DURHAM — Duke cornerbacks and safeties know to get their rest during training camp, especially on nights before they are slated to face this season's wide receiver corps.
Sophomore Lee Butler says this group of Blue Devils receivers, with the addition of some talented freshmen, are aggressive, physical and competitive at the line of scrimmage. Downfield, they go up for the ball and fight to come down with it.
"They are pretty good athletes. ...They are faster than they were last year," Butler said on Tuesday.
As the Blue Devils entered training camp, second-year coach David Cutcliffe fielded countless questions about how his team expected to replace standout receiver Eron Riley.
Riley, who finished with 2,413 career receiving yards, will certainly be missed, but the Devils have moved on. Cutcliffe talks about a group that is faster and loaded with potential. He wants more consistency.
"As a group this could be a really good receiving corps," he said. "And we'll get better as the season goes."
He said a group of six to seven receivers could rotate early in the season, with the possibility of newcomers working into the two-deep roster. This week the offensive staff is refining the system these receivers will fit into, deciding exactly how they will use personnel.
Duke wide receiver coach Scottie Montgomery is in his fourth season with the team and has noted the change this season. With speed and more options, he anticipates an offense that can stretch defenses in ways the Blue Devils have not in the past.
"The competition level in the room has never been like this," Montgomery said. "It's a battle. ... Jobs are threatened each day."
He said defenders are pressed, too. "They can't take a play off," he said. "We've got guys that are straight-up mean."
Butler, who doesn't back away from contact, knows that if receivers and defensive backs maintain the current practice intensity it can help both sides. He has seen how others have responded after receivers have grabbed balls over them.
He's given up a few plays and carried something home to think about. No one, he said, likes to watch themselves on film losing ground, especially to a freshman.
So defensive backs have laced their shoes tight and walked out prepared to swat balls down and stick thigh to thigh with receivers.
"Now, you're not allowed to go out here knowing, 'He's sorry, I'm not going to guard him,' " Butler said. "You have to guard everybody. You have to be on top of everybody because all it takes is one play and they'll burn you."
That's the reputation sophomore Donovan Varner has after his 10-catch performance against North Carolina last season. Coaches and players were pleased to see him return to the field after being carted off during Saturday's scrimmage.
Cutcliffe said Varner's back injury was diagnosed by team trainers as back spasms. One of the Devils starters at receiver, he has returned to practice and could participate in this Saturday's scrimmage at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Along with Varner, the Devils have junior Austin Kelly and sophomore Johnny Williams listed as preseason starters.
They have not been asked to fill Riley's shoes, though are expected to produce.
"You have to work extra hard to come up where he was or even better," Williams said. "All the work that he put in, we have to put the same work in."
That means fewer dropped balls.
"We can't call upon [Riley] any more," said Kelly, who caught 13 passes for 142 yards last season.
Cutcliffe has said there's more depth at receiver this season with incoming freshmen, though that depth is unproven.
Freshmen Conner Vernon (Miami, Fla.), Tyree Watkins (Camden, N.J.) and Corey Gattis (Durham Hillside) have earned playing time with the second team and are competing for a place on the two-deep roster, which will be finalized and announced later this week.
Watkins, a 6-foot-1 receiver with long arms, showed some of his ability during Saturday's scrimmage, finishing with four receptions for 43 yards. Twice he leaped over a defender and snagged a pass. He also sprang off the line of scrimmage, using his strength to move aside a defender.
"I like how he has a little chip on his shoulder, coming in ready to play," Kelly said. "You need that. You have to have that mind-set. ... Going in as a freshman you want to set the tone. I'm going to get physical, too."
It's a tone the entire receiving corps has heard.
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