Behind Enemy Lines: The Chronicle’s Derek Saul previews season opener

Courtesy of Derek Saul

Courtesy of Derek Saul

James Ogletree, Sports Editor

We caught up with Derek Saul, the sports editor of Duke’s student newspaper, The Chronicle, to get an insider’s perspective on the Blue Devils. Here’s all you need to know about the Crimson Tide’s first opponent of the 2019 season, a Duke team coming off an 8-5 season last year.

Some questions and answers have been edited due to space constraints.


Q: Duke coach David Cutcliffe said “We have no way to control Alabama. … [We] have to become the team to match strength with strength.” What are your thoughts on those remarks, and what is Duke’s strength?

A: If you were to compare them side-by-side, I’d be hard-pressed to find a unit that I’d pick Duke on. I would say Duke’s biggest strengths come in the secondary and in its rushing attack.

Q: Cutcliffe said redshirt senior starting quarterback Quentin Harris has become a lot more consistent. How would you describe his game and role in the offense?

A: We’ve seen Quentin Harris be successful as a runner; Duke would bring him in short-yardage packages even when he was not the starter. You’ll see a lot of designed run packages, and coupled with two of the better running backs in the ACC in Deon Jackson and Brittain Brown. [Harris] leaned on the deep ball a little too much at times and his short accuracy could use some work. [Wide receiver] Jake Bobo was that “deep threat” a lot of people were excited about, but he broke his clavicle. 

Q: Dylan Moses said he expected Duke to try to get to the edges and spread Alabama’s defense out. Do you see that being the case, and how will Deon Jackson play into that?

A: They talked a bit about how they’re going to incorporate both running backs on the field at the same time, but obviously they’re a bit guarded about that because that’s one of the few tricks up their sleeve with a depleted set of skill position players. I definitely think you could see Deon Jackson line up out wide and Brittain Brown stay in the backfield and you could see some motion with that, trying some trickery. Because those are probably Duke’s two most dynamic guys. Deon Jackson was a preseason All-ACC selection and really proved to be a strong pass-catcher out of the backfield making a lot of explosive plays. He set Duke’s all-purpose yardage record in a game last year [403 yards against Pittsburgh]. If you’re going to see noise from Duke’s offense, it’s going to be Brittain Brown or Deon Jackson breaking off a long play.

Q: Duke was well above average at defending the pass last year (in the top third of the FBS in completion percentage allowed, passing yards allowed and passer rating allowed). Do you attribute that to the pass rush or the secondary?

A: Without high sack numbers you can still be generating pretty good pass rush. But it’s definitely, at least in my eyes, been from really strong secondary play. There have been a lot of injuries at the safety and cornerback positions but they’ve really stepped up. That’s absolutely been Duke’s strength over the last few years. If Duke is to match up and slow down Alabama, they have some really strong experience back there in Michael Carter II and Josh Blackwell. You could see them give Alabama some trouble, at least in that first quarter or two.

Q: The spread opened around 30.5 points but has expanded to 35. What will be the biggest key for Duke to keep the game competitive?

A: I guess it has to come down to defense. I’d be very surprised if Duke put up more than 20 points, and that’s on the high end. If Duke is successful this season it will be in terms of the rushing attack, and I have a feeling that they’re going to get behind pretty quickly. If it is to stay competitive, it’s going to come down to the defensive side of the ball. Containing the run will be key because that also — well, I guess you don’t want to force Alabama to pass. But Duke does have a strong defense. 

Q: What is your official score prediction?

A: I could see something around 34-10 rather than the 35-point spread. I’d be very surprised if Duke pulls off an upset. You’re seeing a guy who’s a fifth-year quarterback who’s only started a few games who’s having the biggest test of his career and I’d definitely be nervous to put any money on Duke. They definitely can contain Alabama even if it’s just for a half, but I could see possession numbers start to take a toll on Duke’s defense and they really tire out.