DURHAM, N.C. -- Every college football team needs to replenish its talent every year as graduation strips away the team's most experienced players.
Sometimes, that talent void can be addressed by first-year players just out of high school. But the really good programs are able to hold the majority of their recruiting classes out for a year. Their talent void is largely filled by redshirt freshmen.
David Cutcliffe has been trying to make that a feature of the Duke program since his arrival in Durham. Circumstances have forced him to play a number of true freshmen -- outstanding players such as Matt Daniels, Conner Vernon, Donovan Varner and Kelby Brown. But he's also been able to hold a number of outstanding players out and give them a year to learn and mature. Starting QB Sean Renfree is a redshirt ... so is cornerback Ross Cockrell. Every offensive and defensive lineman on the current roster redshirted his first year.
"That's the most important thing for a young offensive lineman coming in," starting guard Dave Harding, now a redshirt junior said. "Coming out of high school, you think you know it all. You think you're ready to play. You've had coaches telling you how amazing you are ... then you finally get here and the competition is a lot more than what you expected.
"It's important to be given that year to get bigger because in the trenches, the size difference between high school and college is a lot different. Getting that time to get in the weight room and put on weight ... and also time to understand the playbook. It is something that's really beneficial."
Cockrell, who might be the team's best defensive back as he enters his redshirt junior year, agrees.
"I definitely benefited from redshirting because physically I wasn't ready to play college football when I came in as a freshman," he said. "I picked up a lot of weight and I gained a lot of strength, and that really propelled me to being able to start as a redshirt freshman."
Spring football offers a chance for the coaches to get a good look at their new crop of redshirts - many of whom spent the previous fall on the scout team. But quite a few redshirt freshmen are ready to move into the rotation - and some of them will be key to Duke's success in 2012.
Here's a look at the redshirt freshmen, broken down by the positions where they might have the most impact next fall:
1. THE TIGHT ENDS: Duke brings back an experienced core at almost every position. Tight end is an exception with the graduation of Cooper Helfet and Danny Parker. Junior Jack Farrell, an excellent blocker, missed last season with an injury. Braxton Deaver, a tall, rangy TE, caught eight passes for 107 yards a year ago as a redshirt freshman.
Both Ferrell and Deaver missed spring practice with injuries. That left the coaching staff without a single tight end who had ever played in the game. But instead of a problem, that turned into an opportunity for redshirt freshman David Reeves and for converted safety Issac Blakeney.
"With Deaver out, we've got really big bodies in there," offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said. "They're talented guys who have a chance to be outstanding for us with Reeves and Blakeney. It's inexperienced right now, but it's talented."
Cutcliffe said the two young tight ends -- along with the 6-5, 230-pound Deaver -- should give Duke a new dimension at tight end. He was asked if the Devils "might" be able to emulate some the things that NFL teams are doing with big, agile tight ends.
"There better not be a 'might' to it," the Duke coach answered. "Yes, we're going to stretch the field with those guys. Just at quarterback, when you see that target, it's easier to gauge their movement, it's easier to see them. They can just go get balls that people can't defend. Are we there yet? No. But Ron Middleton did a great job bringing two guys who had never played in a game along this spring."
Certainly Reeves and Blakeney impressed their teammates.
"Both those guys - when you see them running down the field, those guys can be dominant players anywhere they go," Harding said. "Those are the guys you'd expect to see on an Alabama team - just big, monstrous people that are willing to work. I think our tight end play is something to look out for."
Note: technically, Blakeney is a redshirt sophomore, not a freshman. He redshirted in 2010, but was out of school last fall.
Monday was actually recruited as a punter after being rated the No. 1 prep punter in the nation by Scout.com. But he is also a capable placekicker as he demonstrated in the spring game, where he was perfect on one short field goal and three extra point attempts.
Monday will almost certainly be Duke's punter next fall. To land the placekicking job, he has to beat out impressive walk-on Jack Willoughby and a highly-touted recruit, prep All-American Ross Martin.
3. THE DEFENSIVE BACKS: Duke has veterans returning in the secondary, but at least three redshirt freshmen appear poised to challenge for playing time there: cornerbacks Tim Burton and Jared Boyd and safety Chris Tavarez.
"The biggest thing for them is attitude," Cockrell said when asked about Boyd and Burton. "They have to know that at times at corner, you're going to get beat. Especially if you're a young guy. The good thing for Tim and Jared is that they are speedy guys and they are physical. Jared, especially, is a very speedy corner.
"Jared really knows how to finish plays. He can stick with it to the end. He might get beat a little bit, but he can come through and knock the ball out at the last second. Tim, he's just a speed demon. He has so much athleticism that it's kind of scary."
Tavarez is battling a bunch of experienced safeties for playing time, but he gave a small preview of his skill late in the spring game, when he stripped running back Patrick Kurunwune of the ball for a crucial takeaway when the game was in doubt. He finished with five tackles in the game - tying converted wide receiver Brandon Braxton for the Blue team lead.
4. THE OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Every offensive lineman that Cutcliffe has recruited has redshirted a year. However, this may be the first fall when then Blue Devils don't have to start a redshirt freshman.
That doesn't mean that one won't start -- only that to do so, they will have to beat out a veteran returning starter. And this crop of redshirt offensive linemen is good enough that it could happen.
In fact, Harding -- a Freshman All-America when he started as a redshirt freshman in 2010 -- felt one of the youngsters breathing down his neck this spring.
"The person who backed me up all spring is Lucas Patrick," Harding said. "That kid has worked really hard and is going to be a great player for us. He's got a nasty streak that you like to see in offensive linemen. He's got a good understanding of the playbook. I'm excited about his future. He's been making me better because he's been pushing me. I turn around and see him finishing somebody and say, 'Hey, I'd better pick it up.'"
Patrick was hurt late in spring and missed the spring game. But he'll be back in fall, along with Matt Skura, who appears to be the heir apparent to senior Brian Moore at center, and Marcus Aprahamian, who could see time at tackle this fall. That's not to discount Cody Robinson or Carson Ginn -- the five-man group of offensive linemen was judged to be the strength of Duke's 2010 recruiting class.
"Kyler calls himself big brother ... just younger," Cutcliffe laughed, pointing out that the younger brother is taller and heavier than his older sibling.
But Kyler Brown wasn't as ready to play in his first year in college.
"Coming out of high school, I played more defensive end," he said. "Then I come here and play linebacker. Redshirt year definitely helped me. It got me into the swing of linebacker. I started getting reads down and it helped me get stronger and bigger -- I'm 15 pounds more than when I got here."
The younger Brown showed how much he learned in the spring game. He ended it in spectacular fashion, picking off a Sean Renfree pass and returning it for a touchdown. He had four tackles for the White team, tying classmate David Helton -- who did see action as a true freshman -- for the most of any linebacker on that team.
"Freshman year is such a learning experience," Helton said. "You're learning along the way, constantly. Spring is when you start to realize the difference between freshman and sophomore year. That's just growing comfortable with the school, with the team, with the practices. I learned differently than Kyler. I feel like all of us are on a different schedule."
Brown was not the only redshirt freshman linebacker to make an impression this spring. Britton Grier (6-1, 220) went all the way for the Blue defense and led all tacklers with 13 hits.
Marshall had 10 tackles and a sack in the spring game. Fisher and Sanders also had tackles for loss.
7. THE WIDE RECEIVER: Two wide receivers in the Class of 2010 saw action as true freshmen -- Jamison Crowder and Blair Holliday -- but classmate Nick Hill redshirted. He was impressive in the spring game with two touchdown catches.
"Nick Hill showed his size and his strength today," Cutcliffe said after the game. He's a big, strong guy."
Obviously, Duke's hopes for improvement next season depend on a myriad of factors. Coach Cutcliffe is looking for considerable improvement from a number of young players who played minor roles last fal. Wide receiver Blair Holliday and defensive tackle Jamal Bruce are two players who made significant strides this spring. There is hope that players who struggled last fall with injury, such as center Brian Moore, defensive end Kenny Anunike and running back Josh Snead, can return to full health and make a major contribution. Plus, there is hope that a handful of players from the 2012 recruiting class will be ready to help right away.
But most of them will redshirt. That doesn't mean they won't become important -- even outstanding players. It just means that Duke football is now doing things the way most successful programs do them.