Austin Kelly: It has to be the conditioning. Last year you could see guys just trying to survive the conditioning program. This year we are expecting to be pushed, and we've all done things on our own to make sure that we can not only get by, but excel at it.
Really it's just a matter of doing stuff on your own. We had guys stay after the conditioning and work out one on one, seven on seven. That kind of thing. There's a different level of competition around the program these days. Everyone is competing in everything we do. On the field. In the weight room. In the film room. No matter what we are doing, we are competing.
What do you attribute that to?
Definitely Coach Cutcliffe and his staff coming in and instilling it in us. They pretty much told us to scrap what we were doing before because it obviously wasn't working at all. So we were told to throw it all out the window. He and his staff have been successful before and they know what it takes to win. We don't want to just win though. We're not happy just winning four or five games a year. That's just getting by. We want to compete at the highest levels. We're not satisfied with just winning a few games a year.
It seems that everywhere you look, the commitment to Duke Football has changed. Especially on the facility front. Do those changes impact the team's belief in the school?
Absolutely. It shows that people are serious about building a winning football program here at Duke. Why else would all this money be spent to upgrade our practice fields and guest locker room? Why else would they spend the money to bring in a great coaching staff. The bottom line is that we know that people are behind us, and it's a great feeling.
In looking at the wide receiver position in 2009, you guys have some big shoes to fill. Who will step up as a leader?
We are definitely trying to find leader right now. Sheldon Bell, Johnny Williams, and myself are trying to become the vocal leaders of the group, but there are a lot of guys who are stepping up and leading by example. We are a very competitive group, but we are also a very tight group. If someone makes a huge play, guys aren't worried that it means they will lose their spot. Instead they are the first one over pulling the guy up and congratulating him. We are highly competitive, and we know that allows us to build a very deep unit that can contribute to this team winning and better our offense.
Individually - what's different about you this season?
Has to be my conditioning. I had a really good summer in adding a little weight, but getting a lot more explosive. I worked with the agility coach a lot and it's showing. This year I think I'll be able to push through being tired and still be effective because of the off-season work. I also worked hard to get better on my route running.
One thing you notice is how many responsibilities each position has that seem "extra" to the traditional roles. What do the receivers have to do, responsibility-wise, in this offense aside from the route running and such?
We are drilled on the blocking and finishing out the plays. As receivers we can really make or break a big play for our running backs. If they bust through the line, there's really only one guy who can get to them and that's the safety. Our coaches are always on us to get to the safety. If we can do that, then we can help our running game really flourish. If we take a play off, though, it makes it hard for our backs to break any game changing plays.
Last year the running game didn't produce enough to make the offense as balanced. Does that put added pressure on the passing game?
We don't look at it like that. We need to have a balanced attack, but it's a team effort to improve the running game. We have worked hard at each position to make sure that it's not just the backs and offensive line doing everything. If we - the passing game - need to come through, we'll be ready...but I think you're going to see a lot more balance in our offense this year.
Getting back to the position for a second, you mentioned some of the experienced players stepping up. What about the new guys? Anyone standing out?
Got to be Tyree Watkins and Conner Vernon. They've caught my eye with how hard they work and how talented they are. It's not just me, either. It's the whole team that has taken noticed. If those two stay strong and keep working like they have been, they are going to play this year. A lot.
From speaking with other players, it seems as though the team put a lot of emphasis on itself to do things differently between November and August. What changed?
We were always in the film room. The players actually came up with a log sheet and we all signed when we checked in and out. That was mainly Thad and Re'quan sitting down with us and putting the responsibility on us. We have to study our offense, but we also need to study our opponents. We need to know what their strengths are, but more importantly we need to know what our weaknesses are and were.
So, ultimately, what will fans in Wallace Wade notice about this year's Duke Football team?
This is the year I think we are ready to put it all together. We have put everything on the line and are ready to finally experience success. We are definitely capable of being a bowl team, but we know that we cannot take a play off. Not in any week. We're tired of talking about potential, and just winning a few games here and there. We want to establish a tradition of winning here at Duke.
In talking with some coaches, it seems like you guys put the full pads on in the next day or so. Are you guys looking forward to it?
We really are. I know the receivers are really looking forward to getting out there and getting after the DBs. They've been talking quite a lot, and it's time to see what's up.
Anyone in particular like to talk the most out there?
It's all of them, really. Like I said, we all love to compete, and that's just part of it. But if you get out there, we've had a lot of chit chatting going on. But, when we take off the pads, we're all part of the same team - just trying to push each other to get better.
Is that a big change?
I think so. You don't have just positions or groups just hanging out. The DBs hang out with the receivers, and everyone hangs out with each other. My roommate is Randez James. In the end the team has really turned into a big family. It's a great change, and a reason why we're ready to put it all together.