It has been almost a year since Duke’s Bryon Fields heard the three letters that athletes dread: “ACL.”
Fields, a starting cornerback for the Blue Devils in 2014, had sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in June 2015. He spent the rest of the summer trying to strengthen the leg, only to tweak the knee again in preseason camp, then suffer an anterior cruciate ligament tear.
“Went up for a ball, got tangled up, leg got tangled up, come down wrong,” he said this week.
In a flash, the 2015 season was over for Fields, who helped Charlotte’s Providence Day School win a state independent school championship.
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“It was my first year, missing a season, injury or whatever, since maybe I was 5 years old,” Fields said.
Fields had played a lot of football for Duke his first two years, starting 13 games in 2014. Duke had winning teams, had gone to bowls. Fields was an academic All-ACC selection.
Duke’s secondary has been called the “coalition” and Fields was a big part of the group, looking to join safeties Jeremy Cash and DeVon Edwards, and cornerback Breon Borders as playmakers, leaders last season.
Suddenly, he was a bystander, consigned to the sideline during games, given a lot of time to think and reflect.
“I think I had taken some things for granted,” the redshirt junior said. “Just sitting back, you really get an appreciation for it, for being out there.”
To say he was antsy during games would be an understatement. He still fidgets talking about it.
“Oh, man,” he said, smiling. “I can’t remember what game it was, but I ran out on the field when somebody made an interception. I ran out on the field all excited.”
Duke coach David Cutcliffe wasn’t too happy with that, Fields said, smiling again.
“But once I was healthy I was running all over the place on the sideline, getting excited like I was playing,” he said. “I definitely was pacing.”
Now, he’s back to playing. He did some individual drills in spring ball this year, saying he was not ready for contact drills, but was cleared for all drills in fall camp.
“Full speed, full speed,” he said. “I’ve really strengthened my legs, my hamstrings and my quads. I definitely feel comfortable that I’ll be safe and healthy out there.”
Cash, named the 2015 ACC defensive player of the year, is gone to the NFL. Edwards was moved to corner opposite Borders. With Fields back, there could be the option of returning Edwards to safety, if need be.
As for the “coalition” moniker, it’s said to be a name for a pack of cheetahs on the hunt, and the Blue Devils like the comparison. Fields noted when a defensive back gets a step behind a receiver, he’s taught to “chase the hip.”
“Like a cheetah in the wild chasing a gazelle or whatever — they chase the hip,” he said.
The Blue Devils’ secondary did some chasing in 2015, especially late in the season. Duke was 12th in the ACC in passing defense, allowing 240.9 yards a game, 7.8 yards a completion and 23 touchdowns — only Virginia (26) and N.C. State (24) gave up more passing TDs.
After Duke’s seventh game, the 45-43 four-overtime win at Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils were burned for 335 passing yards a game — 537 by North Carolina in the Tar Heels’ 66-31 win.
“Jeremy Cash is a great player, and we’re definitely going to miss him, but I think our defense is faster than it was last year and will be better in coverage than we were,” Borders said. “We want to go out and prove ourselves.”
Fields said he made many mental notes while sitting out that can help him and the secondary, seeing the game from a different angle and perspective. He also plans on being more vocal.
“All of us have started speaking up,” Fields said. “Breon definitely says some things. I’ve tried to say as much as I can. DeVon’s even tried to be more vocal and he’s a quiet guy who likes to lead by example.”