Noel Durfey, coach David Cutcliffe’s hand-picked leader of strength and conditioning for Duke football, has been in the sports performance business for 18 years. He says he’s never witnessed symbiosis among player development specialists quite like what he’s seen during his tenure as a Blue Devil.
“This is the fifth university I’ve worked at, and by far the best relationship I’ve been around between the strength and conditioning staff and sports medicine,” says Durfey, who came to Duke in January 2008 shortly after Cutcliffe was hired.
“I think a lot of that is because nobody has an ego. I’ve been at places where the strength coach has an ego this big and the trainer has an ego this big, and they’re not willing to compromise. But here…it’s about the kid, it’s not about us.”
The case of junior nose guard Jamal Bruce, expected to fill an integral role for Duke’s defensive front this fall, illustrates the cooperative efforts that often come to play in an individual student-athlete’s long-term physical development. A projected starter last season, Bruce was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his foot a week before preseason training camp began and wound up missing the first six games. He returned to the field for limited duty over the second half of the season, but says he didn’t really feel comfortable until the Belk Bowl in late December.
Once the curtain fell on 2012, Bruce’s trek toward an optimal 2013 began in earnest. And it involved the direction and support of a cadre of Duke personnel across several disciplines — from the strength and conditioning and sports medicine staffs to a nutritionist, his coaches and even his teammates. Bruce hopes that utilizing all these resources — not to mention his own dedication — will get him to Opening Day this season in prime position to help anchor the veteran front line of Duke’s defense.
Bruce, from LaGrange, Ga., redshirted as a freshman in 2010 and played 177 reserve snaps across 12 games in 2011 before moving into the probable starter’s role at nose guard heading into 2012. That projection fizzled when pain materialized in his right foot last July, indicative of a stress fracture of the fifth metatarsal — a cumulative impact injury frequently associated with basketball. Dr. James Nunley surgically repaired the foot by inserting a screw, leaving Bruce on crutches for a couple of weeks and in a protective walking boot for a couple of months.
Bruce said it was the first time he had ever sustained a football-related injury. “It really didn’t hit me, being out, until the first game,” he recalled. “It was different sitting back watching, not playing. We were winning big and I wanted to be out there.
“Thinking about it now, I probably should have waited until the bowl game to play, but I wanted to be out there with the team. My first six games back, I think I was only playing about 10 snaps a game but I was just happy to be out there with the team doing something.”
Bruce’s foot was slow to heal, so rehabilitation was his primary focus last fall. Working with trainer Hap Zarzour and his staff, Bruce tackled his physical therapy through an assortment of flexibility and mobility exercises, core body sessions, pool workouts and conditioning on a stationary bike. His pain eventually subsided, and this spring he set about reshaping his body for the new year.
Step one involved losing some weight and reducing his body fat percentage. Bruce played the Belk Bowl at 287 pounds, but his coaches wanted him to drop to about 270 while adding some lean muscle tissue and getting in better shape — presumably to take some pressure off his foot but primarily to be better prepared to handle a heavy snap load this fall. He got through spring ball without incident, monitoring the progress in his foot while at the same time paying more attention to his diet. By mid-June he was down to 270 and intent on staying there through the remainder of Duke’s extensive offseason workout program.
Duke nutritionist Franca Alphin helped educate Bruce on the fundamentals of healthy eating. Adding more fruits and vegetables while avoiding fast foods and fried foods were obvious starting points, even though it meant eliminating his favorite food — French fries — from his diet. “Since I’ve been here I don’t think I had been eating right. I probably eat right only a couple months out of the year (during the season),” he said.
“Really it’s been me personally paying attention to what I eat. I haven’t had the season I’ve wanted to yet. Because of the injury, and my redshirt year I was playing behind older guys, I just haven’t had the breakout year I’ve wanted to have. So anything that would aid me doing that, I’m willing to try it.”
“The biggest thing is nutrition,” noted Durfey, speaking from his office in the weight room at the Yoh Center. “You can train like a champ, but if you’re living like a chump it really doesn’t make a difference, because it’s one step forward, one step back.
“And it’s 24/7. In the NFL, those guys got it figured out. They make their money off their body. They take care of it. They’re a machine. The better the thing’s going to run, the longer it’s going to run for them. Since we’ve been here, that’s what we’ve tried to get guys to buy into. Lifting weights just starts the process; what you do when you leave these doors, that’s the finish — sleeping, eating, hydrating, rehab. You’ve got to do everything you can to put yourself in a position to be successful.”
From a training standpoint, a typical summer week for Bruce (and the rest of the Blue Devils) revolves around weightlifting sessions on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, alternating with running and field work on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Friday is the heavy lifting “pound day” prior to the weekend off.
Durfey has tailored Bruce’s lifting schedule to accommodate his current situation. Because of his foot injury, he doesn’t do explosive lifts that include jumping and landing, but he regularly works through a series of squats and other maneuvers to help build the power in his lower body. Bruce has spent a lot of time on upper body lifts — curls, hammers, presses, shrugs, pushups, medicine ball tosses — and says he’s made significant gains in strength during this offseason.
The weekday lifts typically begin at 7:00 a.m. Bruce often works in tandem with defensive end Jonathan Woodruff, a noted beast in the weight room who is also rehabbing an injury. “We motivate each other,” Bruce says.
Bruce always caps off his 90-minute lifting sessions with an extra 25-30 minutes of conditioning on a bike or elliptical machine. The whole team runs on the field on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and Bruce also adds a set of “gassers” or sideline sprints to his workout to further enhance his conditioning. By now, extra cardio has become part of his daily routine.
The team’s Tuesday-Thursday self-practices provide important summer development as well. Coaches can’t be present, but leaders at each position run their teammates through drills appropriate for their group. That’s where Bruce works on the techniques he hopes will enable him to beat opposing offensive linemen in his pursuit of the quarterback this fall. Exploding out of his stance and hitting or pushing into blocking sleds helps him accentuate one of his chief assets — the quickness required to make maximum impact on Saturdays.
“We just really want to pressure the quarterback more and work on our pass rush,” said Bruce, who hopes to see the Blue Devils’ sack total continue its recent progression this year. (Duke has improved from posting only 12 sacks in 2010, to 17 in 2011, to 25 last year.) “We can’t really work on playing the run because we don’t have pads on during these practices, but that’s a focal thing we’re constantly stressing in meetings. And being aggressive is another thing, too — just setting a different mentality so we can be the strength of the defense next year.”
Speaking of meetings, the defensive linemen get together every Monday night after dinner during the summer to go over their playbooks and prepare for the week’s self-practices, further enhancing the growth at their positions.
“The summer is the time you can take a step back and take your time with the playbook — not just looking to see what your responsibility is but the whole concepts of the defense,” Bruce said. “During the fall you have to be ready because that’s the time you’re getting ready for the game. In the summer you have free time, so get in your playbook, know your responsibilities and see what the defense is. The fall is the time to execute it.”
Execution in the fall is the overriding objective of Duke’s year-round sports performance program for every player, each of whom brings unique needs that are personally addressed by the staff. Injury limited Bruce’s opportunity last year and its aftermath continues to influence his physical development. Pain-free almost a year after surgery, he still gets monthly X-rays to monitor the progress, uses an accelerated bone stimulator to promote healing and continues to work with the sports medicine staff for stretching and post-workout treatments — all while focusing on training and nutrition to create a leaner physique that could lead to his breakout year.
“Jamal’s done great. I think he’s bought in more. So much of that is that he’s a year older, more mature. That usually helps,” Durfey said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked him to over the last eight months. He’s just got to keep doing it.”