By: John Roth, GoDuke the Magazine
DURHAM, N.C. – Around the Yoh Football Center, sophomore Jeremy McDuffie runs with the cheetahs. That’s assistant coach Derek Jones’ appellation for Duke’s defensive backs, an athletic coalition of corners and safeties whose daily meeting room is swathed in imagery of the world’s fastest land mammal.
McDuffie has had an opportunity to demonstrate his stealth, speed and hunting instincts on a limited basis in his first two years at Duke, with 619 snaps across two starts and 22 relief appearances at cornerback. And there’s an excellent chance he will exceed that snap total this coming fall as a probable starter for a hungry, new-look secondary.
But as this spring semester winds down, McDuffie finds himself running with a different pack. The Georgia native joined the Duke track and field team when spring football practice ended — and delivered immediate, impressive results.
In his first two outdoor meets in three years, McDuffie quickly burned the rust off his dormant track skills with strong showings at the Battle of the Blues in Durham and the Tennessee Relays in Knoxville, competing each time in the 110 hurdles and the triple jump — a pair of endeavors that favor cheetah-like attributes.
He took first place in both at the Blues meet (a matchup of Duke, UNC and Michigan), with his triple jump mark of 51 feet, 1.50 inches ranking as the second best in school history. At Tennessee his hurdles time of 14.43 seconds was the fourth fastest in school history.
McDuffie also ran a 200-meter leg for the sprint medley relay team that won the Tennessee Relays in 3:23.00, the third fastest mark ever at Duke. The relay unit came within nine-tenths of a second of breaking a school record that has stood since 1971 — a mark they will try again to best at the upcoming Penn Relays.
McDuffie also figures to compete at the Penn Relays in the triple jump, an event in which he is likely to score points at the ACC Championships two weeks later and in which he has a solid chance of qualifying for NCAA nationals, according to Duke director of track Norm Ogilvie.
“We’ve very excited that he’s with us,” Ogilvie said. “He makes our team better because he’s good over several different events.”
McDuffie’s track career began in middle school primarily as a football conditioning exercise. He first dabbled in throwing the shot put and discus, before transitioning into sprints and hurdles. “We didn’t have anybody in the hurdles,” he recalled, “so I came home one day and looked on YouTube to try to find out how to run the hurdles. Then I went out to the track the next day and told my coach I wanted to run them. I’ve had a lot more technical training since then.”
McDuffie evolved into a legitimate stud on the track by his junior season at Shiloh High, when he won 2014 Georgia AAAAAA state titles in the 110 hurdles, 300 hurdles, triple jump and 4x100 relay. His 110 hurdles time of 13.83 seconds was the sixth fastest nationally in the high school ranks, and the 34.5 points he scored in the state meet were more than 39 other schools totaled. His school took the team title as well.
On the football field McDuffie was rated one of the top 50 prep cornerbacks nationally during his senior year, but he tore his ACL after eight games, so he couldn’t finish that season or participate in his final high school track campaign.
But after signing with Duke he healed in time to appear in every Blue Devil game as a true freshman in 2015, becoming one of just five newcomers to letter. He even earned two starts late in the year against North Carolina and Pitt, and he picked off a pass in the Miami game. He continued to focus solely on football last spring and appeared in all but one game off the bench this past fall.
McDuffie made his return to the track in January, prior to the start of spring football drills, when he trained for about a week and competed in one indoor meet at Clemson. He turned in the second best indoor triple jump and the fourth fastest 60-meter hurdles time in Duke history, then shut it down for over a month to concentrate on his football responsibilities. Once spring practice ended, he leapt into the outdoor track season in earnest — while also joining his fellow cheetahs every morning for their rigorous offseason strength training sessions.
“In the weight room we go hard on power cleans and hard on eccentric movements for our hamstrings, our quads and our squats,” McDuffie said. “When I came back to the track I probably did no triple jump practice for my first or second meet, but I think my strength translated from the weight room and I ended up with my personal best all-time with no training.”
McDuffie finds the two sports complementary in other aspects as well.
“I used to think it was different but it’s all one-on-one,” he explained. “As a corner you’re going to be one-on-one, as a nickel corner you’re going to be one-on-one and even in track when I’m down in my blocks, I know it’s one-on-one with the guy next to me.
“As soon as I’m coming out of the blocks, I want to be the first one out of the blocks. On the field as soon as he gets off the ball, I want to hit him. I want to find his first move and I want to beat him. So it’s a competition in both sports — I want to beat the guy next to me or across from me.”
After playing mostly behind Breon Borders and Bryon Fields at corner the last two years, McDuffie is now expected to handle a strike safety role, one he likens to a nickel cornerback who can cover slot receivers and blitz off the edge. “I’m really excited because it’s kinda my role now. I’m taking it. I get to come into the game and show off a lot of aspects of myself on the field.”
This hectic spring should be ample prep, with competition and training in two sports plus several service learning experiences in his education major keeping him perpetually on the move.
“I love the challenge,” he said. “Academically it’s been one of the best years for me as far as learning and education. It’s persuaded me to major in education. I’ve found my actual career in what I want to do outside of football. So that’s been fun. Also on the field and on the track, it’s been a fun experience getting me ready for the next level.”