With kickoff to Northwestern’s season opener in Dublin, Ireland under 25 days away, it’s time to begin examining the Wildcats’ opponents during their 2022 season via the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll be breaking down the teams that NU will face each week, discussing their 2021 campaigns, season outlooks and more.
Next up are the Duke Blue Devils, a team with an irrationally high number of similarities to the ‘Cats.
Returning Production: 48% overall (Offense 44%, defense 52%)
2021 Record: 3-9 (0-8 ACC)
Coach: Mike Elko
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2021 SP+ Overall: 113th
2021 SP+ Offense: 96th
2021 SP+ Defense: 118th
Coming off a woeful 2-9 in 2020, it would have been unlikely that Duke would have an even worse 2021. While this was true, it’s not like the Blue Devils got much better either. They returned just over half of their production from the pandemic-altered year and were once again counting on a new signal-caller — junior Gunner Holmberg.
Although a loss to open the season against Charlotte wasn’t ideal, Holmberg showed promise throughout Duke’s non-conference schedule. Aided by the reliability of All-ACC running back Mataeo Durant, the Blue Devils scored 30-plus points in their three remaining non-conference games. That production powered them to a 3-1 record entering ACC play.
At this point, Duke was ranked 78th in the country in SP+, and there was some optimism that it could exceed most preseason expectations and possibly reach bowl eligibility. However, as noted above, the Blue Devils ended up almost 40 spots lower by January, so the question likely on your mind is what happened?
Well, the offense that looked like a well-oiled machine in September sputtered once it faced better defenses in October and November. The passing game was never able to really get going and provide a second dimension to a solid rushing attack, and the Blue Devils failed to reach the 30-point mark once in conference play. On the opposite side of the ball, Duke had a clear vulnerability through the air, and, especially in last year’s ACC, that was bad news. It should be no surprise then that the Blue Devils gave up over 30 points every conference game.
In what proved to be head coach David Cutcliffe’s final year in Durham, Duke finished 3-9, missing a bowl game for the third straight year after appearing in one in six of the seven years prior.
As is usually the case when a new head coach comes in, there will be new staff brought in on both sides of the ball. New offensive coordinator Kevin Johns, who moved from the same role at Memphis, will look to remedy the shortcomings the Blue Devils have had on this side of the ball since current New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones left the program. If Johns’ name sounds familiar, he served as both the running backs and wide receivers coach at NU from 2004-2010.
One of Johns’ first tasks will be to find some solidity and consistency at the quarterback position, as Holmberg transferred to Florida International. The battle for the starting job is between sophomores Jordan Moore and Riley Leonard, both of whom saw playing time, albeit limited, last season as true freshmen.
Another big challenge Johns’ will have to navigate is finding new playmakers at the skill positions. Durant, the Blue Devils’ leading rusher in 2021, graduated, and Jake Bobo, their leading receiver, transferred to UCLA. Senior Jalon Calhoun should be able to replace Bobo’s production, but the situation at running back looks much bleaker, as no Blue Devil besides Durant broke 250 yards rushing last season.
The one position group that will have some continuity at it is the offensive line, which features another Northwestern connection. Adam Cushing, who was the offensive line coach for nearly a decade in Evanston now assumes the same role at Duke after a failed stint as head coach at Eastern Illinois. Four starters return in the trenches, including 6-foot-5, 310-pound junior at left tackle, Graham Barton, who could enter the NFL Draft after this season.
Just like the offense, this defense is relatively inexperienced and has a brand new coordinator, Robb Smith, who spent the last two years as Rutgers’ defensive coordinator under Greg Schiano. Given Elko was the DC at Texas A&M before taking this head coaching job, it’s likely he’ll have a decent level of involvement in what this group looks like, including possibly implementing the 4-2-5 that was successful for him in College Station.
The front seven, or six in the context of Elko’s defense, is relatively experienced, as linebackers Shaka Heyward and Dorian Mausi return, along with the team’s two leaders in sacks, defensive tackle DeWayne Carter and defensive end RJ Oben. The depth them is murky, but they’re a good foundation for improving a defense that was so poor last year.
On the other hand, the secondary is practically a blank slate. Lummie Young, who was second in tackles on the team last year from safety, transferred to Tulane, and Jeremiah Lewis, who led the team in interceptions, transferred to, you guessed it, Northwestern. Given Duke had the second-worst pass defense in FBS in yards allowed per game, the lack of returning production here might be both a blessing and a curse.
Three Players to Know
WR Jalon Calhoun
The senior from South Carolina is the Blue Devils’ leading returning receiver, as he put up 718 yards on 56 receptions for a team-high three TDs last season. Whoever ends up playing quarterback will be looking Calhoun’s way often, as he possesses big play ability with his speed and shiftiness despite his smaller frame. With the amount of turnover the offense went through this past offseason, he’ll provide some much-needed familiarity.
DT DeWayne Carter
If Elko’s defensive scheme is going to work, it’ll be reliant on a big body like Carter in the heart of the defensive line, as it did with DeMarvin Leal at Texas A&M, to slow down the opponent’s rushing attack. Carter, a 6-foot-3, 300-pound junior, registered 36 tackles last season, 7.5 of which were for a loss, along with 4.5 sacks, and is more than capable of having an even bigger impact in 2022.
LB Shaka Heyward
Heyward was Duke’s leading tackler for the second year in a row and now will likely serve as the de facto leader of the defense given his production and experience. A senior from Georgia, Heyward boasts a 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame that can impact the offense both on the ground and through the air. As with Carter, the success of the Blue Devils’ defense this season largely hinges on his ability to cover the field and take good angles to the football, but he’s shown he’s up to the task before.