Head coach David Cutcliffe has said many times that he’d prefer to redshirt most every freshman who came into the program to allow for a smooth transition to college football,, and to create veteran teams as the practice becomes more standard. Certainly there are exceptions each year, and with Duke’s continued success on the recruiting trail, it’s hard to keep certain players off the field. Throw in the injury bug biting at certain positions and you have a number of first year players who may be finding their way onto the field just a few months removed from high school.
One player who is certain to avoid a redshirt is Charlotte area running back Shaun Wilson. The 5-foot-9, 180 pound speedy back will be thrust into the spotlight as the fourth string back due to a combination of talent and opportunity. The talent is certainly evident as Wilson’s speed and elusiveness makes him an open field threat on nearly every down. The opportunity came when Duke’s top back from a season ago, Jela Duncan, was lost for the season as an academic casualty. Look for Wilson to factor in early returning kicks.
Much like Wilson, the two Florida wide receivers - Chris Taylor and Trevon Lee - have impressed early on at Duke, joining second year Sunshine state WR Johnell Barnes in what is becoming a positional pipeline. Both Lee and Taylor have enjoyed success at camp this season and, depending on the day, it was a different answer as to which player was ahead. The depth chart will factor in here, and will likely allow the Blue Devil coaches the luxury of keeping at least one of the two players eligible for a fifth season via redshirt. And, against Elon, neither will play.
Defensively, the early camp chatter centered around the need for true freshman defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord to play. The Florida prospect enrolled this summer with the needed size and strength to do just that. Certainly the defensive line has been one of the camp’s surprises, but in the end Cerenord may prove too naturally talented not to factor in much the same way Carlos Wray did two years ago.
The injury to Kelby Brown certainly rocked the Duke program - both emotionally and on the field. While Duke still returns the ACC’s leading tackler in David Helton, there is now an opening on the depth chart behind the front four. Enter freshman linebacker Zavier Carmichael who has been even better than expected in camp. The 6-foot, 210 pound Alabama product’s speed and play recognition could propel him into the backer rotation with the loss of Brown. There’s also a chance you could see Tinashe Bere avoiding a redshirt though, like the receiver rotation above, Duke will likely have the luxury of playing only one of the two talented freshmen.
Losing the program’s top cornerback in Ross Cockrell opened up the rotation somewhat, though Duke has a number of young defensive backs on the roster. Of the true freshmen, the best bet for avoiding the redshirt would be Ohio’s Alonzo Saxton and Zach Muniz - both of whom appear in the opening day two-deep listing at cornerback.
With so many possibilities, there is one requirement for the freshmen to play according to Cutcliffe who said he would no play a freshman (i.e. burn a redshirt) unless that player was going to definitely be in the rotation.
REPLACING THE FALLEN
If the injury bug stayed away for much of last season, he seems to have found his way back to Durham this year and will provide the program a new challenge. A season ago Duke proved it was ready to win by executing down the stretch and winning a number of games in the fourth quarter (four to be exact). This season the program will need to prove that the coaches have recruited and prepared well enough for the roster’s depth to prove it’s readiness.
In short there is no time to cry over the preseason injury losses, it’s simple “Who’s next?”.
It begins at linebacker and tight end where Kelby Brown and Braxton Deaver have been both been lost for the season, while potential second stringer Dan Beilinson, a 6-foot-5, 255 pound third year sophomore is also out for a while.
Defensively, Duke should be OK with David Helton moving over to middle linebacker from his weak side position. Helton, of course, is a three time all-ACC performer and was the top tackler in the league in 2013. Filling Helton’s shoes will be fifth year senior C.J. France and second year freshman Chris Holmes who pushed enough last year to have the staff lamenting the difficulty in keeping a redshirt on him (a decision made easier when you have two all-conference performers playing most every down as Duke did in Brown and Helton). After France and Holmes, Duke may end up playing Carmichael based on a very, very strong camp. The preference, of course, would be to redshirt all the first year players, but that’s not realistic.
At tight end, Duke loses a big red zone threat in Deaver, meaning David Reeves returns to the top of the depth chart. Reeves isn’t the same threat as Deaver when it comes to making big time receptions, but has proven to be a steady target throughout his career and is one of two Duke players in history to catch TD passes in multiple bowl games. Entering the game against Elon, the top backup is Erich Schneider who enrolled at Duke at 215 pounds, but has worked to add good weight and is now north of 240. His size and athleticism afford him the tools to have a strong season. Similarly, Duke moved former quarterback turned wide receiver Quay Chambers over to tight end as well. Chambers is a tremendous athlete who always figured to end up on the receiving side of the passing game, though the move to tight end is more in name only this year since the redshirt freshman’s vitals (6-foot-3, 208 pounds) more closely resemble a wide out than a tight end.
SPECIAL TEAMS SHOULD BE, WELL, SPECIAL
The talent level in Durham has been creeping up each and every season as recruiting reflects the success on the field. Still, the hallmark of the Blue Devils’ success in recent years has been the ability to do the little things well. To block, tackle, and generally execute all the fundamental aspects of the game. Furthermore, the Blue Devils have made a habit of not leaving points on the field. That begins on special teams where Cutcliffe says this year’s group may be the best he’s ever coached.
“I think this could be the best special teams unit I’ve had, anywhere I’ve been. Starting with the return men, both of those are guys that can take it all the way, every time they touch it. Next one I’m going to go to is Thomas Hennessy, who’s had a great spring as a long snapper. He is spot on. Will [Monday] and Ross [Martin] also had really good camps. From a standpoint of consistency, we’re far better than we were a year ago at this time. We also have guys that can block and cover. I’m anxious to see us cover kicks, too. I’m anxious to see this team’s athleticism show up in those areas.”
AN EXTRA YEAR OF PREP PAID OFF
The benefits of redshirting various players is on display this year for several players as a handful of redshirt freshmen pushed their way onto he depth chart.
Linebacker Chris Holmes progressed so much as a converted safety, that he “made it hard to keep him off the field” last year due to his closing speed and awareness.
Along the defensive line, Mike Ramsay has added 30 pounds in the last year and is listed as the primary backup at defensive tackle.
It has taken a little longer than expected, but Evrett Edwards has finally found his way onto the two deep as well - though at safety and not cornerback where he was initially recruited. Edwards, of course, enrolled in January of 2013 at Duke and many believed he would immediately push for playing time a season ago. However, many of his classmates (Borders and Fields) surpassed him last Fall, and Edwards was forced to wait another year. He ended up moving to safety after Muniz and Saxton arrived at cornerback. Classmate, and one of the later commits from 2013, Phillip Carter will also find some time at safety after sitting out a season ago.
As Cutcliffe mentioned this week, neither Chris Taylor nor Trevon Lee will play in the opener against Elon. That’s a testament to Duke’s depth at wide receiver where Terrence Alls, a second year prospect out of Miami joins the logjam at wideout.