Editor’s note: The Roanoke Times is taking an early look at every game on Virginia Tech’s 2019 schedule. Check back every Tuesday and Thursday this summer for a new preview.

It won’t be an easy September for Duke.

The Blue Devils open the 2019 season in the Chick-Fil-A kickoff game against Alabama. They have three of their first four games on the road and the stretch ends at Lane Stadium on Sept. 27.

Virginia Tech’s coaching staff has a lot of respect for the job Duke coach Daniel Cutcliff has done. The Blue Devils are no longer the ACC pushover it was once with Cutcliffe to thank for that. The university extended his contract to 2023 after a win over Temple in the Independence Bowl, the program’s sixth bowl game in the last seven years.

Fuente is undefeated against Duke — and Virginia Tech has won 13 of the last 15 games in the series — but many of the recent matchups have been close ones (the games from 2013-2016 were all decided by one possession).

Last year vs. Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech W 31-14

What happen? Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis’ starting debut for the Hokies was a good one. Willis, starting for an injured Josh Jackson, helped Tech upset a ranked Duke team 31-14 on the road.

Willis was sharp to open the game — his first start in nearly two years — completing six passes in the first quarter to five different targets. He ended up throwing for 332 yards (17 of 27) and three touchdowns. He closed out the win orchestrating a 10-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Phil Patterson.

Position(s) of strength: Duke brings back eight starters on defense with one of the more experienced secondaries in the ACC including defensive back Mark Gilbert and safety Dylan Singleton. 

The Blue Devils lost Gilbert, a former first-team All-ACC selection, to a season-ending injury two games into the 2018 season, but he'll be healthy for the fall. Gilbert had six interceptions as a true sophomore in 2017. 

Singleton missed spring practice thanks to an ankle injury, but the starting safety will be back in the lineup as well come September. Singleton had 73 tackles in 10 games with two forced fumbles and three pass break-ups before going down with the ankle injury. 

“In some ways, I think it has been good for us to have both Mark [Gilbert] and Dylan [Singleton] out,” head coach David Cutcliffe said, during the spring. “We have to build a secondary that is ready to play right now. There have been a few position changes there. Leonard Johnson is at cornerback and has had a special, special spring. We have Josh Blackwell and Jeremiah Lewis, who are young cornerbacks with talent. Tony Davis and Jalen Alexander, who are true freshmen, have also jumped in the scene. There are folks all over the place.”

One other Blue Devil the coaching staff is excited about is third-year sophomore defensive end Chris Rumph. Rumph earned freshman All-American honors from USA Today in 2018 with 24 tackles, eight for a loss, and three sacks.

Ch...ch...changes: Duke has to replace its quarterback on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Daniel Jones and linebacker Joe Giles-Harris both skipped their senior seasons to enter the NFL Draft.

Both players established themselves as one of best players at their respective positions in school history. Jones completed nearly 60 percent of his passes while throwing for 8,201 yards and 52 touchdowns in three seasons as a starter.

Giles-Harris, who was also a three-year starter, had an equally impressive resume as the school’s first two-time all-ACC linebacker in three decades. He was an All-America selection in 2017 with 125 tackles (16 for a loss) with 4.5 sacks and six quarterback hurries. An MCL injury sidelined Giles-Harris for Duke’s final five games of the 2018 season, but he still finished with 81 tackles (seven for a loss).

It won’t be easy replacing either starter, but Duke started spring with a clear frontrunner at quarterback with fifth-year senior Quentin Harris. Harris, who made a brief cameo appearance against Virginia Tech last year, looked sharp when he stepped in for an injured Jones. Harris finished the season with 437 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception.

“Everybody misses Daniel,” running back Deon Jackson said, this spring. “He was a great quarterback and leader. But we love Q. We will support him in everything. We see the things he has done in practice and in games in the past.”

Duke also has to replace linebacker Ben Humphreys, a three-year starter that was an 2018 All-ACC honorable mention.

Lingering questions: Duke’s new quarterback is going to need someone to catch the ball. The Blue Devils have to replace all three starting receivers (Johnathan Lloyd, T.J. Rahming and Chris Taylor) from last season along with talented starting tight end (Daniel Helm). Lloyd was Duke’s top receiver with 75 catches for 811 yards with eight touchdowns. The four players combined for 65 percent of the offense’s receptions (183) and yards (2,105).

While the Blue Devils have 11 wide receivers, only three of them are upperclassmen.

The overhaul of Duke’s receiving corps extends to the sidelines as well. Coach Cutcliffe hired Trooper Taylor to coach the receivers. The two worked on the same staff at Tennessee (2006-07). Taylor was on Auburn’s staff when it won the 2010 BCS National Championship.

“This spring with coach Taylor has been amazing,” sophomore wide receiver Damond Philyaw-Johnson said, this spring. “He is very demanding and has high standards. But he also knows what it takes to get to the next level. He knows what it takes to be a great man.”

Summer Reading links

Mike Niziolek is the Virginia Tech football beat writer for The Roanoke Times. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Load comments