Duke Blue Devils Football: Playmakers and Offensive Playbook


During the summer months, we spend a great deal of time searching for prospects. Doing all that prep work pays off when the NFL Draft rolls around. One name you’ll get plenty familiar with is the starting quarterback for Duke, Daniel Jones. He’s the prototypical quarterback for today’s NFL, and it won’t be surprising when he suits up for a franchise on Sundays.

I’ve spent the past week watching his film, along with other ACC players. It really started with the Hurricanes of Miami, Florida, but I couldn’t stop watching Blue Devils’ offense. Everything that was happening on the field kept drawing me in.

This team starts with their head coach, David Cutcliffe, who won National Coach of the Year in 2013. He’s created a winning culture for the Blue Devils. During his 10 seasons as the head coach, he’s compiled a 59-67 record, which is a huge improvement from where the program was before he started. From 2000-2007, this football team only won a total of ten football games. I remember playing NCAA Football during those years and seeing those football teams with the overall rating of 68, or a D+ letter grade. It was pretty embarrassing but, thanks to Cutcliffe, the culture has changed.

Beyond just winning football games, Cutcliffe has helped get players such as Laken Tomlinson and Jamison Crowder to the NFL. Now he has another talented core of players who can thrive on all three levels of the field, from the short areas all the way to the end zone. Last year, the Blue Devils averaged 384.8 yards per game and 26.5 points per game. Let’s open up their playbook and look at some of the playmakers they have on offense.

Inside Zone 

Starting at the very beginning, this playbook starts with the inside zone run. The Blue Devils, they normally run this out of ’11’ personnel (one tight end and one running back). Below is a diagram of how the inside zone play is supposed to look.

It starts in ’11’ personnel with twins right. The right guard and the right tackle double team the defensive tackle aligned as the 3-technique. Once the combo block is established, the right guard climbs to the second level and attacks the MIKE linebacker. As for the left guard, he climbs to the second level and attacks the WILL linebacker. More often than not, this play is best run to the defensive tackle that’s shaded on the center or the defensive end aligned as a 5-technique.

Below, the Duke Blue Devils pick up the tempo and run the inside zone on back-to-back plays. You’ll notice the Miami (FL) defense isn’t ready for the second play, and it’s pretty much an automatic first down for Duke.

It starts in ’11’ personnel for Duke with twins to the right side. The tight end is to the left and playing off the line of scrimmage. Running the ball is Brittain Brown (#22), who should have a big year rushing for the Blue Devils. His initial aiming point is the nose tackle (#7 Kendrick Norton) shaded on the center. However, Norton does a great job blowing up the center. Brown naturally cuts to his left and finds an opening. Great vision by him behind the line-of-scrimmage and having the burst to gain positive yardage.

Last year, the starting running back for the Blue Devils was Shaun Wilson, who went undrafted in the 2018 NFL Draft to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brittain Brown, this year’s projected starter, was a redshirt freshman and had 701 rushing yards on 130 carries last year. Now a redshirt sophomore, Brown has the keys to the backfield and should see his production increase. That production will start with how well he and this offense execute the inside zone running play.

Passing Game – Short Areas of the Field 

As I’ve mentioned before, one name you’re going to hear a lot in this offense is quarterback Daniel Jones, and rightfully so. He’s a talented quarterback that just has to improve on some of his ball placement. The traits are there to be elite, and if he can get that ball placement under control, we’d better watch out. Jumping into the passing game, I found it interesting how this offense hits all three areas of the field, from the short-to-intermediate areas to the deep parts of the field.

Starting with the short areas of the field, it’s intriguing for me to see how teams keep the chains moving. Quick passes are a great place to start. You can throw them underneath plenty of coverages, but in reality, the quick pass is used for three reasons. It can help your quarterback find his rhythm, put the ball into the hands of your playmakers (see Detroit Lions with Golden Tate), or beat blitzes.

One receiver that moves all over the field is Jonathan Lloyd (#5) for the Blue Devils. He plays as the ‘X’ receiver, motions across the backfield, or in this case, aligns from the slot. On the play above, it’s twins right out of ’11’ personnel. At the top of the screen, the Blue Devils run double slants. As you can tell, Daniel Jones (QB #17) finds Taylor quickly, and it’s because he’s reading the blitz that’s happening to his right. Last season, Lloyd had 39 receptions for 367 yards and one touchdown. His 9.4 yards per reception average was the lowest of the three starting receivers. That’s a clear indication that he’s more of that possession receiver and is used quickly to defeat blitzes.


Designed wide receiver screens are probably the best way to get the ball into the hands of your playmakers. Above is a prime example of the Blue Devils doing just that. Over the last two seasons, T.J. Rahming (#3) has totaled over 135 receptions and over 1500 receiving yards. He can catch the ball in any area of the field, and even though this was only a four-yard gain, it’s one of those plays that helps set up another inside zone play or a potential speed option.

Passing Game – Intermediate Areas of the Field 

His stats aren’t out of this world, which makes me think Chris Taylor (#82) is one of the most underutilized receivers in the country. He excels in the intermediate areas of the field and should have a more prominent role within this offense. Last year, he only had 25 receptions for 332 yards and one touchdown. Now that Shaun Wilson and his 36 receptions are gone, maybe Taylor can get a boost.


Taylor excels in the intermediate areas of the field. Against Northern Illinois, it’s 3rd-and-10, and Daniel Jones turns to Taylor for the first down. Taylor is aligned at the top of the screen and runs a dig route beyond the first down marker. He finds a soft spot in the coverage, and Jones delivers a strike to Taylor after scanning the field from his left to his right.


Once again, here’s Chris Taylor in the intermediate area of the field. It’s 3rd-and-13, and Daniel Jones finds Taylor out of his break on a post route. He secures the catch at the first down marker and then falls forward for a couple extra yards. Beyond just a few extra receptions for the senior receiver, it would be nice to see him get into the end zone. He only has two career touchdowns, so hopefully he will be used to his maximum potential.

Deep Passing Game

Speaking of touchdowns, here’s Taylor’s only TD in 2017. He beats the cornerback with the slant and go (sluggo) route. Daniel Jones does a nice job getting plenty under this pass, and Taylor tracks the ball down and trots into the end zone.


Throwing the ball deep down the field is an area in which Jones looks comfortable. This play starts after the play-action and with his lower body. His base is perfect, and his weight transfer from his back foot to his front foot is great. Despite having pressure in his face, his throwing motion looks effortless, and he gets plenty of air on this pass.

It falls right into a bucket or into the hands of T.J. Rahming (#3). Despite the ball getting into his grip, the moment the receiver hits the ground, the ball is forced out for an incomplete pass.


Speed Option and Read Option

One area that Daniel Jones doesn’t get enough credit for is his athletic ability. It’s not every day that you see a quarterback of his size (6’5 and 215 pounds) run efficiently with the football. In 2017, he had 161 carries for 518 yards and seven touchdowns. In fact, he’s had 14 touchdowns in his collegiate career so far. There’s no reason to believe that he can’t add to those numbers.


Jones runs efficiently for a quarterback, and Duke runs him in a variety of ways. Starting with the speed option, Jones takes the snap and runs to his left. The edge rusher keeps the quarterback honest and forces him to pitch it.

It’s fine for Duke because Jones made the correct read. Pitching the football is an area that he struggles with from time to time, so to see him get rid of this was a step in the right direction. Picking up the first down was crucial with the game tied at 10 and the Blue Devils approaching midfield.


Read options are always fun, especially in short yardage and red-zone contexts. On this 4th-and-goal play, Jones could have easily given the ball to the running back. Instead, he pulls it and finds himself scampering one yard into the end zone. This was another smart decision because when you look at the middle of the box, every defensive player is expecting a play up the middle. Jones pulls it, finds the end zone, and makes it look easy.

Run Pass Options (RPO Concepts)

Everyone loves RPOs and the concepts behind them. Am I right, or am I right? It’s a concept that’s been scrutinized over the last few seasons. Whether it’s in the NFL or in college football, teams are running RPOs everywhere. Odds are, they’ve been running them for a while.

As far as Duke goes, they run their fair share. It’s a great way to make this offense complete. From their zone blocking schemes to establish the run, to a quarterback that can pull the ball and find open receivers downfield, it all comes together and it’s the cherry on top of this offense.

This is a prime example of an RPO. Daniel Jones pulls the ball away from the running back. Once he pulls the ball, he rolls to his left and finds his tight end (#80), Daniel Helm, running a flat route. The pass is completed, and Helm does a nice job after the catch to pick up the first down.


Circling this all back to the inside zone running play, here’s another example of an RPO. However, this time, it’s showing a way to run the inside zone play or pass the football.

The basis of the Blue Devils’ offense is the inside zone. It’s commonplace for Duke’s opponents to stack the box to stuff this play. In this case, the Blue Devils come out in ’21’ personnel (two tight ends and one running back) and are aligned in twins right. The players are aligned a bit differently compared to the diagram above. However, it’s the same concept. They have a tight end next to the left tackle, and his job is simple: base block. The running back is on the left side rather than the right. But he fakes the inside zone to the 5-technique because Jones pulls the ball and looks for the vertical routes up the field.


The slot receiver, Scott Bracey (#11), runs up the seam. On the bottom of the screen, you get an outside release, and that receiver runs vertically up the field. The other tight end, Davis Koppenhaver (#81), is aligned as the H-back but would be listed as a tight end. He releases vertically up the field and just runs up the middle. The safety doesn’t drop into coverage; instead, he remains stagnant. This is where the quarterback makes his read and fires a strike to Koppenhaver for a touchdown.

This isn’t nearly the complete playbook for the Duke Blue Devils, but these are some of the concepts that I came across when watching them. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of steps this offense takes. Will it be forward in the right direction, or will they take a step backward? I’m leaning towards them moving in the right direction. All of this stems back to their ability to establish the ground game on the inside zone and the arm of their big-time quarterback.

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