Duke special teams improved, but still a concern

No team in the Football Bowl Subdivision made fewer field goals or had a lower success rate when attempting them last season than Duke.

After watching his team make just 3 of 10 with freshman AJ Reed as its kicker last season, Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe devoted countless hours toward fixing that part of Duke’s team.

When the Blue Devils opened the new season with a 60-7 rout of NC Central last Saturday night, improvement was certainly evident.

Redshirt sophomore punter Austin Parker handled the placekicking duties. He made his only field goal attempt — from 32 yards out. But he missed one of his eight extra-point kicks and that miscue has Cutcliffe on edge.

“The snap-hold all night was really good,” Cutcliffe said. “For the most part we place-kicked the ball well. But you can’t miss extra points. We all know that costs people football games. All the time.”
Parker is the clear No. 1 as Duke’s punter. He averaged 41.7 yards per punt against NCCU and uncorked a 51-yarder.

Parker and walk-on freshman Jack Driggers shared the kickoff duties. Cutcliffe is confident the team’s kick coverage teams and its return teams (on both punt and kickoffs) will be a strength for Duke this season.

On kickoff returns, senior running back Shaun Wilson is the main returner. He returned a kickoff for a touchdown at Notre Dame last season. Freshmen back Brittain Brown also helped return kicks against NCCU.

Wide receiver TJ Rahming is Duke’s main punt returner. But placekicking will remain something the staff will continue to monitor all season. That missed extra point in the fourth quarter of the lopsided win over NCCU ensured that.

Parker remains the team’s No. 1 kicker with William Holmquist, a walk-on graduate transfer, from Division III Tufts University, a close second in the competition. Cutcliffe said he would be comfortable using either kicker in a game.

Holmquist kicked three seasons at Tufts and his career-best field goal came from 48 yards. He routinely kicked field goals beyond 40 yards, which isn’t normal for a Division III kicker.

When Duke practiced on Tuesday in preparation for Saturday’s home game with Northwestern, both Parker and Holmquist were perfect on their field goals and extra points, Cutcliffe said.

Duke needs an effective kicker to maximize its scoring chances this season. While Reed struggled last season, Duke’s scoring average dropped to 23.3 points per game. That’s nine points per game less than in 2015 when Ross Martin was Duke’s kicker.

The Blue Devils were forced to call plays differently once inside the opponents’ 40 last season because field goals were no longer a viable option. Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Zac Roper have no interest in reliving that experience this season.