CHAPEL HILL — In an age of hyper-specialization in athletics, Duke football coach David Cutcliffe prefers to keep it broad and simple. He’s looking for athletes for the Blue Devils football team.
Many of Duke’s wide receivers and defensive backs played basketball in high school, which to Cutcliffe indicates a certain level of toughness that should translate well to the gridiron. Each year, the level of athleticism continues to rise in Durham, where Duke won the ACC Coastal Division last season and cracked the AP poll for the first time since 1994. Now Cutcliffe wants to push the Blue Devils’ athleticism even further. To do so, he’s sending the fastest football players to the track team.
“I would like to see our team built around speed at the skill positions,” Cutcliffe said. “I would like it to be competitive speed at the level where track athletes run. It’s a great double. People have specialized young so much in sports that they miss some great experiences. I’m a fan of this when it works.”
Five Duke football players – rising redshirt seniors Josh Snead (running back) and Issac Blakeney (wide receiver), redshirt sophomores DeVon Edwards (defensive back) and Anthony Nash (wide receiver) and sophomore wide receiver Ryan Smith – are running with the track team. Cutcliffe, entering his seventh season at Duke, told the players about the plan after their first team meeting of the spring semester (originally sophomore cornerback Breon Borders and senior wide receiver Jamison Crowder were going to participate as well, but Borders couldn’t with his academic schedule and Crowder opted to focus more on building strength in the weight room).
“In our first meeting back,” Snead said, “Coach was telling us how he wanted to elevate the program, how we are going to be able to compete with the elite teams, and that’s teams that are in the top 10.”
The 4x100-meter relay team of Smith, Blakeney, Edwards and Snead trained for two weeks and made its competition debut April 5 at the VertKlasse Meeting in High Point. And despite only once successfully executing the baton handoff in practice, the quartet posted what was then the second-fastest time in Duke history, winning in a landslide with a time of 41.32 seconds. The second-place team from Maryland-Eastern Shore was a half-second behind, with Snead overtaking and blowing by their runner during the final leg of the race.
That was the only chance the entire group had to run together, though, as Snead tweaked his hamstring the following week. Senior sprinter Marcus Wright replaced Snead on the anchor leg, and the group finished sixth in the 4x100 relay Saturday in Chapel Hill with a time of 41.15 seconds, the new second-fastest time in school history and nine-hundreths of a second behind the record. That finish added three points to Duke’s team total.
The Blue Devils’ time from the VertKlasse Meeting and ACC championship qualifies them for the Penn Relays, the oldest and largest track and field competition in the country. The meet will take place April 24-26 in Philadelphia.
Cutcliffe had players during his time at Tennessee who competed in both football and track, and Austin Gamble, a linebacker from 2009-2012, competed in the discus as well (he is a redshirt senior on the track team). It took time to recruit athletes who would be capable of competing in track, and this fall, Cutcliffe felt the team had reached a level where it could contribute to the track team.
The first step in the partnership was Cutcliffe meeting with Shawn Wilbourn, who coaches the Duke sprinters. Wilbourn has plenty of experience in pairing track with football – he was a fifth-round pick by the Buffalo Bills in the 1991 NFL draft and competed in the 1997 World Championships for the United States in the decathlon. He felt that improvement in track led to improvement on the football field as well.
“I felt that being able to know how to run on the track and use that max velocity, I was a safety, so I felt that helped me tremendously, being able to run down a ball carrier or a receiver,” Wilbourn said. “I felt I knew how to run once I got to max velocity on the field. And especially if I had to cover a receiver that was going on a deep pattern or something, I knew how to run with him.”
With spring football ending the first weekend in March, the Blue Devils had the time to train and get in a position to contribute on the track team in time for the ACC championships. Edwards, who had kick return touchdowns of 100 and 99 yards last season, is the fastest, Wilbourn said, and Snead was rapidly improving his speed before his injury. Edwards, who did not run track in high school, finished 13th in the 100-meter preliminaries Friday with a time of 10.89 seconds.
Edwards thought Cutcliffe was joking when he first told the group of five about his plan to have them run track. Clearly, his times vindicated Cutcliffe’s idea.
“If I just learn how to run, I could be much faster than I am now,” Edwards said. “He (Cutcliffe) wants me to come out here and learn the mechanics and reach my full speed potential.”
The partnership is mutually beneficial – having the football players run the 4x100 helps save Duke’s decathlon competitors for their best event. The Blue Devils swept the decathlon, with sophomore Robert Rohner, junior Ian Rock and senior Curtis Beach finishing in first, second and third, respectively. And the football-heavy sprint relay was able to score points as well.
With the ACC championships moving to May next year, the football players will have more time to run track and work into track shape. Both Wilbourn and Cutcliffe hope to increase the number of football players competing on the track next year and for years to come. This year’s guinea pigs are expecting to see immediate results this fall.
“From football, you’re only running 10-yard splits,” Snead said. “But when you’re breaking a long run, you can’t have the same 10-yard split when you’re running 60 yards. Being able to open up and stride is what this track is really helping out. When you see us break a long run, it shouldn’t be a guy getting caught. It should be to the house.”
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley