DURHAM -- Duke has completed preseason camp and moved on to game week preparations for Saturday’s 2013 opener against N.C. Central University.
The preseason workouts went well, according to head coach David Cutcliffe and several veteran players. For instance, fifth-year senior defensive end Justin Foxx has been through four previous preseason camps.
“We had a great camp …we had a lot of good work,” Foxx said. “There was just a feeling in the air – after getting over the hump last year [earning a bowl bid for the first time since 1994], we have higher expectations this year. We want to go through it with a little more hungriness.”
Redshirt junior Anthony Boone has been through four preseason camps, but this had been his first as the projected starting quarterback. He also thought this preseason was different.
“Just the mentality of practice,” he said. “Being able to go out there and know what it takes to practice and win games … bringing young guys along … just having everybody more accountable.”
Cutcliffe has had some difficult preseason camps – in 2009, a swing flu epidemic ravaged his team in August, disrupting preparation and leaving the team weak and unprepared for the season opener; a year ago, the team was decimated by injuries in August – and even before that.
“We’re healthier than we’ve been,” he said. The Duke coach mentioned four players who will miss the opener – all were listed on the second team on the post-spring depth chart. That’s a sharp contrast with last preseason when four projected starters were lost before the opener.
“I think last year we had 13 scholarship players unavailable to us,” Cutcliffe said. “Hopefully, we can maintain that stroke of good luck.”
The Duke coach is convinced that his team is better than it’s been in his first five seasons.
“They certainly physically look better,” he said. “We have a little more size. Our strength and speed numbers are significantly different. Individuals – you think about guys [such as] Sydney Sarmiento had over 500 snaps as a redshirt freshman in the defensive line … and it was brutal. Think about how many snaps Perry Simmons and Dave Harding and Laken Tomlinson and Tacoby Cofield have had [on the offensive line] … flip over defensively and [look at] Sydney, Justin Foxx, Kenny Anunike, Jamal Bruce, Dezmond Johnson …
“They’ve grown up. I think they feel better about themselves. Just the knowledge and understand of what we’re doing. Anthony Boone has grown up in our system. Many of those receivers … and certainly our running backs.
“We’ve got 29 juniors and seniors who have played a lot of football. We’ve got 32 guys on this team who have started at least two games.”
Cutcliffe said he’s come out of preseason camp feeling much better about his young secondary and with his confidence in a relatively untested receiving corps bolstered by what he’s seen in August.
“It remains to be seen – talking about it doesn’t make it so,” he said. “But I’ve seen those things in practice. We just have to do it for 60 minutes every time we take the field.”
FOXX READY TO GO
When Duke opened its preseason camp earlier this month, Cutcliffe was seriously concerned about one projected starter. Justin Foxx missed spring practice after undergoing knee surgery on Jan. 7. When camp opened in early August, he was held out of contact.
But Foxx has gotten himself ready to start the opener.
“I’m feeling fine,” he said. “We have a great medical staff here. The knee’s feeling great. I’ll be ready for the opener.”
Cutcliffe admitted he was concerned when camp opened.
“When we started practice, he would get [no reps],” he said. “Then about a week in, [trainer Hap Zarzour] told me, ‘We’ve really got a shot’. I told him, ‘I’ve got to see it. I’ve got to see him get some full speed work.’ We held the full speed work up until about seven days ago and he passed every test – no swelling, no issues and his conditioning in incredible.”
So how did it happen?
“The training room and Justin’s perseverance came together,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t know anybody that’s more diligent. He did everything they asked him to do and he didn’t do too much. He’s also very tough, but he just didn’t waste a day. It was amazing. I’d go by late in the evening and there was Justin in there, doing what he had to do.”
Foxx said he had the ultimate motivation to get ready.
“It’s my senior year, there is no way I’m missing that first game,” he said.
Teammates must have been impressed by Foxx’s accomplishment as they voted him one of four captainships for the coming season, along with Ross Cockrell, David Harding and Anthony Boone.
“It was voted on by the players, so it means I have the respect of my teammates,” Foxx acknowledged. “I was really humbled and honored to be named.
“This team is very unique – we have a lot of players who could have been named captain.”
It’s the second year in a row that Cockrell has been voted captain.
“To be voted as captain just shows what I mean to my team and how I can help my team be better,” the senior cornerback said.
Cutcliffe has jokingly referred to Cockrell as an extra assistant coach. That’s not that far off the mark. The returning All-ACC cornerback has had to mentor a crop of young defensive backs
“One thing I’m trying to do is help them make that transition,” he said. “I know that when you’re a freshman and you’re out there on an island, it can be nerve-wracking. I try to talk to them and settle them down. Saturday during the game, I’ll be talking to them still, telling them to stay calm and take a deep breath.”
One of the duties for a captain is to be on hand for the coin toss. For road games, one of the Duke captains will make that call. David Harding said that the other three captains would defer to Cockrell and the second-year captain knows what he’ll do.
“Go with tails, never fails,” Cockrell said.
THE BULL CITY GRIDIRON CLASSIC
Saturday’s opener will be the third meeting between Duke and North Carolina Central, but it won’t be the last meeting between the two Durham universities. Cutcliffe likes the symbolism of the game
“We would like to do this as an opener for Durham,” he said. “It precedes any other game we both will have. It makes both of us better. I certainly hope Durham responds.”
He points out that the third Duke-NCCU game will be televised by ESPN3, giving the battle for Durham a national audience.
“That’s a big deal for Durham, North Carolina,” he said. “I certainly hope we get the crowd that we expect. And they don’t have to be fans of either institution – it’s a celebrate Durham day. That’s what the Classic’s about.”
The first two Bull City Gridiron Classics have averaged just under 25,000 fans each. Duke beat the Eagles 49-14 in 2009 and won again, 54-17, a year ago. Cutcliffe has studied NCCU on film and praised the team’s passing game and its offensive line. Most of all, he was impressed by the Eagles’ athleticism.
“I like the fact that we’ll be playing a fast team,” the Duke coach said. “I want us to be tested in that regard.”
FROM THE BALCONY
Ross Cockrell is a big movie buff, but he wasn’t thrilled by this summer’s Hollywood offerings.
The senior film critic singled out two films for his personal summer “thumbs up.”
“It was a bad movie summer,” he said. “I saw The Great Gatsby and I really enjoyed that. I saw The Butler – that was a big surprise. I enjoyed that. But other than that, there weren’t many good movies.”
Cutcliffe said that he expects to play am lot of players against NCCU.
“I think we’re highly conditioned going in,” he said. “I see us trying to play a lot of people early. Our first three games are afternoon games – one of them on artificial turf. it will be pretty warm. So we will go in expecting to play 60 or so players.”
That should include “between five and seven true freshmen” according to the Duke coach. He didn’t want to name names until the final count is determined, but it’s clear that most of the first-year player in line to play were in the secondary and the wide receiving corps.