DURHAM — Entering the season, Duke knew it would be counting on a few young players, especially in the secondary. So it was no surprise when four true freshman showed up on the two-deep depth chart in the defensive backfield.
Cornerbacks Breon Borders and Bryon Fields and safeties Deondre Singleton and Chris Holmes are competing for backup roles on defense, and wide receivers Johnell Barnes and Ryan Smith are doing the same on offense. Thanks to Dukes schedule, the young players will get to start their college careers against a Division I-AA opponent, N.C. Central, Saturday at 4 p.m. on ESPN3.
The current freshman class, which was signed after Duke made its first bowl appearance in 17 years, is unquestionably the most athletic group coach David Cutcliffe has brought to campus in his six-year tenure. Theyre already making an impact. No freshmen has been awarded a backup spot outright beside each name, there is an OR, indicating competition with an older player. Thats a welcome sight for a team thats historically been thin at several positions.
I went to our coaches, and we went through each side of the ball, and it really is OR, Cutcliffe said. Nobody gets a free opportunity to call themselves a first- or second-teamer if youre in a deep-seated competition.
While the Blue Devils are excited by the potential of the newcomers quarterback Anthony Boone cut off a question asking about the secondarys inexperience with but theyre very talented they arent worried about anyone having too big of head. All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell took care of that with the young defensive backs by showing them tape of his redshirt freshman year.
First play, against Elon, they went right at me, Cockrell said of his collegiate debut. They ran a little slant, and it went for like 15 yards, he said before laughing.
Good corners are humble and understand that, at any moment, you can get beat on a play. Even if youre in perfect position, sometimes theres no defense for a good offense. You have to realize that, make tackles and the next play.
Cockrell feels like he can help make the transitions of Borders, Singleton, Holmes and Fields smoother than his was. It can be nerve-wracking to be out on the field on an island as a freshmen, he said, and the list of thoughts running through a young players head before and after a snap tends to be lengthy.
Youre tired, the players are moving fast, so youre like, man, this guys fast, youre breathing hard, youre trying to look for the call, youre trying to think about where to line up, what kind of coverage youre going to play, Cockrell said. This Saturday, Ill be talking to them during the game, telling them to calm down and take deep breaths because they have the ability.
Wide receivers are cockier by nature, Cockrell said, and need a certain bravado to demand the ball. Boone said at the ACC Kickoff in July that Barnes, who stands 6-foot, 175 pounds, had already pulled him aside repeatedly to let him know he was the best receiver on the team. But that doesnt mean he and Smith, a 5-7, 165-pound speedster who is in the conversation for fastest member of the team, are counting on opportunities being handed to them.
Those are probably the hardest working freshmen, him (Smith) and Johnell Barnes, that Ive seen come through here in a while, Boone said. Theyve really bought into studying the playbook, getting into the cold tub and doing other things that you have to do to be prepared for practice.
Cutcliffe has said multiple times that he doesnt want to waste a year of eligibility for a freshman, but at the same time wants to field the best team possible. If any of the first-year players take the field Saturday, its safe to say the coaching staff feels confident about their impact potential for this year.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley