DURHAM, N.C. Duke will honor 25 senior football players before Saturday’s 2008 season finale against North Carolina.
And even though the outgoing Blue Devils won’t have a championship or even a bowl game on their resume, there’s no question they’ve helped revitalize the Duke football program. First-year coach David Cutcliffe gives his senior class a lot of the credit for the turnaround from a program that won just four times in the previous four seasons into one that has already won four games heading into this weekend’s finale against the Tar Heels.
“I told the seniors there’s a lot more that occurred this year than just four wins a lot more,” Cutcliffe said. “These seniors will leave this program in a lot better shape than they found it.”
The outgoing seniors range from an All-America linebacker candidate (Michael Tauiliili) to a couple of All-ACC caliber players (wide receiver Eron Riley and offensive tackle Cameron Goldberg) to a number of productive starters all the way to several walk-ons whose primary contribution is on the practice field. Most of the seniors were part of Duke’s 2005 signing class, although there are a handful of fifth-year seniors, plus one six-year player Army transfer Tielor Robinson.
They all share ownership in the Blue Devils program.
“We talk about this a lot amongst the seniors,” senior defensive end Greg Akinbiyi said. “When we came in, we were really excited with the opportunity to change the program and to start something here that’s special. It’s unfortunate that it took this long, but it’s really good to see the program headed in the right direction and leave the guys behind us with an opportunity to take what we built to the next level.”
Cutcliffe said this senior class has helped set the tone for the success he hopes and expects to enjoy in the future.
“The first thing they’ve accomplished beyond my imagination is their unselfishness,” he said. “I’ve done this a long time [and I’ve seen] if you don’t throw the ball to a certain receiver enough, the guy pouts after the game. If I guy doesn’t get enough snaps on defense, he’s unhappy ... well, there’s been none of that. I’m talking flat zero. Everyone on this football team is totally focused on the success of this team totally.
“That doesn’t happen without special seniors.”
Cutcliffe said he’s having a hard time getting over the fact that Duke’s season will end Saturday when North Carolina visits Wade Stadium. The Blue Devils are 4-7 on the season and won’t be able to qualify for a bowl.
While it’s just Cutcliffe’s first season at Duke and there will certainly be future bowl opportunities under his tenure, what hurts is that those 25 seniors won’t have any future chances.
“I have given them a lot of thought since Saturday night ... we had that long bus ride home,” he said. “All I could think about is our seniors and the lost opportunity to play in a bowl game.”
That’s just a small disappointment for players such as fifth-year senior offensive tackle Fred Roland, who said the seniors will treat the UNC finale as their bowl game.
“I didn’t come here cocky, thinking I was the best thing that ever happened to Duke,” Roland said. “But I was thinking whatever I could do in whatever capacity to make this program better, then I wanted to do that.”
And Roland believes that he and his classmates have succeeded in that goal.
“We’ve already done that,” he said. “Of course, the icing on the cake would be to get a victory this weekend. The last four years, we won a total of four games and we’ve already won four games this year. It’s never enough, but you can discern some progress.”
As Cutcliffe said, the progress is far more than the improvement from one win in 2007 to four wins this season.
“I said we’d be defined in November,” the Duke coach said. “We haven’t won, but in my opinion, we’ve learned a lot. We’ve played three poor quarters in my opinion. The rest of the time, you’ve seen our team fight, scratch and get themselves in position to win. What we’ve learned is that we’re not at the point whether it’s fighting injury or whether it’s learning to finish games.
“But what we did learn is that we never changed and that’s because of our seniors. You look at Mike Tauiliili on Tuesday morning after a tough loss. You don’t see anything but fierce determination. I use him because he’s at the top of the ladder. Cameron Goldberg is right there with him.
“I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Cutcliffe has touted both Goldberg and wide receiver Eron Riley for All-ACC honors. He’s called Goldberg the best offensive lineman in the conference, although Duke’s lack of team success might hurt the senior’s All-ACC chances. Riley, who earned second-team All-ACC status last season, has some impressive statistics (56 catches for 630 yards and seven touchdowns, which rank fourth, fifth and second in the ACC this season).
That’s pretty good for a prospect rated as a two-star recruit out of Windsor Forest High School in Savannah, Ga.
“Coming in four years ago, I wasn’t really a highly recruited player,” Riley said. “I came in just wanting to get on the field and play football. That was my main goal and I accomplished that pretty early.”
Riley will end his career as one of the top receivers in Duke history. Only Clarkston Hines, Wes Chesson and Scott Montgomery have more receiving yards (and Riley could pass Chesson and Montgomery with 50 yards receiving against UNC) and only Hines and Corey Thomas have more than Riley’s 21 career touchdown catches.
It’s a matter of some irony that the two most productive members of the senior class were among the program’s least-heralded recruits four years ago.
Like Riley, Michael Brown of Houston’s Alief Taylor High School was rated a two-star recruit when he signed with Duke in February of 2005. But the unheralded linebacker earned a starting role as a true freshman that fall and ended up winning freshman All-America honors.
The standout defender who adopted his mother’s maiden name of Tauiliili after his freshman season to honor his Samoan heritage remained a fixture in the middle for the Blue Devils in 2006 and 2007, ranking among the ACC’s top 10 tacklers each season.
This year, Tauiliili leads the ACC in tackles with an average of 10.9 a game. He’s also among the league leaders in tackles for loss, passes defended and fumbles forced. He’s the only linebacker in the ACC to be ranked in four major defensive categories.
“All of those tackles are not accidental,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s the best defensive football player in the ACC. He plays at a high level every single snap he intercepts passes, recovers fumbles, causes fumbles and makes tackles that no one else is going to make.”
“I haven’t been around a linebacker who has played as well as this since [consensus first-team All-American] Al Wilson at Tennessee in ’98.”
Cutcliffe argued that Tauiliili deserves more than ACC honors.
“We’re pushing him hard for All-American,” the Duke coach said. “He should be ACC [defensive] player of the year and a first team All-American. I don’t like seeing guys make All-America on reputation. I see that on tape all the time. Michael has earned it on the field.”
Tauiliili, Riley and Goldberg are the seniors that Duke is pushing for all-star honors along with underclassmen QB Thaddeus Lewis and LB Vincent Rey but the senior class includes a number of players who have made significant contributions in their time at Duke:
-- Jabari Marshall earned a starting job as a cornerback in his senior season, but he’s been a kickoff return specialist since his freshman year. Only one player in ACC history has returned more kickoffs for more yardage and with 120 yards in returns against UNC, Marshall could claim the ACC career record.
-- Roland and Rob Schirmann have started three straight years on the offensive line, along with Goldberg.
-- Marcus Jones started at wide receiver as a freshman and for one game at quarterback as a sophomore, but finally found a home at linebacker, where he’s started the last two years.
-- Glenn Williams has started 22 times at either cornerback or safety.
-- Adrian Aye-Darko has started 28 times at safety.
-- Raphael Chestnut was on his way to becoming a star receiver when he caught 39 passes for 379 yards as sophomore. He missed most of the 2007 season with a broken leg, but has 69 catches for 739 yards and three touchdowns in his career.
-- Clifford Respress was a valuable backup at defensive tackle in his first three years, but emerged as an impressive starting defensive lineman (35 tackles, two sacks) as a senior.
-- Clifford Harris has been a productive running back for four years, finally getting a chance to start as a senior. The former prep quarterback has rushed for 696 yards in his career, caught 29 passes for 282 yards and completed two passes for 45 yards and a touchdown.
-- Tielor Robinson, the nephew of former Duke greats Cedric and Walter Jones, transferred to Duke after two years at Army. He was a productive fullback in 2006 and after missing most of 2007 with an injury, he returned and played a vital role as a senior, playing tight end, fullback and H-Back.
-- Ryan Wood has caught just five passes for 32 yards in his career, but he’s made himself a valuable member of Duke’s special teams. Earlier this season, Cutcliffe called Wood the best kick-holder he’d ever coached.
-- Marvin Marcelin is a receiver who converted to safety, but he also made his greatest impact on special teams. Elected as a co-captain, he’s been a productive member of Duke’s coverage teams.
-- Joe Surgan was a promising kicker whose career got off to a good start in 2005, when he made six-of-eight field goals. He struggled in 2006 and 2007, losing the placekicking job to Nick Maggio. But Surgan never gave up and helped the 2008 Blue Devils with his kickoffs and with one long-range field goal a 52-yarder against Navy.
A handful of fourth-year players will not be joining their classmates for goodbye ceremonies. Defensive linemen Vince Oghobaase, Ayanga Okpokowuruk and Kinney Rucker all redshirted as freshmen in 2005. Quarterback Zack Asack missed the 2006 season for academic reasons. Tailback Re'quan Boyette has missed this season with an injury.
They are expected back next season to try and complete the revitalization of the Duke program that their recruiting class has gotten off to such a strong start.