Welcome to our 2017 Opponent Q&A series. This week, we welcome Lauren Brownlow, writer for WRAL Sports Fan and radio personality at 999 The Fan. We discuss Daniel Jones, a Duke defense prone to giving up big plays, and a shrinking point spread.
TN: The Blue Devils leapt out to a 4-0 start with two FBS non-conference wins and a victory over rival North Carolina. However, they have since come back to earth a bit in recent weeks. What were your expectations for this 2017 Duke team at the beginning of the year, and have they changed to date?
LB: The expectations themselves have been sort of a roller-coaster. In the preseason, it was simply that Duke would get to a bowl game after going 4-8 last year and that Daniel Jones and the Duke offense would keep getting better. After the first two games, which included a DRUBBING of Northwestern in Durham, the expectations were much higher - maybe eight wins? Now, they've fallen back to the preseason expectation of just make a bowl game, Duke. That's still likely to happen but it's not a given. Nothing is for Duke right now.
TN: Sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones had an impressive freshman campaign and is being discussed as an NFL prospect, according to the internet. Stylistically, what sort of offensive attack does he lead for Zac Roper's Blue Devils and what are his strengths and weaknesses?
LB: Zac Roper and David Cutcliffe are good at sort of adapting the offense to be whatever best suits the pieces they have, particularly the quarterback. There's a reason Cutcliffe is known as a QB guru. And they're still sort of figuring that out right now.
Jones is a dual-threat QB, and he can still use his legs sometimes effectively (not as effectively as last year as teams are accounting for this more), but he's not running like he did last year. He's not doing a lot of things like he did last year, or even the start of this year, though.
The scout on him has generally been that he's accurate and will spread the ball around, plus using his athleticism and mobility as an asset. But he's been a little turnover-prone, and that's no different this year, really. Even if the reasons are different.
Duke's passing game is not working right now. The offensive line has not been good at pass protection, Jones' receivers are not helping him out at all (either in terms of getting open or making plays), and Jones' confidence seems to be fading week by week along with his completion percentage.
TN: If the Duke offense is going to move the ball against the FSU defense, how do you think they'll do it?
LB: A few weeks ago, I would have said run the football. Duke's backs (Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown) have been really good this year, and the Duke o-line has blocked for the run much better than the pass. Too often it seemed, Duke's offense went away from those guys too early. Against Miami,
But at this point, defenses are realizing that Duke can't pass the ball all that well right now, and they're loading up the box. Daniel Jones and the Duke passing attack are going to have to show some signs of life. It will be too easy for Florida State to slow them down if they can't throw the ball at all.
TN: The Blue Devil defense has been excellent in terms of efficiency, but have given up quite a few big plays so far this year. Which position groups have played well in 2017, and which are to blame for the explosive plays?
LB: Duke's front has been really, really good this year. And honestly, that's the area of Duke's roster that it's taken the longest to really fix and address. Getting playmakers along the defensive line has taken some doing, and while Duke's front isn't Clemson's by any stretch, it's still a vast improvement from what it was even two years ago. Adding to that, Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys are as good a duo at linebacker as you'll find. Duke's strength is here.
Duke will take some chances defensively, though, and those tend to result in explosive plays. Duke's secondary also isn't as strong as its front, although that's relative. Add all of that together and it's made for a recipe for big plays. It's been pretty odd to watch Duke largely shut opponents down, only to see a missed assignment suddenly result in a 70-yard touchdown. The Baylor game was filled with moments like these and ultimately, that game was a harbinger of what was to come on offense and defense for Duke.
TN: How do you see Jim Knowles attacking true freshman James Blackman and the FSU offense?
LB: It's hard to say. Ordinarily I'd say that he'd likely force Blackman to find a receiver without a mathematical advantage via a blitz, but as much as FSU's line has supposedly struggled this year, Duke hasn't seen an o-line this good yet. His front four are not going to get pressure by themselves, and leaving this secondary on an island/in space against FSU's talented wideouts and playmakers would be a very bad idea. Plus, he'll likely employ the same strategy most teams have against the Seminoles - stack the box and refuse to let them get the run game going.
Knowles is going to have to find creative ways to get pressure quickly and maybe mix things up and throw off the young quarterback. Blackman's been pretty damn poised, all things considered. Even mediocre to bad QBs have been able to get explosive plays against this Duke defense, though, so it'll be interesting to see if they are a little less aggressive in this game.
TN: Are there any unmentioned Duke playmakers FSU fans should keep an eye out for on Saturday?
LB: Mike Ramsay, a redshirt senior defensive tackle, is having a career year. He leads the team in sacks (4.5), quarterback hurries (6), and is second in tackles for loss (7.0). Virginia held him without a sack or a tackle for loss last week and Miami only let him have one. He had 3.5 sacks and 6.0 tackles for loss in Duke's other three wins against FBS teams.
TN: Finally, the Seminoles opened as a 10-point favorite, which was quickly bet down to less than a touchdown at the time I'm writing this. Do you think the Devils will pull the home upset and keep the Seminoles stuck on one win?
LB: In a word, no.
Duke is the only original ACC team left to not have beaten Florida State, and it usually hasn't been particularly close. There's a reason for that - even though Duke has improved a lot recently, there's always been a talent disparity between the two rosters that's significant enough to matter. That's probably still true, and frankly, I've seen nothing from Duke on offense the last few weeks to indicate that they can score enough points on anyone - much less Florida State's defense - to make this interesting.