DURHAM, N.C. – Last season, Duke center Bryan Morgan was the smallest starting offensive lineman in the ACC, struggling to keep his weight above – or at least near – 250 pounds.
The rising junior from Hoover, Ala., will play bigger next fall after adding 12-to-14 pounds since the end of the 2008 season.
“I feel a lot stronger,” Morgan said after Duke’s spring football scrimmage. “I feel a lot more conditioned. I feel like I have better stamina than I’ve had in a long time.”
Kyle Hill, who was also undersized by ACC standards when he started at offensive guard last fall at barely 270 pounds, is also significantly bigger and stronger heading into the summer.
“Since the fall, I’ve put on about 20 pounds and I can really feel the difference in the weight room and on the field,” the rising sophomore said. “There are different aspects of my game where having the extra weight and extra strength really helps out. It makes my job a little bit easier.”
Morgan credits strength coach Noel Durfey with his growth in size and strength.
“Coach Durfey is always emphasizing calories, calories, calories,” the young center said. “He says I can pretty much eat anything I want – it’s not going to hurt me because I’m going to run it off. I still eat healthy, but I eat more volume than I have in the past. In the weight room, I just do whatever Coach Durfey tells me. I’m working out as hard as I can.”
The two young veterans are the twin anchors of Coach David Cutcliffe’s plan to rebuild his offensive line after losing three senior starters to graduation. But there’s more to his efforts than simply replacing Cameron Goldberg, Fred Roland and Rob Schirmann.
When Cutcliffe inherited the Duke program in the winter of 2007-08, he found himself saddled with a bunch of overweight, out-of-shape players. His immediate task was to strip the players of their extra weight, preferring to play with small, well-conditioned athletes rather than bigger out-of-shape players.
“We weren’t going to put guys out there who couldn’t compete,” Cutcliffe said. “I believe in the old adage that fatigue makes cowards of us all. That’s where it all begins – conditioning.”
But his preference for smaller, more mobile players with better stamina was merely a stopgap in his ultimate plan. Given his choice, the Blue Devil coach would prefer to have BIGGER mobile, well-conditioned athletes. A year after stripping unwanted weight off the majority of his players, Cutcliffe is now trying to add weight – good weight – to his team.
The first place that transition needs to show up is on the offensive line.
“We’re bigger and stronger,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s an area still of concern, losing three starters, but we’ve made tremendous strides in the area of the offensive line.”
The Duke coach gives assistant Matt Luke a lot of credit for those strides.
“Matt Luke is, in my opinion, the best teacher of offensive line play and the best motivator,” he said. “I love to watch Matt do his thing.”
What Luke is trying to do is reconstruct the line around Morgan and Hill, while developing depth in an area where it was sorely lacking in 2008.
Morgan, an accomplished veteran with more than 800 snaps to his credit, will return at center to provide leadership for what promises to be an inexperienced unit.
“[Coach Cutcliffe has] always said that I have to be a leader, since I’m the center of the offensive line,” Morgan said. “Having a year under my belt really helps because I’m more comfortable in the offense and if others have questions, I can always help them out.”
Hill, who earned second-team freshman All-America honors as a starting guard last season, is making the transition to offensive tackle. He’s also aware of his duties as the second-most experienced player on the offensive line.
“My approach, whenever I come out here, is to just try and be the best player,” he said. “If that means me being a leader and taking somebody with me, then that’s what I’m going to do. Eventually, if guys keep following, we’re going to have a bunch of leaders.”
Jarrod Holt, the youngest brother of a trio of ACC starting linemen – one older brother played for Virginia; another at N.C. State – also brings experience after playing three seasons as a top reserve and occasionally a spot starter. On the other hand, Swedish import Pontus Bondeson has almost no game experience, although the rising junior was voted the team’s most-improved player in the spring.
Cutcliffe and Luke will also be expecting a lot from young prospects such as redshirt freshmen Brian Moore and Conor Irwin, rising sophomore Jon Needham and converted defensive tackle Brandon Harper. Rising junior Mitchell Lederman, hampered this spring by injury, also offers size and some game experience up front.
It’s an interesting mix of experienced and inexperienced, big (Holt, Needham and Lederman are 300-plus) and smaller players. Best of all, for Duke’s long-term prospects, Holt is the only senior in the mix.
“I think nine of our top 12 are freshmen and sophomores,” Cutcliffe said. “I think that’s a good thing.”
While it may be a good thing in the long run, what about the short term? Can Duke compete up front with such a young – and still somewhat undersized by ACC standards – offensive front?
“I would say that where we were the furtherest away, we have made the most progress,” Cutcliffe said after the spring scrimmage. “That does not mean we don’t have a long way to go, but we have seen a steady improvement. I feel a little better about the line now than when we started.”
One of the reasons for progress is the growing familiarity the players have with Coach Cutcliffe and what he and his staff are trying to teach.
“[Last year] we spent a lot of time conditioning and a lot of time teaching what our expectations were,” Cutcliffe said. “[This year] we’re able to go out and coach ... and coach and coach and coach. You don’t really want to coach effort all the time at this level. Last spring, we were doing that all the time.”
Hill has seen the difference on the practice field.
“Last year we were just focused on learning the plays,” he said. “This year, we’re comfortable with the system and we’re really focusing on our techniques and getting better. We’re able to get better now that we know the plays.”
He’s confident that Duke’s rebuilt line will meet the challenge next fall.
“I feel really confident [about the offensive line] because we’ve got some good athletes in there -- guys who really compete and work hard,” Hill said. “We have great chemistry. People have definitely taken a step forward – and the maturity on the field.”
Morgan shares that feeling.
“We have great chemistry on the offensive line,” he said. “We’ve worked hard and worked together and I feel very comfortable with all the guys that are up there.”
The proof, of course, will come on the field in the fall. But while Duke’s new line might still be a bit smaller than the ACC average, they are closing the gap in size and strength.