The season ended with a dismal loss to Miami and no bowl appearance. Duke quarterback Daniel Jones wanted no more of that. He sat his receivers down and explained the plan.
“He was like, ‘Hey, this offseason, we’re going to take it really seriously,’” receiver Chris Taylor recalled in a recent phone interview. “We’re going to go in on Saturdays, and work on timing and route definition and things of that nature.’ That’s really what we did, and it showed in spring ball.”
Those inside the Duke football building took notice as soon as spring practice opened. Coaches saw better chemistry, rhythm, route running and dedication. They also noticed how well Jones and his receivers completed back-shoulder fade routes and other passes that take precision and timing.
Given the progress that was made, expectations for the receivers have soared. Only one significant contributor is gone from last season, giving Duke potentially its deepest receivers group under David Cutcliffe. Along with Taylor and fellow starters T.J. Rahming and Johnathan Lloyd, Aaron Young, Scott Bracey, Keyston Fuller also impressed throughout spring practice.
Young caught two passes for 79 yards in the team’s final spring scrimmage. He was selected Co-Most Improved Offensive Player for the spring.
“This was the spring that basically I got back to my craft,” Young said. “I cleared my head and was able to just do what I do and have no outside distractions, like learning the playbook and things like that. Going into my third year now made me experienced. I know what’s going on, and I know what’s expected.”
Both Taylor and Young described the receiver group as a tight-knit unit that has grown closer during offseason workouts. One of the reasons has been better leadership from players like Taylor, going into his redshirt junior season.
Taylor participated in a leadership summit through the Duke athletic department, where he was able to recognize strengths and weaknesses and then utilize them as a mentor to the receiver group. Young said, “Our guys in the receiver room are definitely trying to help out each other a lot more than what we had going on in the past, and I think it’s been extremely beneficial to everybody on offense.
“We realized our potential as a unit. So instead of being selfish, we realized if we can all get on the same page, all push each other to be great, everybody will be happy and we’ll all be great together.”
Another reason for overall growth this spring? Players are healthy. Young had a knee injury that impacted him last spring. Fuller (knee) and Bracey (hamstring) also were banged up last year. Fuller was an ESPN 300 prospect in the class of 2015, and Bracey was a four-star player in 2016. Based on their talent and potential alone, Fuller and Bracey should be difference-makers in this unit.
“We feel like we’re really, really deep at receiver, and can play multiple guys at the position and not lose much production,” offensive coordinator Zac Roper said. “Any time you can do that, it lets those guys play as hard as you want them to play. We feel like we’re two-deep plus at the receiver positions and any time you can do that at the skill positions, that’s a good thing.”
Another positive sign from spring? Duke did much better with explosive plays, and that is a key area the Blue Devils want to improve in 2017.
“It’s night and day,” Taylor said. “We completed a higher percentage of passes over 30 yards. We’ve got a lot of explosive plays and we’ve got guys taking hitches and slants and short passes and taking them the distance. We’ve made tremendous strides as far as explosive plays are concerned.”
Roper noticed Bracey and Young excelled in this area in particular.
“If you build a receiver, they have the attributes you’re looking for. They have size, strength, speed, the ability to maneuver and catch the football really well,” Roper said. “Both guys competed really hard this spring and made a bunch of plays for us down the field, which is certainly an emphasis from last year to this year. We need to be more aggressive in doing those things and we need to complete more of those balls down the field and those are two guys we believe can help us.”
The work doesn’t stop now that spring practice has ended. Jones and his receivers will be back at it throughout the offseason, working to perfect their timing and chemistry for a season they hope goes radically differently.