Duke will honor 20 players who will be playing their last game in Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday before the Blue Devils take on Georgia Tech.
"These seniors have been very important to us," Coach David Cutcliffe said Tuesday, noting that the group includes five fifth-year players who were recruited by Ted Roof's staff, four seniors who were a part of his first recruiting class and one senior who arrived last year after two years in junior college.
"I'm very close to the group that came in ... I went into their homes and recruited them as if they were my own," Cutcliffe said. "Then the fifth year guys, they'd only been here a semester when we inherited them, so it's been a long journey with both groups."
The group of honored players will include two redshirt sophomores who actually enrolled at Duke in the spring of 2009 - tight end Ryan Hall and linebacker Kevin Rojas.
"They're very bright students and they will be graduating in May and moving on," the Duke coach said
The remainder of the senior group will be walk-ons, including placekicker Will Snyderwine and punter Alex King, who have earned major roles with the Blue Devils over the last two seasons. But Cutcliffe said that even those walk-ons who never see the field have been important to the program.
"We have some other young men who are going to finish their careers who have been very special to us - they've walked onto our program and been here four years," he said. "We've always been fortunate with guys like Jeffrey Faris and Preston Scott who came in with us as walk-ons. They've been incredible contributors to our program."
Jordon Byas, a fourth-year junior who came in the same recruiting class as Daniels, Varner, Williams and Hollingsworth, will be sorry to see his teammates play their last games at home.
"We're going to try and send these seniors away with a victory in their last game in Wallace Wade," he said. "I came in with many of these guys, so it's going to be a sad day, but hopefully it's going to be a great day."
One fifth-year senior who won't be able to play against the Yellow Jackets is offensive tackle Kyle Hill, who underwent shoulder surgery Monday after suffering a career-ending injury Saturday at Virginia. Hill had started 46 straight games up to that point.
"I went to see Kyle Hill in the hospital last night and the only thing that was important to him was our football team," Cutcliffe said. "He was fresh out of the recovery room. It's typical of that group of seniors. They've been so unselfish."
The M*A*S*H Brigade
Hill is the latest addition to an astonishingly long injury list for the Blue Devils this season.
"It's a most unusual year -- I don't want to go through another one like this," Cutcliffe said. "I was worried about not having enough offensive linemen to finish the [Virginia] game. I went in at halftime and did a quick mental count from the start of the season ... the big part of the story that is so unusual is the number of missed games by starters."
The exact count - to this point - is that 11 offensive starters have missed a combined 37 games, along with five second-teamers who have missed 41 total games. Both numbers could grow significantly this week, depending on the rehab efforts of a number of players.
And even the raw numbers don't tell the whole story. How much have injuries reduced the effectiveness of players who have played? For example, placekicker Will Snyderwine suffered an ankle injury before the season. He missed just one game, but the 2010 All-American has been ineffective this season.
"The hard part of it is, it's kind of like talking about Will Snyderwine - he's never been the same," Cutcliffe said. "He's never gotten back on track. He's missed so much practice time. So the lingering effects are so hard to measure."
Against Virginia, the injury problem became critical on the offensive line. Center Brian Moore, who had returned for two games after missing seven games with a broken arm, was out again against the Cavs. Kyle Hill, the team's most experienced lineman, went down in the first half of that game. Dave Harding, who replaced Moore at center, and Tacoby Cofield, who replaced Hill at tackle, were both playing with significant injuries.
It was almost as bad at wide receiver, where starter Brandon Braxton went out early. Freshman Jamison Crowder was hobbled and only able to play a couple of snaps. Veterans Donovan Varner and Conner Vernon were hurting - especially Vernon, who suffered severely bruised ribs in the first half, but returned to make a number of big plays in the second half.
"Dave Harding and Conner are as tough as they come,' Cutcliffe said. "I don't know if anybody else I've ever coached would have played with what Conner had. Conner hasn't practiced since we've gotten back. He didn't even come out today. Dave Harding did - it blew my mind that he was able to come out there. He has had a really difficult year from an injury standpoint. It makes you even prouder of our guys."
Duke doesn't release its injury report until Thursday, but Cutcliffe made no secret that he's holding his breath, waiting to see if such key players as Moore, Braxton, linebacker Kelby Brown, defensive end Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, along with several others, will be able to play Saturday.
"I'm counting on a number of wonders being worked in the training room," Cutcliffe said. "Our guys are living in there when they are not in class. We had study sessions in there last night. We haven't gone as far as sleeping in there yet, but we're not totally opposed to that either.
"I'm asking for prayers. We'll take those if you have any."
But whatever the injury list looks like, Cutcliffe made it clear that he will not accept that as excuse for a subpar performance.
"I expect us to play our best game with whoever is available," he said.
Stopping the Option
Georgia Tech's offense offers a unique test - a triple-option that is a rarity in college football. But the Blue Devils have had some success against the offense in Cutcliffe's first three years at Duke.
"We've dedicated a lot of time to defending it," he said. "Since we've been here, we've played Army twice and Navy twice and Georgia Tech every year. So we spend spring practice days working against the option. In the August camp, we spend specific time working against the option.
"We have a system, a separate playbook we go to that doesn't sound or look anything like out regular defense. Our youngsters learn it when they come in. We've grown the playbook some and we're going to do some different things this year, but it's all based on the same concept."
Last year, Duke had the Army and Navy games to help prepare for Georgia Tech. That's not the case this year.
"Last year we played three option teams and that made it a lot easier going into the Georgia Tech week," cornerback Ross Cockrell said. "It does carry over, but we haven't seen an option team since Georgia Tech last year. We've done some preparation, but it just comes down to players making plays."
Cutcliffe said Duke devoted one day of practice during its open week (the first week of October) to preparing for the Jackets' offense.
"I didn't want today's practice to be the first time we've seen it - not only as a defense, but also the show team," the Duke coach said. "How well they run it is critical. We had Tim Burton running quarterback today and he did a great job."
Burton is a freshman from Hollywood, Fla. He's redshirting this season. He's expected to challenge for playing time at cornerback next season. Based on his performance as a scout team option quarterback, Cutcliffe can't wait to see Burton compete for a job this spring.
"I'm glad he's not playing in the game for them - he's quite an athlete," he said.
Getting the Record
Senior Donovan Varner captured the Duke school record for career receptions at Virginia, hauling in seven passes (for 132 yards) to up his career total to 194. That's five more than Clarkston Hines had in his four years at Duke.
"Donovan, it's amazing what he's done," Cutcliffe said. "His strength level is displayed a lot. He's one of the best-blocking slot receivers we've ever had. He's not as flashy as some of the outside guys. His work is in the middle of the field. I'll let him tell you his height and he doesn't weigh a whole lot, but he works in the middle of the field like a warrior."
With six catches in his last two games, Varner can become just the fifth receiver in ACC history to catch 200 passes in his career. If he and teammate Conner Vernon combine for just five more pass receptions this season, they will officially become the most prolific pair of receivers in ACC history.
Looking for a Kicker
After Will Snyderwine's struggles in recent games, Cutcliffe is not sure who will be his kicker against Georgia Tech.
"Kick-offs will be Paul Asack and from there, I don't know if we'll use one," he said. "We'll just see how it works out. After today's work, Snyderwine is still kicking better than anyone else at this point."
Cutcliffe was asked how much confidence he has in his senior kicker - an All-American last season, who has missed 9-of-16 field goal attempts this season.
"To be honest, it's probably a little like his is - it's a little shattered," he said. "I do know he's good and I need him to know he's good. When you're good, you don't need to think about it a lot. You just go and do what you need to do. He's a very gifted kicker."