Matt Skura
Key Returnees: QB Thomas Sirk, WR Anthony Nash, WR T.J. Rahming, LT Gabe Brandner, RG Tanner Stone, RT Casey Blaser
FEI Offense Rank: 75
S&P Offense Rank: 87
S&P Rush Rank: 78
S&P Pass Rank: 89
Turnovers: 21 (10 INT)
Pirates Stole the OC
David Cutcliffe rightfully should get a lot of attention for building up the Duke football program but he goes into 2016 being forced into a sizable transition on the offensive side of the ball.
Following the 2015 season, offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery was hired as the head coach at East Carolina. In his place, Duke has promoted Zac Roper who was previously the special teams coordinator, recruiting coordinator, and tight ends coach.
Former Notre Dame assistant John Latina was the offensive line coach under Cutcliffe last year but he has elected to sip mai tai's on the beach and retire. Now, Marcus Johnson is the OL coach after being promoted from assistant strength & conditioning coach.
Duke has risen up the ranks in the ACC thanks to an improved offense--and while Cutcliffe is known as a bit of a QB whisperer--you have to wonder how these fairly big changes to the offensive staff will affect things for 2016.
Heal the Heel
There's nothing quite like the disappointment and frustration of suffering the same injury twice. Such is the fate of Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk who previously had torn his Achilles and did so again (other leg) this winter during team workouts.
If Sirk misses the 2016 season Duke could be in trouble. We'll get to the passing game in a second but in terms of rushing Cutliffe has put a lot of weight on the shoulders of his quarterbacks. Last season, Sirk led Duke in all rushing categories finishing with a healthy 803 yards on 163 carries. In total, Blue Devil quarterbacks took just under 40% of all team rushes.
At 6-4 and 220 pounds Sirk can move for someone his size. In the lead up to the Duke spring game Cutliffe said that Sirk was unlikely to be healthy for the season but following the game a few days later he said the quarterback is 6 weeks ahead of the timetable from his previous Achilles injury. Either way, it's still unlikely that he'll be ready to go by week 4 although it sounds like Sirk could be back at some point in 2016.
If Sirk can't play Duke looks to be turning to redshirt junior Parker Boehme who logged one start last year and ran for 181 yards on 45 carries.
Improving Through the Air
Duke needs to improve throwing the ball and it's unclear if that will happen this fall. Last year Sirk was pretty mediocre (58.7% accuracy, 218 yards per game, 6.1 YPA, 2:1 touchdown ratio) while in his limited snaps Boehme was putting up similar production through the air.
Only 45.2% of the receiving from last year returns, which is a major concern. Especially after a pair of receivers were dismissed from the program and leading receiver Max Mcaffrey (brother of Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey) has graduated.
Hope may come in the form of rising true sophomore T.J. Rahming who is coming off an impressive 43 reception, 571 yard, and 2 touchdown season. The native of Georgia was an U.S. Army Bowl All-American prior to arriving in Durham and looks to be the big-time No. 1 receiver Duke needs in the passing game.
Without Sirk the Blue Devils will likely be 25% less dangerous on offense, at least. As Notre Dame catches Duke early in the season this could be a major advantage for the Irish.
Still, there are some nice pieces and Cutliffe seemingly does the best he can with what's available to him. No matter who starts at quarterback we can expect Duke to run the ball a lot. They do lose starting running back Shaquille Powell but we already talked about how often the quarterbacks tote the rock, plus Duke really loves rising junior Shaun Wilson in the backfield.
Additional help will come from redshirt sophomore Nico Pierre who was recruited at quarterback but has officially moved to running back after spending last year going back and forth between the two positions. At 6-2, 210 pounds he adds a physical presence. Duke has also awarded a scholarship to Harvard transfer Zach Boden who could be in the mix, as well. You can expect NBC to profile him in some capacity during the game broadcast.