DURHAM -- Jamison Crowder is proving himself one of the most versatile players in college football. Four weeks into the season, Duke’s junior wide receiver leads the ACC in pass receptions and in punt returns. Last Saturday against Pitt, Crowder scored touchdowns rushing, receiving and on a punt return.
What else can he do?
“Maybe they can throw in a pass play,” Crowder suggested. “My senior year [at Monroe High School in Monroe, N.C.], I threw two touchdown passes. I also played defense in high school, so I had a couple of interception returns for touchdowns too. I had a fumble return for a touchdown.
“My junior year, I had four touchdowns four different ways in the first half of one game.”
What’s his favorite way to score?
“I like them all, but if I had to choose, I’d definitely say returning punts,” Crowder said. “It starts with the gameplan and scheme. Then with me back there, the first thing is to make sure I catch the ball. Then having great blocking – my teammates opening up lanes I can run through. Then make sure that I outrun the kicker.”
Crowder has put it all together twice this season – for a 76-yard return against North Carolina Central and for an 82-yard touchdown against Pitt. He’s one of just three players in college football this season with two punt return touchdowns.
Maybe more impressively, take out his two long touchdown plays and he’s still averaging almost 10 yards a return – which would still be third in the ACC even without his two long returns.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe pointed out that Crowder is the first Duke player to score three different kinds of TDs in one game since Scottie Montgomery did it in 1999 – and Montgomery is now Crowder’s wide receiver coach.
“He and Jamison are in the same club,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m real proud of Jamison … I’m real proud of Scottie.”
The Duke coach hinted that he may find at least one more way to utilize Crowder’s unique skill-set. He was (probably) joking when he said, “We might have to put him in the secondary,” but he sounded dead serious when he told reporters, “He can throw the football.”
A HARD TO FIGURE TEAM
Three weeks ago, Troy beat Savannah State 66-3. A week ago, the Trojans lost to Mississippi State 62-7.
So what kind of team will Duke be facing Saturday when the Blue Devils take on Troy at 3 p.m. in Wallace Wade Stadium?
“This is an outstanding team with a lot of weapons,” Cutcliffe said. “If you think Troy can’t play offense, just ask the University of Tennessee a year ago.”
Troy lost to the Vols, 55-48, a year ago in Knoxville.
The Trojans come to Duke with a 2-2 record this year, including an overtime victory over Alabama-Birmingham and a close loss to rival Arkansas State.
One of the unique aspects of the Troy offense is the team’s two-quarterback system. Cody Robinson, who wears jersey No. 6, is the leading passer in school history. So far this season, he’s thrown for 975 yards and eight touchdowns – while completing an astronomical 72.5 percent of his 127 attempts.
He alternates with No. 7 Deon Anthony, who has thrown just 16 times in four games, but is the team’s top rusher – averaging 5.9 yards a carry.
Defensive end Kenny Anunike said the Duke defense will be watching to see who lines up at quarterback for each play.
“It’s all about awareness,” he said. ““We’ll know when No. 6 is back there and we’ll know when No. 7 is back there. One is more pass oriented and one definitely more run oriented.. When we see one line up, we know what kind of plays they are going to run. And when we see the other line up, we know what kind of plays he’s going to run.”
Cutcliffe suggested that what makes Troy really dangerous is the team’s coach. Larry Blakeney has guided the Troy program for 23 years – and has overseen Troy’s transition from Division 1-AA to the FBS. He ranks seventh among active coaches in all-time wins.
“Larry Blakeney is a guy I’ve known a long time,” Cutcliffe said. “He humbles me – 23 years at Troy. I grew up in Alabama. Larry grew up in Alabama. Larry was an Auburn guy. I was an Alabama guy. Larry Blakeney gets to coach on Larry Blakeney Field in Troy, Alabama. Does that tell you anything about the job that he’s done?
“I think he’s one of the finest coaches in the business.”
BREAKING IN THE KIDS
Three true freshmen defensive backs saw significant action last Saturday against Pitt – mostly in the second half when the Duke defense held its own against the Panthers.
Cornerbacks Byron Fields and Breon Borders and safety Deondre Singleton combined for 11 tackles and three pass breakups – one by each of them.
“They played real well,” Cutcliffe said after studying the film. “I’ve said it all along, they’re real good football players. They’re getting more and more comfortable with what they are doing. They proved that Saturday, so you’re going to see more and more of those guys.
“We’re going to try and continue to upgrade the athleticism of our team defensively. Those guys can help us do that.”
Senior cornerback Ross Cockrell understands how tough it is for a youngster to play in the secondary – he endured a rocky freshman season before maturing into an All-ACC corner as a junior. He likes what he saw from the three freshmen.
“They competed,” he said. “When you’re playing with true freshmen out there, there are going to be mistakes made. We know that. But if you’re going out there and you’re fighting hard and you’re making hits, that’s what we’re going to looking for.”
SEARCHING FOR TAKEAWAYS
The Duke defense has struggled this season to force turnovers.
In four games, the Blue Devils have collected just two interceptions and have forced just five fumbles (recovering three). That’s just five turnovers in four games – none against Pittsburgh last Saturday.
“There were some good takeaway opportunities that we just didn’t capitalize on,” Kenny Anunike said. “Watching the film, we went back and showed guys exactly where those points were. It just comes down to being a playmaker and when the opportunity presents itself, you take care of business.”
Ross Cockrell, who has one of Duke’s two interceptions this season, said the Devils were missing chances to take the ball away.
“There were definitely turnovers to be had,” he said. “As a defense, we want to get at least two turnovers a game. The last two weeks, we haven’t been able to do that.”
What needs to change?
“There are times when the runner is running with the ball and he’s running with it really loose,” senior defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento said. “There’s a gang of tacklers around him – you just have to try and strip the ball. There are tipped balls in the air … overthrows. You have to make those players when your opponent makes those mistakes. We didn’t capitalize on that last week.”
NO PROTEST AT DUKE
Players at several colleges staged protests last Saturday, trying to bring attention to what they perceived as flaws in the NCAA compensation system for athletes.
It doesn’t look like any Duke football players are joining the movement.
“I was not aware of it,” senior Ross Cockrell said. “I did watch SportsCenter and I heard a little bit about it.”
So does Cockrell think athletes are exploited?
“It’s hard to say – I do feel like at Duke we have a great situation,” he said. “I’m happy about how we’re treated here. I’m happy about the Duke atmosphere and the culture in general. Coach Cut has always been respectful and upstanding.”
There is some confusion over Arian Foster’s admission last week that while at Tennessee, the future NFL running back took money from boosters. But Foster claimed that he had nothing to be ashamed about because he needed the money to pay for rent and food.
The confusion stems from the fact that the NCAA scholarship pays for rent and food – and the organization has a hardship fund that offers money to athletes facing unusual hardships.
Sydney Sarmiento suggested a reason for the confusion.
“Some of these kids have never had money before in their lives,” he said. “Give them $6,000 for a semester [as in a housing allowance] and they don’t know what to do with it. They don’t know how to budget. Nobody’s ever sat down with them and said you have to save money … so they just go out and spend it.”
Sarmiento doesn’t feel exploited.
“I understand what everybody’s saying, but at the same time, they’re giving you a four-year education,” he pointed out.
Cutcliffe blames the controversy on some uninformed reporting.
“Let’s be careful what we’re complaining about,” he said. “Athletes are treated pretty well. I don’t see anybody getting abused. I think it’s kind of an overreaction. There are a lot of uninformed people who haven’t seen the day-to-day. We’re not going to let a kid starve. Before that happens, I’ll break an NCAA rule and take him home with me.”
But Cutcliffe knows that no NCAA scholarship athlete is going hungry or homeless.
“I’m sorry to disagree with so many intelligent people,” he said. “There is already stuff in place where we can spend money on players. There is a needy student system. We can fly the parents in if they get hurt. We can fly them home if there is a death in the family.
“There is a lot of education that needs to be dome. Some of you have no idea what we can do.”