David Cutcliffe opened his sixth preseason football camp at Duke Monday, hoping to build on last season’s bowl trip – the first for the Blue Devils program since 1994.DURHAM --
“People have been practicing football all over – I feel like we’re late getting started,” Cutcliffe said.
Indeed, Duke is the last team in the Triangle to get started. Even North Carolina Central, which will open the season against the Blue Devils on Aug. 31, began workouts last week. But Cutcliffe pointed out that under NCAA rules, every school has the same number of preseason practice opportunities.
The Duke coach called the 2013 Blue Devils team a mixture of veteran players and young talent. Officially, Duke returns 17 starters – seven on offense, eight on defense and two specialists. But Cutcliffe pointed out how flexible that number actually is – because of Duke’s heavy injury toll last season, quite a few players got experience as starters.
“We actually have 32 players who have started at least one game for us,” he said.
But Cutcliffe is also counting on a number of young players to play key roles, especially in the secondary. He’s counting on the veterans to help the youngsters fit in quickly.
“The thing I like most about this team is that they like each other,” Cutcliffe said. “They enjoy working and they enjoy working with each other. Noel Durfey [the head football performance coach] said that for the most part, [the coaches] had to get out of their way. These guys knew what they needed to do and did it.
“We have more natural leadership than we’ve ever had.”
Cutcliffe is praying that Duke can avoid the devastating run of injuries that plagued last year’s team As practice opens, he’s concerned about three players – Thomas Sirk, projected as the No. 2 quarterback, is still recovering from an Achilles injury that he suffered late in spring practice and will not be able to work for some time; veteran defensive end Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo is still rehabbing from ankle surgery last spring and will be limited early; fifth-year senior Justin Foxx, a projected starter at defensive end, is trying to get into shape after rehabbing from knee surgery last January.
Cutcliffe said that Sirk is the only player who definitely won’t be ready for the first game. He expects Foxx to be ready and hopes the DeWalt-Ondijo will make the opener.
One player who won’t get special treatment is linebacker Kelby Brown. Voted the team’s best linebacker in 2011, Brown missed all last season with a knee injury and was limited in his work last spring. But Cutcliffe said Brown is now 100 percent healthy and would get his full work to prepare for the season.
Brandon Connette is a hard player to define.
Technically, he’s Duke’s second-team quarterback, but the redshirt junior from Corona, Calif., is so much more than that.
He’s also a short-yardage specialist, who has run for 17 touchdowns in 26 career games, while also converting innumerable first downs. Last year he also lined up as a slot back, a tight end and a wide receiver. He threw 13 times for three touchdowns. He caught 11 passes for another touchdown. He also played on special teams, including serving as a protector for All-ACC punter Will Monday.
“I think the roles just keep on expanding and expanding and expanding,” Connette said. “We’re going to experiment with some things this preseason camp and see where that goes.”
Last year was easy in the sense that Connette could prepare for his special roles and not worry too much about playing quarterback. But with the spring injury to Thomas Sirk, projected as Anthony Boone’s backup, Connette has to be prepared to step in as the fulltime quarterback if anything happens to Boone.
Connette is hoping it doesn’t come to that.
“I’m having so much fun right now doing all those roles,” he said. “I think the thing I’ve been most successful with over the past few years has been that short-yardage, goal-line situations. Last year, it was a lot of fun for me to expand that role – to catch some passes from the receiver spot, to play special teams. Getting to touch the ball in so many ways … getting to block people is so much fun for me.”
But Connette is prepared to step in as the fulltime quarterback if it comes to that.
“100 percent,” he said. “Coach Cutcliffe and I have had numerous conversations about that role. The amount of film I’ve been able to watch – I’ve grown comfortable as a quarterback as well all the things I’m doing. I’m comfortable as a quarterback – a mobile quarterback – and not the whole slash thing.”
THE KID IN THE MIDDLE
Duke’s offensive line is loaded with veterans. The projected first team has combined for 104 career starts.
But all those starts are divided between veteran tackles Takoby Cofield (15 starts) and Perry Simmons (37 starts) and guards Laken Tomlinson (25 starts) and Dave Harding (27 starts).
Matt Skura, the projected starter at center, is the new kid on the block. The redshirt sophomore sat out the 2011 season to grow and mature, then saw some action (125 snaps in 10 games) last season. Yet, in the Duke system, the center makes the blocking calls.
“He’s a very intelligent guy,” Harding said. “And he’ll be between Laken and myself. We’ll try to help out on calls.”
Nobody is concerned about Skura’s ability to handle the blocking duties at the position. The Columbus, Ohio, product is a prime prospect that picked Duke over Cincinnati, Ohio State and Illinois.
It’s important to understand, Skura is not playing out of necessity. His backup, John Coleman, is a fifth-year senior who has nine career starts. In a pinch, Harding could play center as he did in 2011, when starter Brian Moore was injured in preseason.
But Skura won the job with an impressive spring – which makes Harding happy.
“I prefer to play guard,” he said.
Duke’s offensive line is one of the tightest groups on the team. A year ago, most of them went to Africa together to dig wells in Ethiopia. This past summer, Simmons got the linemen together to work for Habitat for Humanity.
The linemen also like to get together to visit various buffets in Durham, most recently to celebrate Lucas Patrick’s birthday.
“Any excuse we can get,” Harding said. And as to the fearsome sight of a dozen or so players in the 300-poind range lining up an all-you-can-eat place: “They shut down right after we come in.”
THE ‘OLD’ NEW KID IN THE SECONDARY
In contrast to Skura, who is a third-year player and is the youngest starter on the offensive line, Dwayne Norman is a second-year player at safety and is one of the most experienced players in the Duke secondary.
Norman, a 6-1, 200-pounder from Jacksonville, Fla., played in all 13 games last season as a true freshman and started five times. He finished as Duke’s No. 4 tackler with 60 tackles and two fumble recoveries.
“I learned a whole lot by failing a lot and having some success,” Norman said.
A year ago, Norman leaned on veteran cornerback Ross Cockrell, who was also thrown into action as a freshman starter in 2010.
“He told me his first year was rough … that he was picked on,” Norman said.
Now Norman and Cockrell are two of the old hands in a Duke secondary that features a number of promising youngsters.
“They’re always asking me how it is,” he said. “We talk about the speed of the game, so they know what to expect and won’t be so wide-eyed.”
Norman is changing position this year, moving from the Rover spot he played last year to the Bandit spot – the position played by All-ACC safeties Matt Daniels in 2011 and Walt Canty in 2012. As the Bandit, he’s closely aligned with Duke’s new Strike safety – Ohio State transfer Jeremy Cash.
“It’s good to work with him,” Norman said. “The Bandit and the Strike communicate a lot. It’s almost a partnership.”
THE DUKE FAMILY
Sophomore Max McCaffrey has strong Duke roots.
His father Ed was, of course, an All-American wide receiver at Stanford who played 13 seasons in the NFL. But his uncle, Billy, played basketball at Duke and was a key player on the Devils’ 1991 national championship team. Another uncle, Scott Sime, played football at Duke.
But McCaffrey’s genes go back even farther – his grandfather, Dave Sime, one of the great athletes in Duke history, starred in football, baseball and track and field. At one point in the 1950s, Dave Sime held the world record in the 100-meter dash … and even as an aging runner, he won the silver medal in the 1960 Olympics.
“I would like to think I got a lot of his speed,” McCaffrey said.
The 6-2, 190-pounder played his prep football in Castle Rock, Colo. He was primarily a defensive back until he switched to wide receiver as a senior. He was heavily recruited in the West and Mountain states, but he elected to play far from home at Duke.
“I always loved Duke since I was a little kid,” he said. “Once I came here for my visit, I realized I loved this place and I loved the coaching staff and the players here.”
McCaffrey saw spot duty last year as a true freshman – his two receptions both came in the loss to Florida State. But he really blossomed in spring, when he shared the Most Improved Offensive Player award with Cody Robinson. He enters preseason practice as a projected starter at wide receiver.
“Guys like Connor Vernon and Desmond Scott, they played a lot,” McCaffrey said. “Now that they’re gone, the younger guys have to step up. Last year, I think that some of us [the young receivers] were a little hesitant. We were not quite ready. But now I see a huge jump.”
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