Kenny Anunike arrived on the Duke campus in the summer of 2008, he was joining what may have been the worst BCS program in the country.DURHAM -- When
The Blue Devils won just one game in the year before his arrival and just four in the previous four seasons. Duke had a 25-game ACC losing streak.
But Anunike bought into the vision of new Duke head coach David Cutcliffe. And now he’s one of the key players on a 7-2 team that’s still in the race for the ACC championship.
“I came in the very first class under Coach Cut,” the sixth-year senior said. “The season prior, they had gone 1-11 and 0-12 before that. He told me to buy in and we’d be at this point a couple of years down the road. And I did – most of my class is not here to see it, but I’m fortunate enough to be here and see this program take a 180-degree flip. We used to be at the bottom of the barrel and now we’re talking about contending for the ACC championship.
“That’s awesome. It makes me proud to be a Duke Blue Devil.”
Anunike has certainly paid his dues. He missed two seasons early in his career with injuries (the reason he got a waiver to play a sixth season) and he’s undergone so many knee surgeries that he can’t quite remember how many.
But he’s persevered and, coming off a week where he was picked as the ACC defensive lineman of the week, the veteran end is one of the top defenders in the conference (currently top 10 in the ACC in tackles for loss).
“It’s not all me – it’s truly my faith,” Anunike said. “The Lord has enabled me to hang in there through four or five surgeries. It’s remarkable. I feel great out there – even better than last year. I was more of a pass rush specialist [in 2012], but I’ve balanced my game out now. I’m more an every down end. I can get to the quarterback, stop the run, drop back into coverage … I like that.”
But Anunike is even more excited about how well the Blue Devils have played in their five-game winning streak.
“That’s really what I came here to do,” he said.
Saturday’s game with No. 24 Miami is not only a pivotal game in Duke’s quest for an ACC title, it’s the last home game for Anunike and Duke’s other seniors.
“It’s a bittersweet moment,” he said. “All good things must come to an end, right? This will be my last time running out of that tunnel as a Blue Devil. I just want to make it a memorable game. My whole family is coming down for the first time. It’s going to a great atmosphere.”
FINAL HOME GAME FOR THE SENIORS
Anunike is one of 11 scholarship seniors who will play their last game in Wade Stadium Saturday. Cutcliffe said several other players – juniors in eligibility, but on track to graduate this spring as well as non-scholarship seniors – will also be introduced before the game.
Dave Harding, a fifth-year senior offensive guard, said the reality of the situation hit home for him during Tuesday morning’s practice.
“We were talking about that today,” Harding said. “The offense wears Blue in practice when we’re at home and everybody was like, “This is the last Bloody Tuesday where we’re going to be wearing blue. It’s kind of a small thing, but it helps you realize the magnitude of what’s coming up this Saturday.”
Cutcliffe appreciates what his seniors have contributed to the program he’s building at Duke.
“I’m excited about what these guys have done,” he said. “I’m counting on a huge Duke crowd to send them off properly. Thinking about the fifth-year seniors … that’s a lot of by-in to the program. They’ve done it 12 months a year since they’ve been here.
“They’ve been pretty special.”
Harding also thought his senior crop was special.
“I’m impressed and pleased with the progress we’ve made in this program,” he said. “Coach Cutcliffe always preaches, leave a place better than you found it and there’s no doubt that we’ve done that. But the job is not over – we still have at least four games left and maybe five.”
THOMPSON EARNS CAPTAINCY
Cutcliffe announced Tuesday that senior Juwan Thompson has been named as the team’s fifth permanent captain as a reward for his work on special teams.
“He has been the epitome of a special teams player – not just this season, but last year and all summer,” the Duke coach said. “He took it upon himself this summer to really become a coach and teach the youngsters the fine art of special teams play. It’s paid off.”
Indeed, Duke is currently in the top three of the ACC in punt coverage, kickoff coverage, punt returns and kickoff returns.
But Thompson is more than a special teams player – he’s been a starting tailback at times and a midseason began to play some linebacker. Cutcliffe said Thompson made a key third-down stop in the Virginia Tech game and he reeled off a key 31-yard run in the N.C. State game.
“I’m very proud of him,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s one of the more unselfish football players that we have had anywhere I’ve been.”
Anunike agreed that Thompson deserved the honor.
“He’s truly just a selfless guy,” he said. “Juwan is all about the team. He’s awesome, man. Whatever you ask him to do, he’s going to do it – no questions asked, no ifs ands or buts. Sometimes at practice, they bring out two jerseys. We’re wearing white [on defense] and he’ll wear white. Then he’ll put on the blue on and go play offense. You talk about being in the middle of two playbooks – it’s hard enough learning one.”
THE QUARTERBACKS SITUATION
Anthony Boone has a 7-0 record as Duke’s starting quarterback, but it was Brandon Connette who rescued the Blue Devils with a strong relief performance last Saturday against N.C. State.
So which redshirt junior starts at quarterback this Saturday against Miami?
“No decision [has been] made,” Cutcliffe said. “We want to use practice and some thought process. Coach [Kurt] Roper and I have discussed it. We’ve talked to both Anthony and Brandon, so we’ll just keep working through the week and evaluating what’s best for the team.
“But I would expect you’ll see both of them play. Both have played well for us for a while. I certainly think that makes us a better team to have both of them available.”
The Duke coach said his job is a lot easier because of the character of his two quarterback contenders.
“They are very sincerely very close friends,” Cutcliffe said. “They have been able to do that and they’ve been competitors since they walked on campus. If you ask both of them if they thought [freshman quarterback] Parker Boehme could help us win against Miami, they’d want Parker to start.
“They are teammates and they are team-first players.”
DUKE’S BREAKOUT STAR
DeVon Edwards is a good example of just how unreliable recruiting services can be.
The 5-9, 185-pound redshirt freshman from Covington, Ga., was a two-star recruit who didn’t receive another FBS offer coming out of Alcovy High School.
Yet, Edwards has been a solid player for Duke in his first varsity season and last Saturday against N.C. State, he exploded on the national scene with three non-offensive touchdowns – a 100-yard kickoff return and two interception returns for touchdowns. His efforts were good enough to win national player of the week honors for the lowest-ranked member of Duke’s 2012 recruiting class (according to ESPN).
What did Duke’s David Cutcliffe see in Edwards that no other coach did?
“Number one, he was pretty terrific on tape, “Cutcliffe said. “He played offense. He played defense. He was running kickoffs back and punts back. He was a 4.0 student.
“I went down to watch him play basketball and that’s when I knew. I absolutely knew. When I saw him on the court – I don’t know what we list him as, but I’ll give him 5-9 – he was a terrific scorer, but why I loved him – he thought every missed shot was his rebound. Then I found out he was not only the leading scorer on their team, but the leading rebounder.”
Edwards started the season at cornerback, but made the switch to safety in September. Cutcliffe likes that kind of versatility – he’s used senior Ross Cockrell at both corner and safety and is teaching his young crop of defensive backs to play multiple positions in the secondary.
“I don’t want to sign safeties and corners – I want to sign defensive backs,” Cutcliffe said. “I want to sign guys who can cover and tackle back there. I don’t care what they’re called. That’s what we’re getting more of.”
The Duke coach joked about a couple of traditional defensive back descriptions:
“You know what a cover corner is?” he asked. “It’s a guy who doesn’t want to tackle. And you know what a strong safety is? A guy who can’t cover. I don’t want either one of those.”
Edwards might look like an undersized corner, but he’s proven himself as a tackler. He recorded 12 tackles in Duke’s defensive gem at Virginia Tech and added 10 more against N.C. State. The fact that he’s had back-to-back double figure tackle totals was overshadowed by his three big scoring plays.
And Edwards’ performance may have overshadowed the fact that Duke’s defense is blooming as defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is inserting more and more young players. On a day when All-ACC corner Ross Cockrell was unable to play, Duke excelled with such young secondary performers as Edwards, redshirt freshman Corbin McCarthy and true freshmen Deondre Singleton, Bryon Fields and Breon Borders.
That group of youngsters also went most of the way against Virginia Tech – it was Borders who tipped away the pass that Kelby Brown intercepted top clinch that win. In fact, in ACC play, Borders ranks fourth in the league in passes defended and Fields is in the top 20.
Cutcliffe bragged about the young secondary talent, pointing out that the Devils are redshirting a number of promising defensive backs.
It’s another example of the often misleading nature of recruiting ratings. Duke has eight defensive backs in its current freshman class – and the three lowest rated of the eight – Borders, Fields and Singleton – are playing and playing well as true freshmen. The top five DB recruits in the class are redshirting.
PULLING FOR THE TIGERS
Most of the Duke players will be watching Thursday night when Georgia Tech visits Clemson for a nationally televised game on ESPN.
The game has significance for the Blue Devils – if Duke hopes to qualify for the ACC title game in Charlotte, Clemson needs to beat Georgia Tech. If the Jackets win at Clemson, Georgia Tech completes a 6-2 ACC season. Duke could do no better than tie the Jackets for the Coastal Division title – and because of the team’s loss to Georgia Tech in September, the Jackets win every possible tiebreaker with the Devils.
But if Clemson wins, then Duke’s fate is in its own hands. Virginia Tech could still tie a 6-2 Duke for the division title, but in that case, Duke wins the tiebreakers.
“I’ll definitely be watching,” tight end Braxton Deaver said. “Not only does it affect us, it’s going to be a great game.”
Cutcliffe said that he usually watches at least part of the Thursday night game after he gets his work done – if he doesn’t fall asleep.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pulling for Clemson – who wouldn’t?” he said. “But that’s the least of my worries.”