By AL FEATHERSTON
Last weekend turned out to be one of the most significant moments in Duke's modern football history.
Not only did the Blue Devils snap their long losing streak to Wake Forest to open 4-1 -- the Devils' best start since 1994 -- but the university also announced a massive fund-raising campaign that will allocate millions for the renovation of Wallace Wade Stadium.
"I think it's huge," David Cutcliffe said of the university's future plans. "Wallace Wade Stadium [dates from] 1929 -- those folks really had great vision because that stadium has got character and charisma and was well-built and it has served well. But the facelift is needed and it is going to be done respectfully to the original structure of Wallace Wade Stadium.
"What I love about it is that's so fan friendly."
Cutcliffe admitted that the school's grandiose plans are already being used to show potential recruits how strong Duke's commitment to football is going forward.
"It's on my computer," he said, referring to a video showing the planned upgrades. "We're seeing a great effect already -- just like you would think. And they're seeing already the [Brooks Building] and the Pascal Field House. People see that the commitment to football is real."
In the next few years, Duke will transform Wade Stadium. The track that runs around the field will be moved to a new location. The field will be lowered and the stands extended closer to the field. The Finch-Yeager Building will be torn down and replaced with a modern "tower" that will include luxury suites, new box seats and a new press facility. The Murray Building will be renovated and will be expanded by the construction of a new pavilion containing an expanded ticket office and a much expanded team store (as well as offices and a weight room for Olympic sports). A plaza will be constructed connecting Wade Stadium with Cameron. There will be new rest rooms and concession stands on the concourse for fans.
The final step will be closing in the open end of Wade's horseshoe.
The timetable for the renovations is flexible -- depending on the success of the fundraising campaign -- but the bulk of the work should start after the 2013 football season.
"It's just a big statement made by the university as we move forward, what Duke's quality is going to be," Cutcliffe said.
A BANGED-UP SECONDARY
It's almost like one of the corollaries to Murphy's Law -- every year, one position seems to be particularly hard-hit by injury.
This year, Duke has been lost key players at a number of positions, but no place has been hit as hard as the safety position.
"When you go in our training room, you don't have any place to sit because the secondary is in the way," Cutcliffe said with a rueful laugh.
There was a time last spring when safety looked like one of the deepest positions on the team. That was before junior Taylor Sowell was lost for the year and Ohio State transfer Jeremy Cash was denied a waiver to play this season. Fifth-year senior Jordon Byas suffered a knee injury and underwent surgery just before the opening game. Junior August Campbell was sidelined with an injury and before he could return, he elected to leave the football program.
Freshman Corbin McCarthy was forced into duty, but before he played in two games, he was injured and lost for the year. Junior Anthony Young-Wiseman was hurt almost all preseason.
Those problems were compounded Saturday at Wake Forest when junior Brandon Braxton, a converted wide receiver who has blossomed at safety, and fifth-year senior cornerback Lee Butler were sidelined in the first half.
"[Defensive coordinator] Jim Knowles and I sit down every week and look at a potential rotation of disaster," Cutcliffe said. "Because of what's happened, we do a contingency depth chart. We address it in practice. And he addresses it in meetings where he teaches them all to play all positions. We've got corners that can play safety and safeties that can play corner ... here's the two-deep and here's another two-deep and here's another two-deep of what-ifs."
The contingency plan put together by Cutcliffe and Knowles paid off against the Deacs when two starters were lost. Senior backup Tony Foster stepped in for Butler at corner and played perhaps his finest game at Duke. Ross Cockrell and Walt Canty -- the two constants in the secondary all year -- were outstanding as usual. True freshman Dwayne Norman went most of the way and recorded eight tackles (five solo) including a key stop late in the third quarter that helped force the Deacons go for a game-tying field goal inside of a go-ahead touchdown.
"I couldn't be more proud of Dwayne Norman, continuing to step up wherever we ask him to play," the Duke coach said. "He had his best game by far. He's wearing No. 40 and that means something to me because that was Matt Daniels' number and he's one of my favorite players of all time."
Duke's secondary situation was also helped by the spectacular return of Byas. After missing three games after knee surgery, he's returned to all-star form. Against the Deacons, the senior safety won ACC Defensive Back of the Week honors for a day that included a team-high 11 tackles, plus a sack and an interception.
"He is a coaches' player," Cutcliffe said. "He's not going to say much -- he just competes and competes and competes. I don't know if I've ever seen anybody work as hard as him in the training room [to come back from the surgery]. The example is -- if you're that hungry, you've got a chance to make things happen for yourself."
THE RECORD HOLDER
Conner Vernon was happy to tie the ACC's record for career receptions Saturday at Wake Forest. But he was happier that the historic catch came on a decisive play that helped Duke clinch the 34-27 victory.
"I'm just happy I caught it and was able to get the first down to be honest," Vernon said. "That ACC record is great, it's awesome -- I'm thankful to Duke for bringing me here and getting me involved in this offense and [putting me] in perfect position to make plays, but at the end of the day, I can only be happy we're 4-1 this year."
The catch was the 232nd catch of Vernon's career, matching the ACC record set by Clemson's Aaron Kelly from 2005-08.
More importantly, it was Vernon's fifth catch against Wake Forest. It came with the Devils clinging to a 27-20 lead, but facing a third-and-four at the Wake 22 with just over three minutes to play. Vernon took a quick screen from backup quarterback Anthony Boone, broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and gained five yards to the Wake 17.
Instead of giving the ball back to the Deacons with time to drive for the tying score or depending on freshman Ross Martin to kick a long field goal, Vernon's catch and run allowed Duke to keep the ball. Freshman Jela Duncan converted that opportunity into a 17-yard run for the clinching touchdown on the very next play.
Coach David Cutcliffe appreciated the Duncan touchdown, but he understood that it was only possible because of Vernon's play.
"Loved that -- that was a HUGE third-down pickup on a screen," he said. "Loved that! After winning, I'm glad that he has a chance to break the record at home. That's a little more special."
Indeed with his first catch against Virginia on Wade Stadium this week, Vernon will break the tie with Kelly and take sole possession of the ACC's career reception record. He will also continue his quest for the Duke and ACC records in career receiving yards.
Vernon currently ranks fourth on the ACC's career list with 3,137 career yards, trailing Duke record holder Clarkston Hines by 181 yards. It's another 61 yards to Torry Holt of N.C. State, who is second on the ACC list.
FSU's Peter Warrick holds the ACC record with 3,517 yards.
Vernon has been pressed into duty as more than a receiver in recent games. He ran for a first down on one occasion. He fielded punts when Lee Butler was shaken up. And with just seconds remaining, he clinched the 34-27 win by recovering Wake Forest's on-side kick attempt.
To make it sweeter, Vernon's big day came on his father's birthday.
Through five games, Cutcliffe couldn't be happier with their performance.
"Our two young specialists have been outstanding," Cutcliffe said.
Monday entered the Wake game leading the ACC (and ranking 11th nationally) in punting with an average of over 45.3 yards a kick.
Monday had five punts for a 45-yard average against the Deacons, but it was more than that. He had a 49-yard punt in the third quarter that rolled out of bounds at the Wake two. Early in the fourth quarter, he boomed one 57 yards that rolled out at the Wake 7.
That was his ninth punt of at least 50 yards this season.
"He is so good -- we will hunt the corner," Cutcliffe said. "There's an old term we use -- 'the coffin corner.' He's got incredible accuracy. He can nail it equally well to his left or his right. He's going to be quite a weapon."
Martin has been at least as effective. He's perfect on 21 extra point attempts and he's hit eight of nine field goal tries, including his last seven in a row.
Almost equally importantly, he's been an effective kickoff man. He's had 12 touchbacks in 33 attempts, including four of seven against the Deacons.
But his most impressive kickoff at Wake Forest did not involve a touchback, Late in the game, after Anthony Boone scored to put Duke up 27-20, Boone drew a 15-yard celebration penalty. That forced Martin to kick off from the 20 - putting Wake Forest in great shape to get good field position.
But Martin boomed the kick inside the Wake 10 and the Duke coverage team was able to stop the return at the Wake 30.
"He bailed Boone out," Cutcliffe said. "That kick was like an M-15 going off."
RUN FOR THE MONEY
It's not unusual for a freshman to lead Duke in rushing -- it's happened twice under Coach Cutcliffe and five times since 1996.
Still, Jela Duncan's early success is eye-opening. The 5-10, 200-pound freshman from Charlotte leads Duke with 209 yards in 31 carries -- an amazing average of 6.7 yards a carry. He has also been an effective receiver out of the backfield with five catches for 36 yards.
Indeed, Duncan almost scored the first touchdown his career on a pass from Renfree in the third quarter. The Duke freshman caught the swing pass and ran out of a tackle. He had one defender left to beat for a 36-yard touchdown, but that defender grabbed his facemask and ripped his helmet off.
Duncan shook off the swipe and free for the touchdown, but under a new NCAA rule, the play was dead as soon as his helmet was off, so instead of a 36-yard touchdown play, he was credited with an eight-yard catch (plus the 15-yard penalty for the facemask).
No matter -- he later scored his first career TD in dramatic fashion -- bursting through the middle of the line and romping 17-yards for what proved to be the game-clinching touchdown.
"The line did a great job of blocking," Duncan said. "The hole just opened up wide."
Duke is also getting effective running from veterans Juwan Thompson and Josh Snead. But Cutcliffe said that his youngest tailback will remain a key part of the running game.
"Jela, every week, he is proving what we thought about him coming in -- he is a powerful, fast football player," the Duke coach said. "He's difficult to tackle. I do not think you've seen the best from him. That's yet to come. He's also a very good pass protector and a very good pass receiver."