DURHAM — DURHAM As hard as it is to imagine now, there was a point in the season when Duke safety DeVon Edwards was frustrated and overwhelmed.
He can smile a bit as he talks about it, on the day the redshirt freshman was named the third-team all-ACC specialist despite not taking over as the kick returner until midway through the season. Six games in that role left him plenty of time to return a 100-yard and a 99-yard kickoff for scores, and thats in addition to his back-to-back interception returns for touchdowns against N.C. State and game-sealing interception against North Carolina as a safety.
But on Monday, after he finished his shift working in the Quenchers snack bar in Wilson Gym, Edwards was thinking back to the first week of the season, when, after working all last year and all preseason camp as a corner, he was moved to safety.
"They just decided to move me," Edwards said. "So I was kind of frustrated because they were just throwing a lot at me, like, OK, you need to know this, this and this, and in practice I was just quiet. Ross (Cockrell) would just be in my ear, and I was just like, Man, this is a lot. Youre asking for a lot now. He would say, It doesnt matter, just make a call, Ive got your back.
"And so once he told me that, I would just make a call, and sometimes it would be wrong, but he would make me right."
No. 20 Duke (10-2, 6-2 in the ACC) has had to rely on Edwards, a redshirt freshman, and true freshmen Breon Borders, Bryon Fields and Deondre Singleton in the defensive backfield during its eight-game winning streak. Saturday against No. 1 Florida State (12-0, 8-0) the quartet of young ones will make their ACC Championship debut in Charlottes Bank of America Stadium.
To a man, they credit Cockrell, a first-team, all-ACC redshirt senior cornerback, for getting them ready to play, starting as soon as they arrived on campus.
"Ive asked a lot of the freshmen. Ive asked a lot," Cockrell said. "They respond every time, whether its late-night meetings, early in the morning, staying late after practice working on drills, they step up to the challenge no matter what it is. Im proud of them for that."
Singleton, who, like Edwards, is a starting safety, wasnt expecting to play when he first arrived on campushe figured he would redshirt so he could get better. But when he flipped a scout team running back after perfectly filling a gap on a zone-read play in an early August scrimmage, he was moved up with the 1s and the 2s. And when Dwayne Norman pulled his hamstring in the first half of the Pittsburgh game, Singleton was thrust into action.
The way Dukes defense is set up, the bandit safety, Singleton, makes the play call for the left side of the defense, and rover safety, Edwards, does the same for the right side. When Singleton came in, he slipped into that role naturally, he said. Thanks to Cockrell, he was plenty prepared.
The summer self-practices turned to more intense preseason workouts, and Cockrell stayed on his young protégées about learning the playbook.
"He would mess with me, ask me questions about the playbook and say, okay, you havent been studying," Edwards said. "Because I would tell him that Id been studying, I would know the basic calls, but he would say, okay, but what about this? like an audible or something. I would be like uhhh and he would say, See? Youre just memorizing, youre not learning it."
Not quite like a coach, because he doesnt yell as much and tends to be more positive, Singleton said, Cockrell has organized 7 p.m. film sessions for the defensive backs three days a week. There, they go over film from the previous game and on upcoming opponents, studying tendencies and looking for small advantages.
"Without his film sessions during the week, we would go into the game not knowing what to expect," Singleton said. "Were watching so much film and hes showing us tendencies, stuff to watch for, it makes it so much easier going into games."
All that preparation paid dividends when Cockrell was out with a leg injury in the second half of the Virginia Tech game. The four freshmen, along with redshirt sophomore Jeremy Cash, anchored the back line in the 14-10 win while Cockrell yelled encouragement and reminders about technique from the sidelines. It got emotional toward the end, Edwards said, as he, Singleton, Borders and Fields blocked out all the doubters and decided they were going to change the face of the Duke defense.
"The defense took control of that game," Singleton said. "Thats when I realized that we could beat anybody in the country if we wanted to."
The talent and athleticism of the freshmen was noticeable from the beginning of fall camp, quarterback Anthony Boone said. They had speed to help correct against small errors and the ball skills to make plays. And over the course of the last four months, while Duke has set a new school record with 10 wins, theyve had plenty of time training with, as Singleton calls him, the "old man."
"He walks like an old man because hes a fifth-year senior," Singleton said of Cockrell, "And he always walks around like hes hurt all the time, but thats just how he walks."
Walking and singing either Gospel or old-school (at least to an 18-year-old) R&B, Cockrell is the unquestioned leader of the secondary. Its hard to imagine it without him.
"When people mess up, the coaches go to him. They dont go look at us, they go to him and ask him why were doing this, this and this," Singleton said. "Hes the leader in the secondary."