The Virginia Cavaliers will look to build on their week four victory over Central Michigan as the Hoos (1-3) travel to Durham to take on Duke in their first conference game. Duke sits at 2-2, coming off of a huge victory over Notre Dame in South Bend. In order to get a better understanding of our foe, we chatted with Ben Swain (@TheBenSwain) about the Blue Devils.
(Editor’s Note: this Q&A was completed before the news of Jela Duncan’s injury was released)
STL: So, both Virginia and Duke got some pretty emotional big wins on Saturday - UVA their first Bronco Mendenhall win and Duke a huge road upset of Notre Dame. How do you think the Blue Devils respond after such a big win, and did that game change your season outlook for Duke?
BS: I have no idea, and it depends. How’s that for an answer? But seriously, it’s been fascinating to watch how this young Duke team has responded to different situations. They couldn’t overcome mistakes made against Wake Forest, and they let a 2nd half fumble against Northwestern impact the entire psyche of the team for the rest of the game. Now they certainly seem to have gotten that fixed coming back from 14-0 early and 35-28 with 8 minutes to play in South Bend, but how do they handle something positive? There’s an equal chance that the Notre Dame game will be a springboard as there is for that win to be the peak of the season before a two-month decline. If anything, I think THIS game is the one that will change the season outlook for Duke. This is a must-win game for Cutcliffe.
STL: Daniel Jones stepped in when Thomas Sirk re-injured his achilles pre-season. What’s your take on the freshman QB so far in his career? What are his biggest weaknesses and strengths?
BS: Even before Sirk was injured, there was a lot of chatter about Daniel Jones taking over the starting spot. He’s kind of been kept under wraps for the last three years. An injury kept him out of the QB circuit in high school, and once he committed to Duke he really shut down his recruitment so there wasn’t a lot of tape on him from recruiting events. Then last year, the word was that he consistently shredded the starting defense from the scout team in practice, and that’s not really the kind of thing you want out there in the media, for good reason. So he’s been a mystery up until the start of the year.
I can’t say enough good things about him, partly because Cutcliffe hasn’t had a “Cutcliffe quarterback” since Sean Renfree, but also because he has all of the tools to be a great college QB. Statistically he’s been the best freshman QB in the nation, and that includes guys like Francois from Florida State and Darnold from USC (who Duke wanted BADLY, ironically). I could go on forever about Jones, as you can probably tell from my answer here.
His strengths are his accuracy, arm strength and quick release, and he’s a sneaky-good runner that’s not going to wow anyone with his speed, but he can break tackles and run people over in the secondary if he needs an extra yard or two. His biggest weakness is he’s a freshman quarterback who’s still adapting to the decision making at the college level, especially in the running game. He’s been pretty tentative in short yardage situations, especially in terms of handing the ball off instead of keeping it on the read option. He’s not afraid to take risks and throw guys open, which isn’t really a strength or weakness. It’s just the risk/reward you get with a confident quarterback. Pressure helps a lot in stopping Jones because if he has time, he’ll find an open guy.
STL: Virginia is giving up an average of 482 yards (wooooof) per game, with almost twice as many yards given up via the passing game. Who should Virginia fans keep an eye out for in the receiving corps for Duke, outside of Anthony Nash?
BS: Nash is definitely the home-run guy, but Duke’s top three guys are Nash, sophomore TJ Rahming, and sophomore Johnathan Lloyd. Rahming and Lloyd are smaller, speed guys who get a lot of yards on screens or slants. The other guy who has all of the tools and usually has two or three plays designed for him is Chris Taylor, another sophomore. This position group isn’t great for Duke right now, but they have an opportunity to become really, really good over the next two years. There’s definitely not a Jamison Crowder or Conner Vernon that’s going to test the defense on every play though.
STL: Kurt Benkert and the Virginia offense appear to (maybe, hopefully) be clicking. What is the biggest weakness for Duke, and who are some players to know defensively for the Blue Devils?
BS: The biggest concern for Duke is probably going to be trying to stop Smoke from catching the ball out of the backfield. He honestly could be the best receiving back in the country. Duke has a pair of linebackers, sophomore Ben Humphreys and freshman Joe Giles-Harris, who are outstanding tacklers but I haven’t seen them in coverage yet. The secondary will give up big plays if the receivers have time to get open, and they’ll obviously be without All-American DeVon Edwards for the rest of the year. I doubt you’ll hear about cornerback Breon Borders much because there’s no reason to throw at him. He’s one of the best in the ACC, and there should be plenty of opportunities elsewhere down the field for Benkert to make plays. Anecdotally, I’d say Duke makes a positive defensive play on 90% of their snaps. The problem is that the other 10% is usually an explosive play.
STL: Duke is 127th out of 128 (lol Virginia Tech) among FBS teams with eight lost fumbles. Has the fumble bug been cured, or is it something fans are still concerned about?
BS: It’s not just the fumbles, it’s the way they’ve happened. The punter has dropped two snaps. The punt returner dropped a fair catch. Daniel Jones had a huge fumble against Northwestern when a defender just slapped the ball out of his hands on a running play. Those types of fumbles didn’t show up in South Bend, so I’m sure the coaching staff HOPES it’s been cured, but it takes more than a game to make that call. There’s a solid chance Duke will turn the ball over.
STL: Will Harry Giles be ready to roll when basketball season starts, and can the 2016-2017 Duke team beat the 76ers?
BS: I don’t really follow basketball, so …
Just kidding. I don’t know if he’ll be ready. They’re saying he will be, but ACL injuries are no joke and definitely not something to rush, especially if you don’t have to. If I had to make a prediction, he’ll play to start the season but I don’t think he’ll play as much right away. And I’ll go on record in saying that Duke would beat the 76ers at least six times in a 10 game series, but mainly because Okafor can’t defend the post.
STL: What are some good pregame festivities/places to visit before the game for Wahoo fans making the trip?
BS: If you haven’t been to Durham in a while, go downtown, and go to the American Tobacco Campus. This city has completely transformed, and there’s an outstanding food and beer scene. It’s also fun to just walk around the new athletic complex and see all the work they’ve done to, and around the stadium. There’s an open practice for the basketball team at 9:30 that morning too. Those practices tend to be kind of boring because there’s a lot of standing around and stretching and drill work, but now that I mention it, that’s probably right in the wheelhouse of UVA basketball fans right?
And if any Capitals fans are making the trip down, be sure to stop by the PNC Arena to see what a Stanley Cup banner looks like.
STL: What's your prediction for the game?
BS: I’m not going to pick a winner, but I’m going to make a bold prediction … I predict that the game (ignoring the talent involved, just the game itself) ends up being more entertaining than Louisville/Clemson on Saturday night.
A huge thanks to Ben for taking the time out to answer our questions! Game kicks off Saturday at 12:30 on the ACC Network.