DURHAM, N.C. -- The strength of the Duke football team this coming fall will lie amongst the strongest and largest members of the squad — the offensive line. The Blue Devils return four starters on the line, two seniors and two juniors with an incredible amount of playing experience.
“The first day of spring practice, when we were in the meeting room, Coach Cutcliffe asked for all the guys who started in the bowl game to stand up. It was pretty impressive to see almost the entire offensive line stand up,” said senior defensive end Kenny Anunike, a returning starter himself.
The numbers speak for themselves. Right tackle Perry Simmons has started 37 games in his career for a total of 2,803 snaps. Left guard Dave Harding has 28 starts in 36 career games for 2,315 snaps. Right guard Laken Tomlinson has 25 career starts and 1,974 snaps, while left tackle Takoby Cofield has 15 starts and 1,249 snaps. The four returning starters have played an average of 2,083 snaps apiece in their careers.
The line has proven to be such a strong point for the Devils that coach David Cutcliffe has made it a major point of emphasis in spring practice to improve the running game.
“The biggest part of our football team is going to be running the ball,” explained Cutcliffe, heading into his sixth season at Duke. “If we expect to continue to improve as a football team, then we have to be able to run the ball and stop the run on defense.”
The Blue Devils headed into spring practice with significant graduations losses to deal with from last year’s offense. Gone are starting quarterback Sean Renfree, who threw for over 3,000 yards, and ACC record-setting receiver Conner Vernon, who finished his career with 283 catches for 3,749 yards. With a very mobile quarterback such as Anthony Boone now taking snaps, there is a change in offensive philosophy to feature more of a running attack. Not a real strong point in the past for Duke football, the rushing game finished sixth in the ACC last year.
Cutcliffe says that renewed emphasis on the run has been met with enthusiasm by a veteran group of offensive linemen who prefer run blocking to pass blocking.
“It’s the difference in backing up and getting hit, or going up and hitting somebody,” Cutcliffe said.
“As a unit we like the running game more than the passing game,” said Harding, a native of Orlando, Fla. “Although we love to see a nice long pass that takes up a nice large chunk of yardage, there is nothing better than a 60-yard drive that ends up in a touchdown, where we had to ground out yardage and pave the way for our running backs to get in the end zone.”
“We like the challenge of putting the success of this team on the offensive line,” added Tomlinson. “We want to lead the team and we want to control the game. Having that challenge is good for us and makes us work harder.”
Last year the Devils ground out 1,628 yards for an average of 125.2 per game. In 2011 the Devils didn’t even break the 100-yard mark per game with an average of just 94.1 running yards.
“I came from a system in high school where we ran the ball all the time, so now the emphasis on the running game is something I really like,” said Cofield, a junior from Tarboro, N.C. “It’s easier coming off the ball and hitting someone in the running game than taking a stance and waiting for the guy to come at you in the passing game. You can be much more aggressive in the running game, just a different mentality.”
The return this year of the four starters on the line and of the top six rushers from last year — one of whom happens to be the quarterback — makes the running game more viable than in past seasons. That experience factor is crucial on this team.
“Experience is the single most important element you can have on an offensive line,” said Simmons, who was ACC player of the week following the win over North Carolina and ended the season as a second team Academic All-America selection. “The experience that you have playing together works into the cohesiveness that you have to have as an offensive line. It allows you to see defenses and then use the knowledge you have gained from playing so many snaps to help you understand what the defense is going to do, which helps you with your blocking scheme and technique and allows you to be a better football player. Experience is really key, especially on the offensive line.”
And while they will have a ton of veterans on the line, they will have to replace their starting center of the past two years in Brian Moore. Stepping in will be sophomore Matt Skura, an almost 300-pounder from Columbus, Ohio.
Skura feels good about fitting in with his older teammates.
“As an offensive line we have tons of chemistry. We are one of the closest groups on the entire team,” explained Skura. “Last year Brian Moore did a great job of showing me the way — teaching me how to be a starter, how to be a leader — so it has been a much easier transition. The older guys help me a lot with the calls and the reads that you have to make as an offensive lineman.”
Even though Skura is the youngest and has the least amount of time as a starter, he will still be the one making the calls for blocking assignments during the game.
“We go off each other, we bounce off each other with the calls,” he explained. “They may see something in the defense that I can’t see and they will immediately call out the adjustment.” While Skura is a newcomer as a starter, he and quarterback Anthony Boone are very familiar with each other.
“I don’t consider him as a new center,” said Boone. “We worked together last year when he was the second-team center, so we know each other very well. We have practiced a great deal together and hang out together off the field as friends as well, so I am very comfortable with Matt at center.”
“Last year we were both on second team and worked very well together,” said Skura. “This year has been a perfect transition up to first team where we are very comfortable with each other. We’ve done thousands of snaps together. Each guy has their own technique on snaps, speed, where it’s going, but Anthony and I have done it so many times that it he knows what I am going to do in delivering the ball and I know how he wants it.”
Cutcliffe is making sure he has all his bases covered this spring as a number of the linemen are working at snapping the ball and playing the center position in case of an injury.
“Getting as many people to snap the ball is really important,” explained Harding. “Working as a center and getting those reps can mean a lot to the team when the starting center is out.”
Harding knows very well how important getting those snaps can be since he had to sub in for Moore two years ago when Moore was injured in preseason practice.
The veterans also feel a difference in this year’s spring practice than in past years.
“Guys seem to be coming out this spring more prepared and better equipped to practice,” explained Simmons. “You can see it on the field and in the locker room in everyone’s eyes; everyone is ready to play football. Coming back from the bowl game, everyone enjoyed that taste of a bowl game and we realize the work and dedication it will take to get back to another bowl game, and are ready to make that happen.”
“It’s very exciting to see where we came from and where we are now,” explained Harding, a member of one of Cutcliffe’s first full recruiting classes. “The fruits of what we have accomplished, the fact we were willing to buy into a football team that nobody else wanted to buy into, trusting Coach Cutcliffe and the staff — we have seen what it takes to be successful and we are ready to make the next step.”
“The feeling is a little different, the guys’ mentality is a little different,” Cofield added. “It feels like an extension of the bowl game. We lost, but there is a feeling of accomplishment, but we know we still have to push and get better.”
It’s a tough, no-frills job being an offensive lineman. You hardly ever get your name mentioned on TV or radio. The only time you hear it announced in the stadium is when there is a penalty and you are called for holding. Yet anyone who knows anything about football will tell you the most important guys on the field are the linemen, the guys in the trenches.
But after all that work, how do they handle the star quarterback or running back getting all the interviews after the game?
“We love seeing those guys getting talked about in the paper or being pulled in for interviews. We know if they are doing well then we are doing well,” said Harding. “Each one of the guys on this line is very selfless and knows that when we do a great job as a unit, then the team will be successful.”
“I always kind of think in my head that their stats are my stats. Whatever they accomplish, I know we helped,” added Cofield. “If the quarterback throws for 500 yards in a game, we helped him and we know we made it happen. We know that their stats are our stats.”
Duke opened practice on March 4 and will conclude with a Spring Game on April 13.