Braxton Deaver’s left knee measured about two inches to begin with, evidence of a surgical repair to his anterior cruciate ligament during the winter of 2012. But it’s grown since then, stretching across his entire kneecap and down to the top of his shin, a good seven or eight inches total in length now. A second operation, to mend a fractured patella last summer, was responsible for the extension.Durham, N.C. - The scar above
Deaver refers to these stitchmarks, and those surrounding the left thumb he broke last June, as his battle scars — though he has not been on the battlefront since he acquired any of them. His physical tribulations — three surgeries and countless hours of rehabilitation — conspired to make the sophomore tight end a sideline spectator during the entire 2012 Duke football season.
Duke’s best linebacker, junior Kelby Brown, lived the same narrative on a similar timeline. In his case, the scar tissue bisects his right knee, the object of two ACL reconstructions since his freshman year. Like Deaver, too many of his waking hours last fall were spent in the training room instead of on the football field.
While neither played an official snap, both enjoyed significant healing during their parallel experiences. Brown was able to work with the scout team and Deaver was able to practice during the Blue Devils’ December bowl drills. Then this spring, the two took part in numerous full-speed, full-contact workouts — with the full expectation that they will transition from Scar Wars to Star Wars for the upcoming 2013 campaign.
Had they been healthy, both Brown and Deaver likely would have contributed in starring capacities last fall. Brown started 17 times and was on the field for over 1,000 snaps his first two seasons, demonstrating sound instincts and intense gamesmanship. Deaver played in every game as a redshirt freshman in 2011, when he was behind senior starter Cooper Helfet on the depth chart but still got over 400 snaps and made eight catches.
As coach David Cutcliffe reconfigures his lineup for 2013, Deaver looms prominently in an offensive scheme that graduates some critical elements of the passing attack, while Brown bolsters a defensive unit that simply must slash into the 36 points per game allowed last year. Together they should provide a significant impetus — one on each side of the ball — for a program looking to record consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in school history.
“I think we’re really happy to see each other back on the field again,” says Deaver. “I love Kelby. We’ve grown up together in a way in coming to college. He’s a great guy and we’ve been able to feed off each other.
“Sometimes when you are rehabbing, something happens and then something happens again, and it takes the wind out of your sails a little bit. Having people there who have been through it to reassure you and reinforce the positivity is a nice thing. We’ve definitely played off each other and that’s been a helping factor in getting better.”
Deaver and Brown share more than kindred medical histories and their projections for future glory. They came to Duke in the same recruiting class and from the same region — the fertile Charlotte, N.C., territory that currently accounts for over a dozen names on the Blue Devil roster. Both also grew up following the exploits of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, which made Duke’s Belk Bowl appearance in Bank of America Stadium last December a bittersweet experience, especially for Deaver.
“That’s still a sensitive subject, because I wanted to play so bad,” he admits. “I literally have dreamed about playing in the Panthers’ stadium, so that was pretty rough. In pregame I almost cried walking around the field, it was like a dream come true. When we ran out of that tunnel I was just ecstatic, so happy to be there.
“I took it all in and said, ‘You’re getting better, you’re getting stronger, you’ve got to take this time so don’t rush it and come back too soon. But it was rough. We lost a hard one there.”
Deaver had been projected to start at tight end before he was felled by his second knee operation. Without him, that position became the youngest and least experienced on the entire team, manned mostly by freshmen and sophomores who had never been in a game. Redshirt freshman David Reeves wound up starting every contest, caught 18 passes and scored three times while sophomore Issac Blakeney added 32 receptions off the bench while splitting time at wideout. Backup quarterback Brandon Connette provided another option by occasionally lining up as a hybrid end as part of his multi-positional role within the offense.
With Deaver back and Reeves now experienced, Blakeney is focusing on his more nature slot-receiver role, along with sophomore reserve Erich Schneider. Veteran defensive tackle Nick Sink moved across the line to tight end during bowl practice and while he has the strength of a 285-pound lineman, it’s worth noting that he caught 80 passes in high school.
But Deaver remains the key commodity. As his roommate, quarterback Anthony Boone, points out, Deaver is such an asset in both the pass and run games that his presence on the field won’t tip the defense as to what kind of play the Blue Devils are considering.
“In the past we’ve sometimes brought in a tight end to block or a tight end to catch,” Deaver says. “I think I bring that versatility where I can hold off a defensive end but I can also get around him to make a catch. There’s a lot I hope to bring to our offense. I did when I played before, and now that I’ve trained and gotten a little bigger and know more, I’ve never been more prepared to take on this role.
“I feel better than I ever have. I feel strong. Not only did this year give me a chance to physically train and get better and stronger, but mentally I’ve never been more sound just knowing our plays. We do a lot of stuff with hand signals from the sideline, and being able to understand that quickly and get lined up gives you so much of an edge. Instead of having to think about it, or wait a second, now it’s all in my head. It’s all quick, and when you can play that fast it gives you an edge. We can play faster and it’s hard for defenses to handle that.”
Another edge Deaver brings is his bond with Boone, who takes over the signal-calling duties from the graduated Sean Renfree. Boone is another of the team’s Charlotte-area products and has known Deaver since well before their college and high school days.
“He was my quarterback in middle school, so we’ve developed a relationship over time,” Deaver notes. “We went to different high schools but we’ve come back together at Duke and I would like to say we have a pretty good connection. I know what he wants, where he wants me to be in certain situations. We almost don’t have to communicate verbally. We can look at each other and see things and communicate that way.
“There couldn’t have been a smoother transition (at QB). Sean Renfree was an amazing quarterback with a lot of talent and he really was a senior leader for us, and Anthony Boone has all that leadership and more, I think. In college football having a scrambling quarterback is so important, being able to get out and make plays. That adds a completely different element to our game. The fact that he can make plays with his feet is really going to help us down the stretch this year against some fast teams.”
Brown’s return to the defense, meanwhile, should aid the Blue Devils’ efforts to corral opposing quarterbacks. His college debut three years ago featured a stunning sack against reigning national champion Alabama and thereafter he frequently displayed his nose for the ball in extensive action, when healthy.
Though he now practices and competes with a brace around his knee, he thinks he’s a much better player than during his pre-surgery days.
“Last year I was on the scout team, playing defense against the starting offense, so I was able to work on the fundamentals, the little things you can’t really get better at while you are having to perform at a high level,” Brown explains. “I think I got a lot better at some of the little things like footwork, using my hands, taking on blockers.
“During the season you can’t really work on (those things) unless you are able to think about it during practice, because there is so much going on. That’s why it was good to be on the scout team, because there’s not much to think about. So I was able to work on some of those little things.
“Overall it was a good year for me because I learned a lot, just being a good teammate on the sidelines, which is something I think will carry over to the field. Obviously it was tough to stand on the sideline and watch after two years of playing, but I’m excited. I’m thankful for a year to get healthy. It was a good idea by Coach Cut to let me get better, and now I can’t wait to get back out there.”
Cutcliffe held Brown out of some contact work in the latter stages of spring ball after his linebacker took a jarring blow to the helmet during a scrimmage. But Brown says his knee is ready and his leg strength has caught up to where it was before the injuries.
Expected to join Brown for most of the snaps at Duke’s two linebacker spots are C.J. France (10 starts last year), David Helton (four starts) and Kelby’s younger brother Kyler Brown (two starts). The two siblings are eager to line up side-by-side when the situation warrants — something they’ve never done in a game, as Kyler played defensive end when their careers overlapped in high school.
“We’ve got a lot of experience at linebacker with four or five guys who have started a game,” Kelby Brown said. “I’m excited to get back out there with those guys. They’ve all grown a ton while I’ve been out, so it will be cool to reunite on the field. The cool thing about our linebackers is there’s no selfishness. We all want each other to do well and that’s something that’s unique and makes us better.”
Brown and Deaver maintained their team connection while they were overcoming their injuries during Duke’s best year in nearly two decades, but they are clearly anticipating more hands-on involvement during the 2013 season.
“I like to say that I was our biggest supporter, our biggest fan, our biggest mascot on the sideline,” says Deaver. “It was a bittersweet thing because obviously I thought I could really contribute to our team and help us out even more, but I couldn’t be happier for what we were doing. We lost some tough ones, especially the bowl game. But that only made me and everybody else on the team hungrier for this coming year.”