DURHAM -- Duke is about to wrap up spring football practice – before the arrival of spring.
The Blue Devils will stage the team’s annual Blue-White Scrimmage on Saturday at 12 noon before most ACC teams have even begun their offseason workouts. The team will finish up its “spring” work with two more practices next week.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe is delighted by the way the new early off-season workouts have worked out.
“It’s fun to be in February and have the closer,” he said Thursday.
The players shared his enthusiasm.
“I like to start early,” veteran quarterback Brandon Connette said. “It’s almost like a continuation of bowl practice. You don’t see as much rust. If you have an injury, it gives you a lot of time to recover.”
Cutcliffe believes the new schedule will allow the team to continue the momentum from the end of last season. Duke wrapped up a 10-win, ACC Coastal Division championship season with a tough loss to Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve. Barely a month separated the final bowl practice from the first spring practice.
There will be five months between the end of spring practice and the opening of preseason practice in August – and almost six months between the spring game and the 2014 opener slated for August 30 against Elon.
“That’s one of our biggest gains,” Cutcliffe said. “The six-month gap is a lot of things. That gap is healing time. That gap is conditioning and strength building. It’s team building. It’s a better run than when you break it up. That’s a big part of the gain that you get [from the early off-season workouts].
“Noel Durfey and [the other strength coaches] are turning back-flips. They love it. They can put a much more efficient plan together, so our growth as a team physically from the end of spring practice to start of August … we have the best chance in the country of getting more done than somebody who does part of it, spring ball, then trying to do part of it again.”
The players will benefit from the new schedule too – spring break will be a true break and not just a pause in the middle of spring workouts.
“Always before, they’ve had spring break and they know they have to come back and get re-sore,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s maybe the greatest gift we’re going to have.”
The toughest part of the new schedule is the pressure on the coaching staff.
“It’s difficult to come out of the intensity surrounding recruiting and signing day on a Wednesday and start coaching as well as our guys have coached on Friday,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s tougher on the staff than the players.”
But the Duke coach did see an extra benefit for the coaches, especially himself.
“I think I’m going to enjoy Match Madness more than I have ever have,” he said.
REPLACING THE LEADERS
There are not many talent gaps on this Duke team – Cutcliffe returns a solid core of players from last season’s ACC Coastal Division Championship team and has a host of talented youngsters to work into the rotation.
But he is concerned about replacing the extraordinary leadership he got from last year’s seniors.
“The thing that concerns me most is, who are going to be the leaders?” the Duke coach said. “If I had to say one thing about [the graduating senior class], it was probably the best senior leadership group that I’ve ever been around. Not just our captains, but all of them.
“Don’t undervalue that.”
But this year’s players learned from their older teammates. For instance, Cutcliffe once suggested that cornerback Ross Cockrell was like a coach on the field, who was especially important in leading a young secondary in pre-season drills.
Now Cockrell is gone and while the secondary is loaded with experienced players, there is not a senior in the group.
“Ross, he left a great foundation for us,” said Bryon Fields, who had 42 tackles and six PBUs as a true freshman last fall.
Deondre Singleton, a true freshman starter at safety last season, echoed Fields’ words.
“We all watched Ross -- him mentoring us and showing us how to do things,” Singleton said. “It’s like we’re going to have five or six Rosses because everybody was playing attention. I don’t think we’re going to have one person who stands out. I think we’re going to step up and do it as a group.
“I think it’s going to be one of the best secondaries Duke has ever had.”
Rising senior Laken Tomlinson, an All-ACC performer at offensive guard last season, said his class will step into the leadership void.
“Yes, we did lose a lot of leaders – Ross Cockrell, Kenny Anunike – great leaders,” he said. “But I believe that we have a group of great leaders in our senior class as well. Obviously, the younger guys on the line look to me as a leader. We’ve got Anthony Boone, Braxton Deaver, Jamison Crowder, Kelby Brown -- all those guys are natural leaders. That comes from what you’ve done on the field over four years.”
CHECKING THE YOUNGSTERS
Saturday’s spring game will be a chance for the public to see quite a few young players who either redshirted or saw little action last season.
For instance, with veteran tackle Tacoby Cofield sidelined with a leg injury that won’t require surgery, the offense will start two young tackles who saw little or no action in 2013 due to injuries – Casey Blaser (17 snaps) and Tanner Stone (0 snaps). In addition, Tomlinson cited redshirt freshman tackles Gabe Brandner and Sterling Korona as future contributors at the postion. Cutcliffe pointed to redshirt freshman center Austin Davis as a player good enough to push returning starter Matt Skura for playing time.
At wide receiver, several players noted rising sophomore Johnell Barnes, who caught 15 passes in limited duty last season, as a potential breakout performer. Ryan Smith and Anthony Nash, two speedy receivers who saw limited duty last season, have a chance to make a major impact. And Cutcliffe cited redshirt receivers Terrence Alls, Quay Chambers and T.J. Douglas as potential contributors.
Several redshirts are pushing for playing time in the defensive backfield, including Evrett Edwards, Quay Mann, Jake Kite and Philip Carter. Even if some of them don’t earn a spot in the two-deep rotation, they are likely to be significant special teams contributors.
Cutcliffe is very happy with what he’s seen from several players who switched position this spring.
Rising junior Kyler Brown, who Duke’s No. 3 linebacker most of last season, has been working at defensive end.
“That move for him has not been a good one, but an outstanding one,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m very pleased with that.”
Many of Brown’s snaps at linebacker could go to another player who switched positions. Chris Holmes spent his redshirt year at safety, but is now making an impact at linebacker.
“I think he is an extremely, extremely fine prospect at linebacker,” Cutcliffe said. “He has had a really fine spring.”
Another young player who will be on public display for the first time is quarterback Thomas Sirk. A year ago, he had an outstanding spring, but suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon late and missed the entire 2013 season.
Cutcliffe said the talented young prospect, who was running second team when he got hurt, is healthy enough to practice, but is still dealing with the after-effects of the injury.
“He’s playing catchup in the strength department when you come off that injury,” he said. “He’s got a little bit of a hamstring [problem]. He’s gone full speed and I hope the hamstring allows him to be full speed Saturday.”
Another young quarterback prospect – Parker Beohme – has been hobbled this spring by a foot injury.
REBUILDING THE DEFENSIVE FRONT
Cutcliffe’s most challenging rebuilding project is probably the defensive line, where graduation claimed three starters – ends Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx and tackle Sydney Sarmiento. The fourth starter, tackle Jamal Bruce, has been injured this spring.
That’s okay, according to the Duke coach – Bruce’s absence has allowed his young tackles to get more work.
“It’s put Carlos [Wray] in a leadership role,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s given A.J. Wolf, Keilin Rayner and Mike Ramsay a boatload of snaps. We’ve worked [former defensive end] Allen Jackson inside.
Wray, a rising junior, was the team’s third defensive tackle last spring. He was especially impressive late in the season.
“We’re just trying to get stronger,” Wray said of the young tackle group. “Bruce, when he comes back, will bring a lot. And I feel that my reps were enough that I should be stepping into a pretty significant role.”
Wray is also expecting big things from Ramsay.
“Mike has truly developed since he’s gotten here,” Wray said. “He’s probably the most natural pass rusher we have on the defensive line. He has great feet. He shoots his hands. He’s explosive off the ball. I believe he is the guy who can come in and make an impact up front.
Duke’s situation at end appears to be in more experienced hands, despite the graduation of Anunike and Foxx. The Devils return three players with starting experience at the position – rising seniors Dezmond Johnson, Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo and Jonathan Jones (formally Jonathan Woodruff).
“Our end position, even though we did lose Kenny and Justin, we have a chance to be very solid there,” Cutcliffe said.
Duke’s win total has gone from three wins to six wins to 10 wins over the past three seasons. But the Blue Devil players still have goals to accomplish.
For Tomlinson, two straight heartbreaking bowl losses are a motivation.
“I would like to leave here winning a bowl game,” he said. “I’m sure most of the seniors feel the same way. Just getting to that point and falling short leaves a bad taste in your month. You want to get rid of that bad taste. What we’re going to do is to go in there and work our rear ends off every day and make sure that next season is going to be a better season.”
Wray thinks that Duke can build on last year’s near miss against Texas A&M and 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
“We made it to a place nobody said we could reach and we competed with a team that nobody said we could compete with – an SEC team with Johnny Football and Mike Evans,” Wray said. “We came out and showed them that we are Duke. That means something now.
“We’re at a point where we’re not looking back – we’re working to be even better.”
But Connette is not as upset about Duke’s loss in the bowl game as he is about the Devils’ defeat at the hands of national champion Florida State in the ACC title game.
“We want to win the ACC Championship game,” the rising senior quarterback said. “That’s number one on our list right now. We’d like to win a bowl game and I know we’ve lost two straight, but losing that ACC Championship game, that hurt’s more today than losing that bowl game.”
FROM PLAYER TO THE BROADCAST BOOTH
For the last few years, Dave Harding has been one of Duke’s most loquacious players – a go-to guy for media members looking for a quality quote.
Now Harding will bring a different perspective to the game.
The former offensive guard said he wants to break into broadcasting and Saturday’s spring game will offer him an early opportunity.
Harding will serve as the analyst for the ESPN3 Internet broadcast of the game. He’ll be part of a team with Ryan Craig doing play-by-play and Johnny Moore as the sideline reporter.