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Duke Offense Set to Involve Dynamic New Playmakers
Sunday 04/26/2012  -  John Roth, GoDuke The Magazine
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DURHAM -- When he was a football star at Monroe High School, Jamison Crowder would huddle up with his iPod before every game and study the video highlights he’d downloaded of the Chicago Bears’ Devin Hester, one of the NFL’s all-time great return specialists.

Then Crowder would burst forth from the locker room and into the Friday night lights, highly energized to emulate Hester’s spectacular feats. His senior year, four of the 24 touchdowns Crowder scored came on kick returns. “My junior year, I got something almost every game they kicked to me,” he recalled with a grin. “Then they started punting it out of bounds.”

Crowder didn’t bring his pregame ritual with him from high school to Duke last fall — he lost the iPod — but he retained his game-changing ability. Fans caught a glimpse of it when Crowder returned a punt to the end zone against Tulane, only to see the touchdown negated by a penalty.

With his freshman season and first spring practice now behind him, Crowder figures prominently on the list of playmakers coach David Cutcliffe will enlist to fuel the Blue Devils in 2012 — and not just on special teams. Crowder and classmate Blair Holliday will join veteran Conner Vernon as the key components of a wide receiver corps that will be critical to Duke’s offensive success.

In fact, Crowder and Holliday have so much potential that even though Duke graduates all-time receptions leader Donovan Varner, Cutcliffe didn’t hesitate to move another of last year’s starting wideouts, Brandon Braxton, over to defense this spring to shore up the safety spot and open up more playing time for his young receiver prospects.

With all of the quarterbacks, running backs and most of the top linemen back, the receiver positions represent the area of highest turnover within the offensive ranks. Vernon, a senior, is clearly the established leader as a returning All-ACC player who should break Varner’s school record early and eventually set new conference standards. Crowder and Holliday figure to join him in the rotation, with Nick Hill and Corey Gattis combining with incoming freshmen Anthony Nash and Max McCaffrey to bolster the fleet.

“I think we have more playmakers for sure on offense than at any time since we’ve been here,” Cutcliffe noted. That includes not only his receivers and running backs, but also his quarterbacks, who frequently lined up as receivers and runners during a spring season in which the offensive attack diversified from both the team and individual standpoints.

Cutcliffe’s pass-oriented scheme has produced an All-ACC receiver in each of his first four seasons, from Eron Riley to Varner and Vernon, the latter a favorite to garner such honors for a third time in 2012. Vernon has 198 career catches and last year became the first ACC player ever to post consecutive seasons of 70 or more receptions.

After playing behind Varner and Vernon as true freshmen, Crowder and Holliday headline Duke’s next generation of premier pass-catchers. With Vernon logging over 700 snaps last year, his backup Holliday was limited to three catches. Crowder saw a few more plays in the slot behind Varner and made 14 catches, including a 45-yard touchdown from QB Sean Renfree in the season finale vs. North Carolina. When you factor in all of his punt and kickoff returns, Crowder actually was the only Blue Devil with over 1,000 all-purpose yards last season.

Both made bigger strides during their first spring practice, impressing their coaches as well as the elder statesman of their group; Vernon sat out to rehab an old ankle injury but spent plenty of time observing and mentoring the freshmen.

“They definitely have big-time playmaking ability,” Vernon said. “Those two guys have shown a lot this spring, especially Blair, because not many people saw what he could do last fall. He made some big plays this spring, some tough catches. He’s starting to build a relationship with Sean, and Sean’s building a trust factor with him, having confidence on third-and-8 that he can throw him a ball and he’ll come up with it. That’s something we need right now.

“Jamison’s shown some flashes at the outside position. (The coaches) have been talking about putting him at all different spots because they have that kind of confidence in his playmaking ability — to stretch the field deep on takeoffs or putting him in the slot and matching him up with a linebacker and getting a mismatch. He’s definitely something special and a weapon we’re going to use a lot.”

Crowder and Holliday are physically gifted, but in different ways. Crowder is an explosive 5-foot-9, 175-pounder, likely the fastest receiver on the team. The graceful Holliday is about six inches taller and 20 pounds heavier and is becoming known for his crisp route-running.
One asset both possess, according to Cutcliffe, is their hands.

“Not good hands, but great hands,” he said. “They go snatch the ball. That’s the difference sometimes — a guy who can go catch it out front.

“You are never as open in college as you are in high school, and you’re never as open in the NFL as you are in college. The guys who can catch it well out in front of their body, it’s that much further away from the DB’s hands. Conner Vernon does that great. People wonder why some guys can make those tough catches. Well, DBs aren’t getting their hands to the ball. I know we’ve got three of them who can do that now.”

“The differences between us are body frames and playing styles,” Crowder added. “I see Blair as a good possession receiver with good hands. I’m more the catch-and-run type. He has developed a lot in the weight room, always wanting to do extra reps. We work together there to make each other better. On the field he’s getting better every day as far as getting off jams and running routes. So I can see his development into a better player.”

Cutcliffe said Holliday jumped forward during spring drills as much as any player he could recall. “The light came on early,” said the coach. Vernon played a role by working with Holliday on the gridiron and in the meeting room, fielding questions on the technical aspects of their position.

“I’ve got questions on releases on certain coverages,” Holliday explained. “What route do I run here? How do I stem it in? How do I get off the jam? He watches all of us when we go out there and if we have questions we go to him because he’s a great receiver and it’s easy to ask him questions.

“The hardest adjustment is definitely the mentality you need to have day by day. Every day, whether at practice or in the weight room, it has to be intense and you have to be focused on what you are doing. It’s not just getting out there and going through the reps so you can get through practice and get to the games. As Coach Cut says, you practice how you play. If you go out and practice like it is a game, that’s what carries over to the game.”

Crowder received similar guidance from Varner when he arrived last year, beginning in the summer when the two worked out with Renfree. The senior receiver explained the nuances of all the routes to his understudy, and Crowder gradually gained a level of comfort working out of the slot during his initial season. Then he tried to expand on that by learning the outside positions this spring.

“I’m trying to take advantage of every opportunity I get on the practice field, so when I get in the game I can do my thing and shine,” Crowder said. “It’s exciting. I feel very confident in my game. If I keep working I’ll have a pretty good chance to make plays. And Blair, too. Conner has already made his mark; I think we complement him really well.”

Crowder and Holliday were recruited primarily by receivers coach Matt Lubick and represent the two-pronged fork of Cutcliffe’s strategy in that area: the dual emphasis on in-state and national talent searches.

Crowder is home grown, having helped coach Johnny Sowell’s program at Monroe to three state playoff appearances while also making the Shrine Bowl. He scored 43 touchdowns over his final two seasons. He also starred as Monroe’s point guard in basketball, teaming with current Blue Devil tight end Issac Blakeney to lead their school to the state championship during Crowder’s junior year. He wanted to stay in-state for college and Duke made him an early offer.

Holliday is from the opposite side of the country. He played high school ball at Oaks Christian near Los Angeles for head coach Bill Redell, whose offensive assistants included former Tennessee players Casey and Rick Clausen. Holliday caught his prep passes from, among others, Trevor Gretzky and Nick Montana, sons of sports icons Wayne Gretzky and Joe Montana. Cutcliffe, Lubick and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper were able to entice him to visit campus during the summer before his senior year and eventually got an oral commitment that stuck, despite continued recruiting from several west coast programs.

Along with the academics, Duke was attractive to Holliday because the football team appeared to be on the rise, with an opportunity for early playing time. “We’re a program that’s waiting to peak,” Holliday said. “Last year there were three or four games that were easily in our hands that we could have won. It really shows that what Coach Cut is saying is true. We need to work on the little things and that will make us a program with a much better record.”

That expectation is shared across the board within the Blue Devil family as it cultivates the kind of winning mentality that most of the players enjoyed in high school.

“Guys are getting into scuffles on the practice field because we are making practice like a game,” Holliday said. “We are trying to get to the point where we are competing in bowl games and competing for ACC championships because no one likes to lose. We’re tired of what’s been going on and we’re ready to do the things that are necessary to get the wins.”

Crowder admits the onus is on the team’s young wide receivers to step up and make the plays that will enable the Blue Devils to meet their high standards on the offensive side of the ball. Holliday concurs, with an additional stipulation.

“Everyone’s got to make a play,” he said. “When the ball is snapped the linemen have to make their plays, the quarterback has to make his play and when the ball comes our way, regardless of whether we’re blocking or catching the ball, we have to make a play. That’s what’s going to lead to us becoming the team we want to be.”

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