One on One With Ayanga Okpokowuruk

As the Blue Devils head into the season, one of the key players along the defensive line will be senior defensive end Ayanga Okpokowuruk. The fifth year player spoke with TDD about what it's going to take for players in their final year to finally complete their efforts in turning the program around.

TDD: Entering the second season under Coach Cutcliffe and his staff, what has changed with the team?

Ayanga Okpokowuruk: I think it's a lot tougher this season because the coaches and players both know what to expect from each other. As players we know what we did last year, and we know we can do more. The coaches know it too, and they are pushing us to go further and be better than we were.

So there is a sense of continuity around the program at this point?

Definitely. We can do things a lot quicker. We can progress and get more in-depth. We know what is going on, so we can do it better and build confidence. If you have confidence in what you are doing, you can do it faster. Because we're all understanding what is expected of us, it's easier to do it and to play faster and smarter.

It sounds like the origins of being able to play at a higher level this preseason camp come from work done in the offseason.

Definitely. We were pushed a lot harder in the off-season. I'd say it's the hardest most of us have ever been pushed. The coaches saw what we could do last year, and pushed us way past that. It's good, because we entered camp in a lot better shape than last year. We're all feeling stronger and more athletic.

With so many experienced players along the defensive line, who is the leader of the group?

I think we've all been around long enough to where we feed off each other. We know we have to work together in order to be successful. Each of us feels like the others are capable of picking the others up.

With that kind of experience, is there pressure on the group to lead the defense?

I don't think so. We need to work together to put the linebackers in a good position to make plays. We need to put the corners and safeties in position to make plays. It starts up front, but no on unit can do it by themselves. We know that if each group does their job as best they can, the defense will be very solid.

What's the biggest change that fans will notice with this year's team?

I think it's just the energy in and around the program. There's a real buzz, and that's giving us a lot of confidence to excel. The community in general is excited about Duke Football, and that's something we thrive off of.

It seems like the fifth year seniors have come a long way when you consider the shape of the program when you arrived.

We have. It's great to see the University committing to football in such a big way. It's great to see the students and community being excited. The more people involved in the program - the better.

You've played several positions along the defensive line in your career. Where do you project to line up this season?

Wherever I am needed. I just want to be on the field and making plays for the team. I will do whatever they need me to do in order to step up and be a leader.

What's the biggest adjustment you've seen in the new comers from the start of camp to now?

They are learning our style of play and what we all expect from one another. They need to know that we do things at a certain tempo and with a certain level of energy. It's different from anything they are coming from.

Have any first year players caught your eye?

John Drew has been really solid. He's a good player -- a really big guy who can move. But it's too early to really form a big opinion. As the season goes on, I think we'll know more about all of the freshmen.

Being your last season, what's the one thing you want to accomplish more than anything?

I want to help Duke football get to a bowl game. We have gone through a lot and now we're ready to make it happen.

Is this season the first time you've felt that the team was ready to make such a big step?

I thought we could have done it last year, but we didn't earn it. You can't take plays off and you can't make little mistakes. Those things were the difference last season.

If you had to pick one player from each side of the ball that will have a big season...

On offense I think you're going to see a lot out of Kyle Hill, our left tackle. I go against him every day in practice and we're constantly pushing each other to get better. The guy is a really good player. On defense it's going to be Vinney Rey. He's my roommate, and I think he's finally ready to step up as the team's defensive leader and to have a huge year. His energy is the key to the defense.

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