DURHAM — During spring practice, Duke coach David Cutcliffe was emphatic that this team was, far and away, the best squad in his five years.
Then starting linebacker Kelby Brown had ACL surgery. Then starting receiver Blair Holliday was in a life-threatening lake accident. The next week, starting tight end Braxton Deaver fractured his kneecap. And then starting nose guard Jamal Bruce had foot surgery.
By the time the Blue Devils finally took the field, the injury list had grown even longer. Last week, 14 scholarship players and seven projected starters were out indefinitely due to injury, most of them bone breaks or torn ligaments.
The Blue Devils havent folded. In fact, entering Saturdays game against Memphis, Duke has a chance to equal its best start under Cutcliffe and enter ACC play with a 3-1 record.
We cant worry about all the people that should have been or could have been here, Cutcliffe said. We dont have to cry about that. Were good enough.
Paradoxically, one reason Duke has been able to successfully replace missing members is a fairly high number of injuries over the past two seasons forced many young players to gain experience. Last season, the Blue Devils used 10 starting lineups in 12 games. As a result, there are 19 healthy Blue Devils who have started at least five games.
At some point in time, there is a return on that investment, Cutcliffe said about having to play younger guys in previous seasons. The part that has helped this team is that we do have a number of people that can run, a number of people that can play multiple positions, weve asked them to do it. We havent had that before.
Seven starters have started least seven games at a position different from the one they play now. That has come in handy, because rarely is replacing an injured starter as easy as just plugging in a backup.
Take Bruce, projected to start at nose guard. Redshirt junior Sydney Sarmiento moved from defensive tackle, where he had 26 starts, to fill the hole. Redshirt sophomore Steven Ingram and freshman Carlos Wray also rotate in, making it three players to replace just one injury. And Sarmientos opening at tackle has been filled by Jamal Wallace and Nick Sink, who, as a redshirt sophomore, is just a few years removed from his high school days of playing quarterback and tight end.
The constant stream of injuries has shown the Blue Devils the value in always being ready.
Me starting last year against Georgia Tech and North Carolina and me starting now because (defensive end Justin) Foxx went down, it just shows there are times when you have to be ready to step up and know your stuff, because you dont want to go in there clueless and be the weak link in the defense, Dezmond Johnson said. The guys that are injured, they are putting in the same amount of work that we do. While were at practice, theyre in the training room trying to make a quick recovery. I feel like injuries are going to happen, but you have to have the mindset to get over it and move on.
Piecing together the offense has been slightly easier. Jamison Crowder, who took Hollidays spot, leads the team in catches (23), receiving yards (298) and touchdowns (two). Even though he didnt start last year, Crowder still gained plenty of experience as a backup and returning kicks.
Experience really helps a lot in football, said Ross Cockrell, who had his trial-by-fire as a freshman and now leads the nation in total passes defended. I dont think anything that can beat experience.