Vontez Duff is happy with his position and doesn't want to play running back anymore. "I've got my position. Cornerback, punt returns, kick returns, that's when I get to show my running back skills so I'm alright where I'm at."
Duff and Shane Walton put on a show for the Irish last year. Duff became the only person in Notre Dame history to return an interception, punt return and kickoff return for a touchdown in the same season. He was two yards away from returning a fumble for a touchdown against Florida State, which would have made him the only player in NCAA history to accomplish such a feat. Duff said Walton's attitude was infectious. "Shane taught me to not let those little things bother me and to learn how to be a leader. Now, guys are learning from me. I've got a new role and I've just got to run with it."
Duff's new role is leadership and just like the balls he intercepts, he stepped up and grabbed the role as if it were his all along. He takes the job seriously. "Now that I'm a senior, I'm in the same position that Shane was. He was a player-coach basically and I've got to be the same thing. I've got to know where everybody is on the field and I've got to know my role as well. I've got to be the guy that steps up and says something every time something happens on the field."
Another role for Duff will be kickoff and punt returns. Duff has a chance to become one of the best return men ever at Notre Dame. He could break a lot of records but he doesn't see that as a personal goal of his. "If it happens it happens, that's good for the team. That happens from our team effort. Guys still have to block and I still have to run and make big plays. My biggest thing is to win game. If we win games, hopefully at the end we'll be in the biggest game of our lives and I'm pretty sure that's where we all want to be."
Duff is confident they can fill the void left by Walton. "J-Beck (Jason Beckstrom) has been here longer than me. He and Glenn Earl have been here the longest. They've been around and played in a lot of games and they know what it takes to work and win. They know that it takes leadership and effort and having everybody motivated to go out there win ballgames. I know J-Beck can make plays and Preston (Jackson) as well, he's going to be our nickel guy, and he's going to be one of our main guys. We've just got to step in and make the plays."
As a fan, one of the best drills to witness at practice is the one-on-one drill. This drill involves the corners and safeties going against the receivers in a one-on-one situation. Both sides take a lot of pride in showing up or shutting down the opposition. Duff is always one of the best in this drill and he sees this as a confidence-builder. "It's you and the receiver and the quarterback gets to set back there and there is no pressure on him. It's just you and the receiver and whoever wins the battle gets the prize. As a defender, if you can sit back there with the quarterback having all that time and you can defend against that receiver and win that battle, you're going to have a real good chance when it's a real battle and to make big plays."
I was able to witness this drill many times in fall camp last year and Duff is a true cover-corner, receivers rarely get the prize against him. On one play in particular, Duff was going against Arnaz Battle and Battle slipped past Duff for a score. All you heard was Duff and Battle arguing if Battle pushed off as they walked back to the line of scrimamge. Now that Battle is gone, I will say that Battle clearly pushed off and would not have scored against Duff because of the foul. Duff remembers the play well. "(laughs)Yes, I remember that play and you are right, he did push off."
A lot of Duff's friends will be getting drafted this weekend including Shane Walton and Arnaz Battle. Duff will likely have his turn next year. He is focused on the season ahead but he can't deny that is a dream of his as well. "I just want to be another one of those guys. I want to be in the next draft class after them. That's what I really look forward to. I know I've got to step up and want it just as much as I did last year. I've got push myself even harder than I did last year. Be out there and make plays and want it all. Next year, hopefully I will be making money doing the thing I love. I love being around the guys and being out there with the team and hopefully everyone will have that focus to win the National Championship this year."
Duff will likely be cashing checks from an NFL team in the future but his focus is clearly on the season. He has that confidence you only see in the great players and he can't wait for the 2003 season to begin. Vontez Duff is determined to have a great season and it's clear that his leadership and confidence will carry this defense and the team in 2003. Duff will have no problem filling the void left by the graduation of Shane Walton.