DURHAM, N.C. -- A week ago, the Duke football team was dealing with adversity after losing back-to-back games to Wake Forest and Northwestern. But last Saturday’s victory at Notre Dame changed the trajectory of the Blue Devil season.
“The spirits are a little higher,” sophomore linebacker Ben Humphreys said Tuesday. “There’s a good feeling about our team and what we can do when we’re at our highest level of play. We’re really comfortable now.
“I think Coach Cut said it best – we really found our identity on Saturday.”
Duke, now 2-2 on the season, will try to sustain its momentum this Saturday when the Blue Devils face Virginia (1-3) at 12:30 p.m. at Brooks Field at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Humphreys is confident the team can build on its success at Notre Dame.
“We know what we can do,” he said. “We know our strengths and weaknesses. When we’re at our best, we’re very tough to beat. With that in your mind, going into an ACC game, we’ve got to win this weekend. That’s my mindset. This is a must win game.”
Duke coach David Cutcliffe has been encouraged by his team’s reaction to the success it enjoyed in South Bend.
“I thought they were eager to get to the practice field today, which I thought was extremely important,” Cutcliffe said. “I was pleased with our energy.”
The Duke coach was very happy with the way his players responded to the adversity of the two previous losses. He only hopes they’ll respond as well to success.
“We are always realistic, hopefully,” he said. “I’ve always believed that our focus has to be on getting better. I think that’s where we are. Should you be pumped after a game like we had up there? Yes! But I also expect to be the kind of program that when adversity hits you, you’re at your best.”
Virginia, coming off an impressive victory over previously unbeaten Central Michigan, offers Duke a significant test in its quest for an ACC win. The Cavaliers beat Duke, 42-34, in Charlottesville a year ago, but Cutcliffe has beaten Virginia in six of his eight seasons. Of course, first-year head coach Bronco Mendenhall offers an entirely new test this season.
Cutcliffe knew Mendenhall from his days at BYU, when the two coaches were allies on the Board of Directors for the American Football Coaches Association.
“I’ve always looked at a lot of BYU film because we have been friends,” he said. “Things do change when you have different personnel to work with. They were built a certain way at BYU. They will build that way at Virginia, but they had to take what they [inherited at Virginia] and make it work.
“On both sides of the ball, it’s very similar, if not the same. The impressive part is, they played like a well-coached team.”
Playing Without Edwards The victory at Notre Dame was bittersweet in that it came with a cost – senior safety and kickoff return ace DeVon Edwards was lost early in the game with a knee injury. His career at Duke is over.
Humphreys said that it’s hard to measure the loss.
“DeVon’s presence made you want to be better,” the young linebacker said. “He made people around him better just by being out there. He’s one of the greatest players to ever put on the Duke uniform. I’m sad that I didn’t get to finish out his last year with him.
“He’s going to be missed.”
Cutcliffe said that Edwards is already rehabbing his MCL injury. When that progresses, he will face surgery to repair his torn ACL.
“His spirits are good,” the Duke coach said. “He’s an amazing youngster.”
The loss of Edwards highlights the depth that Cutcliffe has developed in the secondary. Last Saturday, Duke beat Notre Dame without Edwards for all but four plays from scrimmage and without senior safety Deondre Singleton, who had to sit out the first half due to a targeting penalty at Northwestern.
Junior Alonzo Saxton II and redshirt freshman Jordan Hayes got most of the extra snaps against Notre Dame, but redshirt junior Phillip Carter, who missed the first three games with a team suspension, could also be in the mix in the future. He was projected as a starter at safety coming out of spring practice.
Redshirt junior cornerback Bryon Fields said that replacing Edwards will take a lot of work.
“The veterans we have back there will have to step it up and the younger guys will have to step it up as well – not only on the field on Saturdays, but in the film room.”
Captains Going Down While Edwards won’t play again at Duke, he’s not really gone. He’ll be available in the film room and on the sidelines to help his teammates.
Edwards is one of the team’s four permanent captains. He’s the second member of that quartet to be sidelined for the season. Quarterback Thomas Sirk is also trying to lead from the sideline.
That leaves Cutcliffe with two permanent captains – tailback Jela Duncan on offense and tackle A.J. Wolf on defense.
“Those guys are our captains, period,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve been having and will have a special teams captain. There’s a possibility – I’m going to talk to our captains and see if they want to go to some game captains, offensively and defensively.”
The Duke coach said that this week, running back Shaun Wilson, who also replaced Edwards as Duke’s primary kickoff return guy, will be a game captain against Virginia.
Bringing the Heat A season ago, Duke recorded 17 sacks in 13 games.
That ranked 13th in the ACC and 114th nationally.
Through four games this season, Duke has recorded 17 sacks. That is tied (with Pittsburgh of the ACC) for the best total in FBS football.
“I think we’re consistently getting better with our individual rush techniques – all defensive linemen,” Cutcliffe said. “That is one of the things that we’re trying to work on every week.
“We also have some very capable players – one of them was DeVon – that have an incredible knack of rushing the passer. I really like doing this.”
Many of Duke’s sacks – and the team’s 20 quarterback hurries – have been the result of blitzes. So far this season, linemen have 8.5 sacks; linebackers have 3.5 sacks; defensive backs 5.0 sacks (because some sacks are shared, the total is higher than the team total of 17).
Fields noted that coverage and pass rush often work together.
“Those things complement each other a lot,” he said. “Coach [Jim] Knowles has been doing a good job of mixing things up on defense; bringing a lot of blitzes on third down. Our pass rush has definitely improved. When we’re in coverage, it allows us to take more gambles on third down, to sit on routes and know that we don’t have to cover for seven to 10 seconds.”
And coverage can help the pass rush too – for instance, Marquies Price’s pivotal sack late in the Notre Dame game was only possible because the Irish quarterback held the ball too long, looking for an open receiver.
Senior defensive tackle A.J. Wolf has four sacks in four games, tying him for 16th place in FBS football.
Building the Line After a rough couple of games, the offensive line made significant improvements in the Notre Dame game, opening holes for 208 yards rushing and allowing just one sack in 32 pass attempts.
The addition of redshirt sophomore Zach Harmon at offensive guard appears to have stabilized what had been a struggling front line.
“When Zach came in, we all jelled together,” redshirt junior center Austin Davis said. “We all know what we’re going to get out of each other. I still count Zach as an older guy. He’s been in the program, so it’s a veteran offensive line.”
Cutcliffe also acknowledged that Harmon’s play has helped.
“Zach is playing well,” he said. “He was our backup center and we made a decision that he was probably one of our best five.
“But we’ve made some other adjustments. Marcus Johnson has done a great job of making some adjustments in technique and footwork to give them a better edge. We’re still a work in progress and we’re going to continue to push it.”
And Cutcliffe is looking at more than the starting five.
“Right now, one of my primary focuses in practice are those backup guys,” he said. “We’ve got some ability back there. I want to see them start to head in that direction. Seasons are long and that’s a physical place to play. We need those guys to step up.”
Chambers Arrives Quay Chambers came to Duke out of Monroe High School in Monroe, N.C., as a quarterback, but after a redshirt year, he switched to wide receiver in the spring of 2014.
Chambers didn’t see much action in his first two seasons at the position. He played in 14 games in 2014 and 2015, but never caught a pass. His 2016 season started in much the same way. He did catch two passes against North Carolina Central, but he didn’t play against Wake Forest and didn’t catch a pass at Northwestern.
But Saturday at Notre Dame, the 6-3, 230-pound redshirt junior suddenly burst on the scene. He caught five passes for 55 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown strike from Daniel Jones to tie the game at 14-all.
Jones was not surprised to see Chambers step up.
“Quay’s been a real consistent practice player – a guy who works hard every day,” the rookie quarterback said. “We all had a whole lot of trust in him. We know he could get it done and he did. That wasn’t a surprise to anyone.”
Cutcliffe was happy to see Chambers emerge.
“He has continued to grow,” the Duke coach said. “He was a high school quarterback and we have continued to work him in various aspects. He has continued to work hard and he is playing at a much higher level. He is a big body who is very athletic. That will be a huge boost for him to come in and make a huge play – and explosive play – right after a turnover.”
Chambers is the third late-developing wide receiver to emerge for the Blue Devils in the last two seasons. Anthony Nash only blossomed as a redshirt junior last season and Johnathan Lloyd – like Chambers, a prep quarterback – has become a key player this season as a redshirt sophomore.
The Other Guy Many Duke fans wondered why, early this season, that Cutcliffe didn’t pair DeVon Edwards and Shaun Wilson together on kick returns.
True, both are terrific return men – with eight kickoff returns for touchdowns between them.
But the Duke coach understands the dynamics of kickoff returns better than most fans – and he understands that Duke’s unknown “off” return man – Joseph Ajeigbe – has played a large role in the success of Edwards and Wilson.
“Joe is a great off-return man,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s the captain of that kickoff return team back there as the off-man. He makes go calls, has critical blocks … he’s doing what you call MDM, blocking the Most Dangerous Man. Everybody else is pretty rigidly programmed in. Joe’s the clean-up hitter”
Ajeigbe threw a key block Saturday to give Wilson a chance.
“Then Shaun made people miss,” Cutcliffe said.
The result was a 96-yard kickoff return. It was Duke’s fifth kickoff return for a touchdown since the start of the 2015 season – three by Edwards and two by Wilson. That’s the most in college football.