Noticeable in his pre-practice walk through was the level of excitement iminating from head coach David Cutcliffe. The second year coach engaged several of his players in positional warm ups.
"Do you know what 'T-G-I-T' stands for Johnny [Williams]," Cutcliffe asked his second year receiver. "It means thank goodness it's today. We can get better today. We're going to get better, aren't we?"
The mantra soon spread through the entire team as the first practice horn sounded and the team began going to work.
WHAT SEPARATES TEAMS FROM ONE ANOTHER
On Friday the theme for both the offense and defense was performing and exceling on third down situations. A season ago the Blue Devils were faced with third down 183 times. On 67 of those occasions, Duke was able to earn a new set of downs -- a 37 percent conversion ratio. As the teams huddled with their respective coaches and coordinators the message was clear.
"Third down is what separates teams at this level," the coaches said. "For the offense, performing and making plays allows you to stay on the field. We need guys to execute and to step up to make plays."
With that the teams went to work imploring both passing and running drills in shadow situations before the teams met at the 30 yard line and began moving forward in attempts to either move the chains (offense) or get off the field (defense).
In the full unit tests, several Blue Devils were earning high praise from the coaches including most of the first team offensive line which was able to open up a hole for Jay Hollingsworth to shoot through and break a couple of tackles before scampering the remaining 27 yards for a score. Such a play is enough to spark optimism in hearts of Duke faithful as the Blue Devils had just one run over that distance a season ago.
Freshman runningback Desmond Scott showed a willingness to run between the tackles and an impressive second effort after being met by a defender. On two separate plays the freshman kept his legs churning to earn tough extra yards.
On Friday the first team offensive line consisted of Kyle Hill, Mitch Lederman, Bryan Morgan, Brian Moore, and Jarrod Holt. Brett Huffman was spotted as working at the tight end position, while Austin Kelly, Johnny Williams, and Donovan Varner all saw times in the various schemes at receiver. Both Hollingsworth and Re'quan Boyette, along with Brandon King saw time behind Thaddeus Lewis.
The first team defensive unit was a bit fluid in terms of which players were working with the ones and twos, but it's noticeable that freshman John Drew is lining up beside Vince Oghobaase quite often on the interior. Oghobaase is blessed with prototypical size at nearly 6'6, while Drew may be 6'3. That perceived shortcoming may have been the only thing that kept the Georgia native from being rated even higher than he was coming out of high school. As one long time Duke source put it: "It shows how silly it all is. That kid is good enough to play in the ACC as a true freshman, but people doubt him because of two inches."
Friday say Ayanga Okpokowuruk and Patrick Egboh join the two interior players on the first time D-line. The linebackers getting reps with them were Vincent Rey, Damian Thornton, and Abraham Kromah. The defensive backs had several players moving in and out, but largely remained the same as previous workouts.
When working with the second team offense, quarterback Sean Renfree had Conor Irwin and Rob Drum as his tackles with converted defensive tackle Brandon Harper and John Coleman as the guards. Kenny Anunike saw action at tight end while Josh Trezvant, Tyree Watkins, and Conner Vernon manned the wideout spots.
SPECIAL TEAMS WORK
As always the kicking games were getting special attention with both protection and coverage (punting) and field goal execution. Recently named to the Groza Award watch list, junior Nick Maggio put on an impressive display from both the right and left hash marks - connecting on matching 49 yard attempts with the ball sailing through the upper third of the middle of the uprights on both attempts.
Not to be out-shown, the defensive unit managed a highlight when Vince Oghobaase broke through the line and got a big hand up to block a 35 yard attempt from Paul Asack.
In the return game, both Leon Wright and Johnny Williams appeared to be on their game, breaking through the coverage and earning 15-20 yard returns on a handful of occasions. Doing so was an accomplishment in itself as the Duke coverage was applying high pressure on both speedy players after a couple of steps.
*- The team will hold a closed scrimmage over the weekend and will return to camp next week.
*- One small changed noticed is the quality of practice equipment being utilized by the coaching staff. It may not be noticeable to the casual observer, but in years past the Blue Devils would use old game uniforms, or off-branded equipment. This year the "swoosh" is prominently displayed on everything from those players in limited contact (black) jerseys to the quarterbacks (green), and the regular players (white for defense, blue for offense). In addition, there are several devices and props there were never here under previous regimes. Sleds, racks, and other equipment are now strategically placed in and around the practice spaces. Coupled with the practice field, new locker rooms, and other improvements -- the commitment to Duke football under Cutcliffe is evident.