Duke Football Notebook
By AL FEATHERSTON
Desmond Scott is the perfect spokesman for the Bull City Classic.
Duke's senior wide receiver played his high school football at Hillside High School, which abuts the North Carolina Central campus. And when the Blue Devils face the NCCU Eagles Saturday night at Wallace Wade Stadium, Scott will be playing against many friends and acquaintances.
"I know a lot of the guys over there, whether it's from high school - playing with them or competing against them - or me just going to North Carolina Central just to have a chill day on their quad," Scott said. "They have this thing called a 10:40 break on Tuesday and Thursday. They have a live DJ, and kids are just relaxing before class starts. If we're out of practice with enough time, I'm normally over there on Tuesday and you might catch me on a Thursday."
Scott made his collegiate debut against North Carolina Central in 2009, rushing for 100 yards on 16 carries in Duke's 49-14 victory. He appreciates the series matching Durham's two collegiate football teams.
"I think it's a great deal," he said. "Not only because they're getting better as a program and we're getting better as a program, but it does a great deal for the community. It's bringing two separate communities together over the game of football that we all love. It's a beautiful thing. I think it does much more than people realize with the community. The first year we played, the cheerleaders cheered together and the bands played together."
Duke coach David Cutcliffe expressed similar sentiments regarding the series.
"I know it's the Bull City Classic, but I like to think of it as a Bull City Celebration because we're actually able to bring so many people together at this venue," he said. "I hope it's 35,000 plus. The weather is supposed to be good. It was not good in 2009, and we still had a very good crowd."
The 2009 game actually drew Duke's second-largest home crowd that season, despite a sporadic rainfall that night. Cutcliffe is hoping for an even better showing this week.
"I'm excited about this week," he said. "I'm mostly excited about it because I love our community. I'm very proud of Durham. I take a lot of pride in trying to get to know a lot of the folks in Durham. It's great place to live and raise children."
THE RECEIVING CORPS
When Scott had his big night against North Carolina Central three years ago, he was playing tailback.
When he takes the field Saturday, he'll line up as Duke's slot receiver - a move he made in the offseason after injuries and several other factors decimated Duke's receiving corps.
"Our three starters [at wide receiver] going in were going to be Conner [Vernon], Jamison [Crowder] and Blair [Holliday] and we wanted to impact the group with Desmond," Cutcliffe said. "We had moved Brandon Braxton [to safety] and we had lost an experienced receiver [when Tyree Watkins left the program]. It was an area of concern in depth. [Braxton] Deaver was one of the answers because of his experience and skill set."
But Holliday was injured in a jet ski accident, and Deaver tore up his knee just before the start of practice.
"All of a sudden, he and Blair weren't options - so it kind of fell on Desmond," Cutcliffe said. "Desmond Scott has been amazingly unselfish. And he's amazingly skilled. He's got great hands, route-running ability and he can still be a running back. He can be a valuable player."
Scott caught just two passes for a net minus-one yard in the opener against FIU. But he turned in a big night against Stanford with a team-high 11 catches for 83 yards.
"Obviously, I got more balls thrown my way," Scott said. "We took some deep shots with me. I was able to get some bubbles and make a few guys miss. I felt comfortable. The ball was thrown my way three times in the first game and 11 [against Stanford]."
Crowder, who turned in his second straight 100-plus yard receiving game, is impressed with Scott's performance as a first-year wide receiver.
"I know it's a big transition for him, going from running back to receiver, but he does pretty well in practice," Crowder said. "The next guy I think will emerge is Max McCaffrey - he works hard in practice, runs good routes and has pretty good hands."
Before the season, a reporter asked Vernon - on the verge of becoming the ACC's all-time leading receiver - if he expected to see a lot of double-teams since he was Duke's only experienced receiver. His answer was that while he might see some special coverages early, it wouldn't take too long before Crowder would take the pressure off him.
After two games, the sophomore wideout has caught 16 passes for 214 yards.
"I just want to go out there every week and perform," Crowder said. "At the same time, there are things I want to go out and work on as far as receiving, blocking and route-running. I'm not really satisfied. I know there are a lot of things I need to work on."
Cutcliffe is happy with what Crowder and Vernon (with 16 catches for 229 yards so far) have given him.
"Jamison and Conner just complement each other," he said. "Jamison was good last season, but he might be one of our most improved players."
And Cutcliffe said not to be fooled by Scott's low receiving totals in his first game at receiver.
"I'll tell you what he did - what he did was block, about as well as you could block," he said. "I told him that. Depending on coverage and run game, Desmond's role will change from week to week. I'm just thrilled that he has accepted the role there. Desmond is a 400-plus pound bench presser, so he is a significant level of strength out there as a receiver."
CHANGING ROLES IN THE SECONDARY
Coming out of spring practice, Cutcliffe thought safety was one of the deepest positions on his team. But when safety August Campbell went down at Sranford, Duke was forced to move cornerback Ross Cockrell to safety to cover a position that had been depleted by injury.
"It's not easy, but Ross can play all five positions in the secondary," Cutcliffe said. "Lee Butler can as well. We've just been hit consistently from the injury bug at the same position. At times in the past, it seems like it has happened up front. This year it's been more in the secondary."
Duke lost veteran backup safety Taylor Sowell before the start of practice. Senior Jordon Byas, projected as a starter, was hurt in preseason drills and forced to undergo knee surgery. Veteran backup Anthony Young-Wiseman has been banged up. And Ohio State transfer Jeremy Cash, expected to make a major contribution, was denied a waiver by the NCAA and will be forced to sit out this season.
When Campbell went down, the Duke coaches had to choose between playing a freshman safety or moving Cockrell to safety and allowing senior Tony Foster to take over Cockrell's cornerback role. They chose the latter.
"That's something that we have in our package," Cockrell said. "We practice that a lot. I was ready to go when August went down. The thing about our defensive backs is that we have a lot of versatility. That's what we pride ourselves on."
It helps that Cockrell has been playing superb football as his junior season gets underway. After two games, he leads the ACC in passes defended with four breakups and one interception. And that doesn't count his 75-yard return of a blocked field goal in the FIU game.
"He's a good football player," Cutcliffe said. "I said it when he was a freshman, fighting for his life. I never backed off that Ross Cockrell was a good player, and the reason I never backed off it is that he is a good player. He's put on an island a lot and he responds a lot. There's never going to be perfection. If you watch football on Sunday, there are some great corners and they're going to get beat some.
"What I like best about Ross Cockrell is that he never loses his edge. I've never seen him lose his edge. He's one of those guys where the next play is always the most important. There is a reason that he is a captain as a junior."
THE GROWTH OF THE LINE
One of the few positives to come out of Saturday's Stanford loss was the performance of Duke's rushing defense. Against one of the nation's best running teams, the Blue Devils allowed just 92 yards on the ground in 26 carries.
"That was a good confidence booster," senior defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento said. "We always hear things about how we're not good against the run, but Stanford is a really good team running the ball and to say we held them under 100 yards is impressive."
There were questions about the interior run defense after the graduation of Charlie Hatcher - Duke's most effective interior lineman last season - and the preseason injury to Jamal Bruce - the team's most effective interior player last spring.
But Sarmiento, the only upperclassman in an interior rotation with three sophomores and two freshmen, has helped plug the gap. So has the move of sophomore Jamal Wallace from end to Bruce's starting tackle slot.
"Jamal Wallace has stepped up tremendously," Sarmiento said. "I know at the beginning of the camp, he was a little nervous because he was like, 'I don't know if I can handle it.'"
But Cutcliffe likes the job his converted end has done.
"Jamal Wallace is really good athlete," the Duke coach said. "He's bigger than people think - he's a 280 pounder. I don't know what he's listed as, but he's a big fella."
Cutcliffe has been trying to use more players in the middle than in the past.
"We're rotating Steve Ingram in there and Nick Sink, a sophomore who's played better than he's played," he said. "We're going to get more and more play out of Carlos Wray. We hope Sam Marshall continues to improve. There's a rotation in there that when you get Bruce back, strengthens itself. I think we have some good young defensive linemen that we brought in this class."
Unfortunately, Cutcliffe still can't guess when Bruce, who is recovering from a broken foot, will be ready to return to action.
THE FRESHMAN KICKERS
Duke started the season with two freshman kickers and so far, both have excelled.
Redshirt freshman punter Will Monday leads the ACC and is 10th in the NCAA with an average of 46.3 yards a kick. For the most part his kicks have been high and well-placed - although his early 56-yard punt at Stanford was returned 76 yards for a touchdown.
Cutcliffe said that was not his fault.
"I wouldn't put that one on Will," he said. "He had great hang time - we just leveraged the ball wrong."
It wasn't a perfect kick. Cutcliffe would have preferred something closer to the sidelines, but he seemed to put more blame on the coverage than the kick.
"I told the staff Sunday, we've got ourselves a really good punter," he said. "He's really, really good."
Cutcliffe is equally pleased with true freshman placekicker Ross Martin, who converted two field goals in two tries at Stanford after hitting one of two kicks against FIU.
The two field goal tries against the Cardinal came long after the issue was decided. Cutcliffe said that under normal circumstances with his team down 30-plus points, he would have gambled on fourth down. But in this case, he decided to give his young kicker some game experience.
"At that point, when it got away, I actually made that statement on the headset: 'I'm going to kick. I need Ross to get some work,'" Cutcliffe said. "The thing to do would be going for it on fourth down, but we've got 10 more football games coming up and we've got a really fine kicker and we need to get all of that on track."