Duke preview: Offensive turnover will limit Blue Devils’ upset chances

As word broke Tuesday that Alabama would basically be without its running back group for the first half of Saturday’s game against the Duke Blue Devils, there was concern that David Cutcliffe’s band of upset specialists might be able to do the impossible against the best team in college football.

Um … no.

While Alabama has dealt with its own personnel woes this offseason to be sure – highlighted by season-ending injuries to senior linebacker Josh McMillon and true freshman phenom running back Trey Sanders – Duke is feeling the loss of maybe the best quarterback in school history, Daniel Jones, who continues to make waves with the New York Giants. In addition, just about every receiver who caught a meaningful pass for this team last year is either catching them for someone else this year, or learning how to dissect frogs in med school.

Duke has become a respectable program under Cutcliffe, to be sure, but Duke is not in Alabama’s same atmosphere, suspensions or no suspensions.

OFFENSE

Alabama wants to get back to a more ground-oriented pro-style attack than it showed in 2018, but it is still a multiple offense triggered by the best quarterback in school history, and with both of its big-body running backs sitting out the first half, Alabama might more closely resemble an air-raid attack until halftime comes. Duke also operates a multiple, pro-style attack, but with a dual-threat quarterback under center and all the experience Duke has at running back, look for the Blue Devils to try to shorten this game with a more conservative approach.

QUARTERBACKS
There is no drama here for Alabama. Tua Tagovailoa is now, without question, the man for the Crimson Tide. He’s had a strong preseason, slimmed down to his freshman playing weight again, and has done nothing in scrimmages to dissuade analysts who believe he could be the first overall pick in April’s NFL Draft. Mac Jones has also solidified his hold on the backup QB job. Jones has more athleticism than most would credit him for, but he’s much more a stable pocket presence than is Tagovailoa. Lia Tagovailoa, the younger brother of the Tide starter, locked up the third-string position in fall camp. Depending on the margin in this game – and how quickly Alabama achieves a wide one – all three quarterbacks could play a bit.

Duke will counter with a senior, Quentin Harris, who was the team’s fourth-leading rusher a year ago, averaging 4.2 yards per carry and scoring 5 touchdowns. Harris’ passing left a bit to be desired; he had an excellent TD-to-INT ratio of 7:1, but he completed just half his passes. He’s on the Davey O’Brien Award watch list, but that’s more of a courtesy to Cutcliffe’s abilities as a QB coach. Harris threw just 68 passes last year and 13 in the three seasons before. Chris Katrenick, who is decidedly more statuesque than Harris, is the backup. His numbers from a year ago excite no one. This category is the very definition of “not even close.” Advantage: Alabama

RUNNING BACKS
At least until halftime, this is a push. Duke returns both Deon Jackson and Brittain Brown, its top two rushers from a year ago. Brown didn’t really do much to excite, scoring just 3 touchdowns and averaging 4.6 yards per carry, but Jackson recorded nearly 900 yards despite Duke’s best plays all coming from the arm of Jones at QB. Jackson scored 7 touchdowns on the ground; more importantly, he was the team’s fifth-leading receiver, and you can bet your life Cutcliffe will look to harass Alabama’s new starters at linebacker by involving Jackson in the passing game. Marvin Hubbard III, a scatback, adds depth. Alabama could end up starting its fifth-string back, depending on injuries.

First things first: fall camp starter Najee Harris and his backup, Brian Robinson Jr., are going to miss the first half at least after failing to show at a team function. This has all kinds of implications for Alabama, because Harris and Robinson were the only healthy big bodies left. Without them, redshirt freshman Jerome Ford, true freshman Keilan Robinson and multi-position athlete Chadarius Townsend are the other scholarshipped players on the roster. But both Ford and Robinson have suffered minor injuries recently, meaning Townsend – who had a nice showing in the spring game and is deadly as a receiver out of the backfield – could be the guy. It’s legitimately time to talk walk-ons, too, with fifth-year senior De’Marquise Lockridge probably being at the head of that list.

Junior Jahi Brown could be in the mix as well, at least until the bands crank things up between quarters two and three. After that, this category flips strongly to Alabama, Harris and Robinson split carries and everyone else may end up playing backgammon on the sidelines until the lead gets out of hand. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS
Even though Bama’s DeVonta Smith is on the no-first-half list, comparing these two units is like comparing the crème brulee at Fin & Fork to a Twinkie from the local Jet-Pep. Anyone who might even pretend to have been thought of as important from Duke’s 2018 season is somewhere else right now. The three players expected to start are Scott Bracey, Jalon Calhoun and Aaron Young. Calhoun didn’t play in 2018 and the other two combined for 10 catches. There is one backup with any kind of experience, Damond Philyaw-Johnson (6 catches).

At least Duke returns its starting tight end, Noah Gray, but Gray scored just once and wasn’t a key weapon. The one thing Duke does have going for it, with Calhoun being the exception, is height. Every receiver is at least 6’1” and most approach 6’4”. Bama, meanwhile, is the mirror image of Duke: experience reigns at receiver, even with Smith temporarily sidelined, while tight end is filled by new faces.

With Smith out, Jaylen Waddle will probably start alongside Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy, while veteran holdover Tyrell Shavers groups up with young players John Metchie, Xavier Williams and Slade Bolden to form the next group. At tight end, Miller Forristall is expected to have a big year, but whether that happens at the Y position is still up for debate. Forristall looks to be a better fit at H, where Major Tennison leads at the moment.

Converted defensive end Cameron Latu and walk-on Giles Amos will be the next names up as Alabama tries to find the right grouping. Due to Duke’s inexperience, Bama can take its time and still hold the edge. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE
The hits just keep on coming for Duke, as both tackles are expected to be freshmen. Casey Holman is a redshirt freshman and will get the left tackle assignment, but right tackle falls to a true freshman, Jacob Monk. The middle of the line is made up of veterans – junior center Jack Wohlabaugh, junior right guard Rakavius Chambers and senior left guard Zach Baker. The line did a decent job in 2018 of holding tackles for loss to a minimum (44th nationally) but was just 73rd in sacks allowed, and having two freshman tackles won’t help.

Alabama counters with Alex Leatherwood back at his natural left tackle position and Jedrick Wills starting at right tackle. The rest of the line is still unsettled. TideFans.com expects senior Matt Womack to get the first-game start at right guard, but he’s bracketed there with Florida State transfer Landon Dickerson at the moment. Chris Owens seems to have nailed down the center job, but Dickerson is also in play there. True freshman Evan Neal and redshirt freshman Emil Ekiyor Jr. are still fighting over left guard, and again, Dickerson could be a possibility there as well.

The biggest change for Alabama here was replacing Brent Guy as OL coach with Kyle Flood, with the expectation being that the line will have a nastier comportment overall. With as much talent as Alabama has, if this proves true, opponents will not like the change. Advantage: Alabama

READ MORE:  Defense


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