Zavier Carmichael figured when he arrived at Duke in July that there was a good chance he would get some playing time.
But never did he imagine he would be at linebacker during the Blue Devils’ first game.
“My first snap in the Elon game, I’m not sure if I did the right play,” he said, laughing. “I was wide-eyed. The game was too fast for me. I’m not sure if I took the right drop. But as the game progressed on, it slowed down a little bit. I just calmed myself down and played pretty well.”
Carmichael is one of five true freshmen to play this season for Duke. Running back Shaun Wilson has had the most impact, making history when he set the new school single-game rushing record against Kansas last week (12 carries for 245 yards in just his third game). True freshmen cornerbacks Zach Muñiz and Alonzo Saxton II and tight end Davis Koppenhaver round out the quintet.
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Depth played a large factor in determining that each would play. Due to Jela Duncan’s year-long academic suspension, Duke has only four scholarship running backs, counting Wilson. The Blue Devils graduated two senior cornerbacks last year, opening the door for Saxton II and Muñiz. Braxton Deaver’s ACL injury created a need for Koppenhaver. Same goes for Brown’s injury with Carmichael.
“Once (Kelby) got hurt, he was telling me, this is on you now, you have to step up to the plate,” Carmichael said. “I got in on film with David Helton and the other guys and just tried to really put all my effort into learning the plays. I came in blind and was just trying to learn stuff on the go.”
The highlight so far, Carmichael said, was a solo tackle he had on special teams in Week 1 against the Phoenix. On the year, Carmichael has played 91 snaps, third-most amongst Duke’s linebackers, and recorded 13 total tackles.
Carmichael has tried to play to his strength – speed.
“I’m not as big as the other linebackers, as you know,” the 6-foot, 210-pound Carmichael said. “So, with my speed and agility on the outside, I can cover running backs a lot better than some of them linebackers.”
Speed is something Muñiz and Saxton II have in abundance, too. Muñiz was one of six freshman that were on campus in May for first summer session – none of the other four who have played were with him. And when preseason camp started in August, both he and Saxton II were told they would need to step it up and be able to contribute immediately.
This surprised Saxton II.
“I didn’t think I’d be playing,” he said. “I thought I’d be learning for the first year, just finding my role.”
Saxton II has already been credited with one pass break-up and quarterback hurry, in addition to six total tackles. As a cornerback, he has to know that he is going to make mistakes – and that opposing offenses will target the freshman on the field.
“Whenever you see a freshman corner on the field, that’s the guy you always want to take your shot on,” Duke quarterback Anthony Boone said. “You want to double-move them, you want to find your say to get your best receiver lined up on him, scheming, switching sides with receivers or motioning. It’s definitely something that every freshman that starts has to deal with, the fact that he is going to get picked on because he is the least experienced.
“Some guys flourish in it, some guys go through the whole maturation process of getting beat a lot.”
Saxton II wasn’t phased when asked about getting beat – “that just comes with the position,” he said. It takes a special mentality to play corner to begin with, Cutcliffe said. And it’s up to the coaching staff to make sure a first-year player can handle it.
“If you’re not careful, certain coaches go in saying, ‘Don’t get beat deep, don’t get beat deep, don’t get beat deep,’ ” Cutcliffe said. “And then that becomes the focus of playing corner as a freshman, and you’re not a very good corner.
“I watch freshman as they play. You don’t want to ruin one. And I’ve seen that happen.”
Muñuz and Saxton II have two true sophomores, Bryon Fields and Breon Borders, who were in their shoes last year. Wilson is surrounded by two other running backs, Josh Snead and Shaquille Powell, who played as true freshmen. And Carmichael has David Helton, who isn’t fazed when he isn’t quite in the right spot.
After all, Helton said, it’s not like veterans play perfect ball, either.