DURHAM -- It was just four months after receiving their high school diplomas that three members of the Duke football team were thrown into the real world of college football on the biggest of stages.
The setting was Blacksburg, Va., on Oct. 26, with 63,326 fans on hand at Lane Stadium to cheer for their beloved, nationally-ranked Virginia Tech Hokies, plus a national television audience. Watching from the sideline, with great concern, was the leader of the Duke defensive secondary, assistant coach Derek Jones.
His experienced star cornerback Ross Cockrell was sitting on the training table on the sidelines having his ankle taped up and hoping to return to the game. Jones looked out onto the field and saw three true freshmen in his defensive backfield. Three true freshmen who were worrying about what to wear for senior prom just a few months ago were now in the middle of a battle facing seasoned veteran college players. They were the last line of defense in a potential program-changing win for Duke.
“I took a deep breath,” said Jones. “I knew they didn’t have the necessary experience, but we had recruited them here because they were winners and they certainly played like winners.” The three rookie DBs were cornerbacks Breon Borders and Bryon Fields along with safety Deondre Singleton, all getting incredible on-the-job experience as rookies.
Fields and Borders combined for three tackles in the game, broke up two passes and helped hold Virginia Tech to just one touchdown — a rushing TD — in leading the Blue Devils to a 13-10 victory.
When the game was over, the coaches and older players were all celebrating a big win. Fields and Borders wondered why; it was what they were used to doing — winning.
“These guys were winners in high school,” explained Jones. “We really make an emphasis in our recruiting to get players from schools where they have been a winner. I remember Fields saying to me, ‘What was all the celebrating about?’”
During his prep career, Fields led Providence Day High School in Charlotte to three state playoffs and an NCISAA Division I state title in 2011. He was named MVP of the state championship game and MVP of the Shrine Bowl as he helped lead North Carolina to a 27-6 win over South Carolina.
Just up the road, Fields’ future college roommate Borders was leading Statesville High School to three state playoff berths in football, including a semifinal appearance in 2012. He also led his school to the 3A state championship game in basketball in 2013.
The culture of winning football games at Duke is now starting well before the players even arrive on campus. It is starting with the recruitment of players with winning in their blood and a desire to continue that winning effort in college.
“The coolest thing about this young secondary is they stepped up last year and they don’t care who they were playing, big-time teams or whoever, they just stepped up to the challenge and played like veterans,” said senior linebacker Kelby Brown. “It’s been awesome to see them come along and now without Ross (Cockrell) with them, they are going to have to step up in a new role and take ownership of their position groups.”
Winning has become contagious within the Duke football program. In the past two years the Blue Devils have captured 16 wins. “Over half of our football team knows us as a bowl team,” said head coach David Cutcliffe, who has guided Duke to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history.
“Virginia Tech was the game where we had to grow up the quickest,” Borders pointed out. “We had to win a game against a nationally-ranked team at Blacksburg. This was the game that put us over the hump in feeling we belonged on the field and in the game.”
For Borders, that drive to be a big-time college football player started when he signed with Duke. “The coaches told me if I could play, then I would get a chance to play because we were short a cornerback,” he explained. “So I knew if I worked hard in my conditioning and did well in camp I would have the opportunity to play as a freshman.”
After signing with the Blue Devils in February, Borders and all the other new recruits received a big workout package from Duke to help prepare them for the coming season even before their arrival on campus in the summer.
“Getting that package, even in the middle of the playoffs in basketball, made me realize how important it was for me to be in the best condition I could be in when I came to Duke and get a chance to play,” Borders said.
“They all came here to play. I don’t think any of them came here with the thought of redshirting,” said Jones. “They saw an opportunity to play and prepared to play. Each one of those guys from the first meeting, you could see in their eyes that they believed in their ability. They listened. You could see them after practice and during practice working on the things that you had told them to work on, so you could see that you had a little bit different player than we had around here before.”
Borders and Fields were able to use their physical skills as well as learn a lot from their teammates to make the transition to the college game a possible success.
“Being young gives those guys a lot fresher legs, a lot more energy,” said senior wide receiver Issac Blakeney. “Ross and some of our older defensive backs would beat you with technique; these guys are going to use their enthusiasm and athletic ability. They are young and hungry and ready to improve. You really have to be ready on each and every play to match their intensity.” The freshmen quickly learned to listen to the older guys and get as much help as possible, giving a lot of credit to last year’s senior captain and All-ACC performer Ross Cockrell.
“The freshmen defensive backs would not be where we are without Ross,” explained Borders. “He took us under his wing when we came in and he always watched extra film with us and worked extra with us at practice. We all looked up to him. He is a great technique player. He always preached working your technique, because you can be a great athlete, but if you don’t move your feet, get your shoulder in position, you can get beat. Keep your eyes on their hips and you will know where a receiver is going.”
And matching wits with an All-America wide receiver every day in Jamison Crowder will definitely keep a defensive back on his toes.
“I go against Jamison every day and sometimes it’s not pretty, but he is one of the most talented receivers in the country,” said Borders. “There are times when he will beat me off the line. Coming back after the play, he will tell me how I messed up and how he got by me. He will tell me that I need to slide my feet or I have to get hands on him. He wants to make me a better player and covering him every day in practice is making me a better player.”
“I’m really big on encouragement so I try to be as positive as I can with those guys,” explained Brown. “When they make a mistake in practice I try to show them that you should never make a mistake without learning from it. That’s the whole point of practice. If you are making mistakes in practice and getting down on yourself then you are missing the point. They are going to make some mistakes. They are playing against some good receivers on our team this spring so it is a great chance for those guys to learn and not let any practice or any rep go to waste.”
In the end, the three freshman defensive backs had outstanding seasons last year.
Borders played in all 14 games, setting the Duke freshman record for interceptions with four while adding 26 tackles and eight passes broken up. In the ACC championship game with Florida State, he intercepted two of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston’s passes, becoming the first player to intercept two passes off Winston.
Fields also played in all 14 games and made 42 tackles, broke up three passes in the Virginia Tech game and made his first start in the N.C. State game.
Singleton played in 11 games at safety, starting nine times, making 63 tackles, getting his first college interception against Miami and breaking up four passes on the season.
The experience from last year has given these Blue Devils a new appreciation for the game.
“The biggest difference from high school and even practice was the speed of the game. It was mind blowing to get thrown into the game,” explained Borders. “It took a little time to adjust to the speed, but once I adjusted I was able to make some things happen.”
“There is no substitute for experience, being out there on the field,” added Fields. “You can practice all you want, do workouts all summer, but there is no replacement for being on the field in the game under game pressure. We try to simulate game speed in practice, but it’s just different in the game.”
Borders is a tall, wiry defensive back, while Fields is a more compact defender, saying size has never really been an issue for him.
“I’ve been playing football since I was four years old, tackle football since I was seven; I was never the biggest or the strongest,” explained Fields. “One thing that has always been instilled in me is toughness, mentally and physically. The hitting doesn’t bother me. I’ve been run over and knocked a few guys off their feet, so I’m fine with the physical part of the game.”
“What separates Bryon from the rest of us is he has the heart of a lion,” explained Borders. “I believe that he prepared harder than anyone before coming to Duke because he knew he was shorter and had to be better prepared. He is our best technique guy. His technique is outstanding. His feet are so quick and so choppy and he changes direction so quick.”
Not that they didn’t know it before, but after going through everything they faced last year, they now know for sure that preparation is truly the key to being successful.
“Coach Cutcliffe always tells us it’s our spring versus their spring,” said Borders. “How hard we work in spring practice and how we use spring practice to prepare us for the fall will be the difference in winning and losing games.”