DURHAM -- This has been an unusually mild summer in Durham, but the conditions for Duke’s first preseason scrimmage Monday were brutal.
High temperatures, high humidity and a cloudless sky combined to turn Wallace Wader Stadium into an oven. At least two players were treated for heat problems (receiving IVs to restore fluid levels) and midway through the scrimmage, head coach David Cutcliffe stopped play momentarily to bring his defensive team over from the visitor’s sideline (which is in the direct sunlight) to the home side (in the shadows of the press box).
Yet, even with the punishing conditions, the Blue Devils still got in more than 100 plays and used an extremely fast tempo.
“It was hot … it was a good test for us,” Cutcliffe said. “We didn’t slow down through that scrimmage. I made them take a little bit of a halftime.”
Although coaches usually like hot weather to train their teams, Cutcliffe isn’t worried about the fact that the summer has been unusually mild (with more mild weather expected later this week).
“We work all summer on a turf field and that turf field is hotter than our game field.,” he said. “So we really feel the heat. It may be 83 degrees, but when you get out there in the heat of the day, it’s literally 10 degrees hotter – we’ve measured the temperature.”
He admits that the extreme conditions that the team faced Monday can lead to problems for players not used to the heat and humidity. He pointed to freshman running back Joseph Ajeigbe, who ran well early in the scrimmage, but needed an IV afterward, as a player who could have been surprised by the conditions.
“Coming from California, where there’s relatively little humidity and learning to manage himself in a humid environment is just an interesting challenge in that regard,” Cutcliffe said. The Duke coach was planning to give his players another taste of extreme conditions Tuesday afternoon, when high heat and humidity were expected to be repeated.
“We’re going right back out there in full pads to challenge our team again today,” he said earlier in the day.
THE FIRST CASUALITY
The one sour note to Monday’s scrimmage was the loss of Tanner Stone. The promising redshirt freshman offensive tackle suffered an ankle injury during the workout.
“Tanner Stone will undergo surgery [Wednesday] and be out for the season” Cutcliffe said. “It’s really frustrating for a very fine redshirt freshman offensive line prospect. His spirits are good and we’ll all be there to support him.”
Stone was listed as a second team tackle, along with classmate Casey Blaser. Cutcliffe said he was confident with both Stone and Blaser, but added that he had hoped to go into the season two-deep at every position along the offensive line. He’s got that in the middle, where fifth-year senior John Coleman is a very capable backup to starter Matt Skura, and at guard, where redshirt sophomores Lucas Patrick and Cody Robinson are talented backups to veterans Dave Harding and Laken Tomlinson.
Now he’s down to three tackles who are ready to play. Senior Perry Simmons and junior Tacoby Cofield have 52 starts between them, but now Blaser is the only qualified backup.
Cutcliffe said that he’s played many seasons with just three tackles and could do that if necessary. But he also said he and his staff planned a long meeting to discuss the situation.
Tomlinson, a fixture at guard for the last two seasons, pointed out that Duke’s veteran linemen have the flexibility to help out at tackle if there’s a problem. He pointed out that Coleman, the backup center, has started at tackle in the past. So has guard Dave Harding. Lucas Patrick saw action at tackle and guard a year ago.
“That’s something expected in football – if somebody goes down you have to fill the spot,” Tomlinson said. “It wouldn’t be too much to kick someone out there.”
MEET THE BLUE DEVILS
The Duke team will interact with its fans Saturday at 2 p.m. during Meet the Blue Devils Day.
And, despite the recent instances of schools refusing autographs during their fan days, the Duke players will be available to sign for the fans.
“I can’t even imagine why you wouldn’t, unless I hear something different from compliance,” Cutcliffe said.
Actually, Louisville and Miami have eliminated autograph sessions from their fan days, apparently because of the repercussions of the Johnny Manziel story and the reports of professional memorabilia vendors paying players for autographs.
“I don’t want to overreact to that,” Cutcliffe said. “We want to be fair to our fans. That’s a great and wonderful day. Our players would be extremely disappointed if we didn’t do it.”
Besides, he doesn’t think it’s that hard to distinguish between professional memorabilia dealers and real fans.
“Most of those are kids,” he said. “If some guy comes along and asks me or somebody else to sign 100 things, we’re not going to do it. If somebody gets money from my autograph, let me know. But that’s not going to happen.”
“We played middle school football with each other,” Boone said. “We grew up together. He was actually my backup quarterback in seventh grade. He broke his shoulder and changed into my wide receiver my eighth grade year. We connected a lot.”
The two future Blue Devils actually split up after middle school and attended rival high schools – Deaver at Providence High in Charlotte; Boone at Weddington High just outside the city.
But they have reconnected at Duke, where they are rooomates.
“We’ve been really great friends for all our lives,” Deaver said. “The chemistry is, I think, evident. I think we have a really good feel for each other. We can almost communicate without speaking. I think that is going to be a big thing this year … things where he doesn’t have to point it out. I understand what he’s thinking.”
Boone has seen the same phenomenon, but doesn’t think it’s really ESP.
“The unspoken connection comes from being able to talk about situations – I want to do this … I want to do that,” the junior quarterback said. “He has a pretty good feel for me. We know each other very well. We know what’s comfortable for each of us and what each other is thinking.“
Deaver is just happy to finally get his chance. He emerged from the spring of 2012 poised to be one of Duke’s big offensive weapons. But he had a nightmare summer – he underwent thumb surgery in June and knee surgery in July and missed the entire 2012 season.
He’s healthy now and “I’m stronger than I’ve ever been” and is ready to demonstrate why Coach Cutcliffe was so excited about his potential.
BACK IN ACTION
When last seen in a Duke uniform, Kelby Brown was making six tackles in the 2011 season finale at North Carolina. Brown, a true sophomore at the time, was voted Duke’s outstanding linebacker for that 2011 season.
He hasn’t been able to get on the field since undergoing off-season knee surgery soon after that season. But Brown is back in action for the Blue Devils this summer and is anxious to re-start his career.
“Honestly, I finally feel like my body’s ready to play,” he said. “I haven’t felt this way in a long time.”
Brown admitted that while he’s physically recovered, he’s still trying to gear up again to the speed of the game.
And Brown, whose weight is up to 230-pounds (after playing at 210 as a freshman and 220 as a sophomore), is ready for the responsibility.
“I’m definitely stronger that I was,” he said. “I had an entire year and a half to build strength. I’ve maxed out all my personal records in the weight room. Speed? I’m not sure if I’m faster, but I feel comfortable out there.”
GROWING UP IN THE LINE
Sydney Sarmiento had to shake his head at the changes he’s seen in his time as Duke.
When he was a true freshman in the fall of 2009, Duke’s defensive front was loaded with veteran players – from Vince Oghobaase to Kenny Rucker to Patrick Egboh to Ayanga Okpokowuruk.
But a year later, when Sarmiento moved up to the varsity as a redshirt freshman, he found the line decimated by graduation. Duke’s line was so thin that the redshirt freshman from Florence, S.C., had to play an incredible 609 snaps.
He was 19 years old at the time and weighed a mere 260 pounds.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “There was that and not being able to hold up to the boys who were 300-plus and athletic – some of them went on to be first-round draft picks. It was an experience.”
Now Sarmiento is 22 years old and he weighs in at 300 pounds. He’s started 36 straight games entering the season. He’s one of the veteran anchors of one of the ACC’s most experienced defensive lines.
“It’s a great thing to say we have experience,” he said. “It’s a great feeling to go from being one of the least experienced to most experienced lines. It’s been a wild four years.”
It’s kind of ironic. As Duke’s defensive front has slowly grown up over the last few years, the defense was anchored by a collection of experienced defensive backs. But now that the defensive front has depth and maturity, Duke is breaking in a bunch of young defensive backs.
“That’s just the way it is in college football,” he said. “You can be really young up front and experienced in the backfield – like my freshman year. Then you get experienced up front and you’re young in the secondary [like now].”
Sarmiento said it’s important for the veteran defensive front to help out the young defensive backfield.
“It’s important for the defensive front to stop the run,” he said. “That makes it easier on the young guys back there.”