NC Central Duke Football

Duke quarterback Quentin Harris (18) carries the ball as North Carolina Central's Jaquell Taylor (27) looks for a tackle during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

Former Duke quarterback Daniel Jones is off to the NFL, and he’s probably relieved he doesn’t have to face Virginia anymore. He never recorded a win over the Cavaliers, and the last three times the Coastal Division rivals met, he was intercepted nine times.

Last season in Durham, North Carolina, Jones was picked off twice and sacked four times and the Wahoos made their way home with a 28-14 victory. We’ve entered the home stretch of our 2019 Virginia football opponent preview series, and next up is an Oct. 19 home game against Duke, which has some holes to fill at linebacker and wide receiver but gets a potential star back in the secondary.

Harris takes the reins

Jones is now New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning’s heir apparent, but Duke isn’t starting from scratch under center. Redshirt senior Quentin Harris spent the past four seasons with Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, who earned a reputation as a quarterback whisperer after serving as Peyton and Eli Manning’s position coach.

Last season, Harris looked good in limited action. He went 2-0 as the starter when Jones was injured, and he finished the year with seven passing touchdowns and five rushing. He’s more of a threat to run than Jones was, and while he isn’t as polished as a passer, he may have a stronger arm.

Run game or bust

Harris is going to have his number called plenty in the running game, and he’s sharing the backfield with a pair of returning starters in Deon Jackson and Brittain Brown. Virginia held Duke to 58 rushing yards in last season’s win, but Jackson finished the season with 847 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Brown is more of a receiving threat. He was slowed last season by injuries, but his only reception of the year went for a 44-yard touchdown.

With a mobile quarterback, a veteran-laden backfield and three starters back on the offensive line, Duke may want to lean more on the running game this season. It may also have to. Last year’s top receivers, TJ Rahming and Jonathan Lloyd, are gone and the top returning receivers are sophomore Jake Bobo, who caught 10 passes last fall, and senior Aaron Young, who caught seven.

Game-deciding matchup

Duke’s defense didn’t exactly light the world on fire last season, but the Blue Devils return plenty of experience in the secondary, including cornerback Mark Gilbert, who may be one of the best in the ACC. He missed most of last fall with a hip injury, but in 2017, he snagged seven interceptions and he looks like a guy who will play on Sundays. He’s going to shadow Virginia’s top receiver, and if he returns to the form he showed in 2017, the Cavaliers’ aren’t going to want to throw to his side of the field very often. Safeties Dylan Singleton, Marquis Waters and Leonard Johnson are also back. All three were among the Blue Devils’ top five tacklers a year ago, and Singleton was second with 73.

Series

Virginia is 37-33 all-time against Duke, and the Cavaliers have won four straight between 2015-18.

Relevance

Virginia has a chance to improve to 3-0 against teams in the Coastal Division and kick off a string of what look like very winnable games. After Duke, Virginia goes on the road to Louisville and North Carolina and hosts Georgia Tech in consecutive weeks. After a bye week, Liberty comes to Scott Stadium on Nov. 23. All four teams are breaking in new coaching staffs, Liberty is in just its second season in the FBS and both Louisville and UNC were especially bad last year. Duke’s offense looks one-dimensional and its secondary could be scary. So, if Virginia can run the ball and stop the run, the Cavaliers will take one more step toward that elusive 10-win season.  ​

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Ron Counts covers University of Virginia athletics for The Daily Progress.​ Contact him at rcounts@dailyprogress.com, (434) 978-7245, or on Twitter @Ron_CDPsports.

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