A.J. Wolf doesn’t believe he’s cursed.
The senior defensive tackle is the last Duke captain standing after the other three suffered season-ending injuries. The latest was Jela Duncan, who ruptured his left Achilles celebrating a teammate’s touchdown in a 38-35 loss to Georgia Tech Saturday.
No knocking on wood.
No salt over his shoulder.
No anything different for Wolf.
“Hopefully I’ll be OK. It’s just really bad luck for those guys,” said Wolf, the redshirt senior who’s tied for fifth in the ACC in sacks with a team-leading five. “It’s definitely not a good feeling, but I’m doing my best to hold the torch and keep it going this season.”
The barrage of injuries Duke’s faced this season has forced young players into either bigger or starting roles. While the youth haven’t wavered from any challenge the injuries have presented, losing three of four captains to career-ending injuries has been, er, bizarre.
“I’ve never been around anything like that,” coach David Cutcliffe said Tuesday. “I’ve also never been around so many resilient young people like I have this 2016 team. Our leadership is strong. Our spirit is strong, therefore, we’re going to continue to work.”
I think he’s looking around a little cautiously right now.
David Cutcliffe on A.J. Wolf being last Duke captain standing
Redshirt freshman Daniel Jones was named the starting quarterback when redshirt senior Thomas Sirk suffered a partial tear to his left Achilles in August. Jones, a two-time rookie of the week, is one of only two Duke freshman quarterbacks to have three 300-yard passing games. He threw a career-high 332 against Wake Forest earlier this year, and added 324 against Virginia and 305 at Georgia Tech.
Junior Shaun Wilson had to share lots of snaps with Duncan but will now be the No. 1 back. Wilson holds Duke’s single-game rushing record with his 245-yard outing against Kansas in 2014. His season-high of 109 came at Georgia Tech Saturday. Wilson’s 14-yard touchdown run in the third quarter against the Yellow Jackets pulled the Blue Devils within three points after Duke trailed by 21 at the half.
With the loss of redshirt senior receiver Anthony Nash, who isn’t a team captain but was a returning starter, Duke utilized its tight ends more against Georgia Tech. The result: Daniel Helms’ first couple career touchdowns, including a 7-yard, lead-clinching shot from Jones in the fourth.
DeVon Edwards, one of 12 National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Award recipients this year, had a left knee ACL and MCL injury at Notre Dame that ended his career.
Duke lost more than veteran leadership in the injured captains.
“It’s a bummer when you lose not only good leaders but good players. They’re definitely talented guys,” Wolf said. “We have a special team captains every week. Guys don’t have to be honorary captains to step up. You can step up in practice if you’re a young guy.”
Cutcliffe said the captains have been around every day and that Duncan and Edwards will continue to rehab at Duke while they figure out the next steps of their careers.
But they haven’t checked out just yet.
Cutcliffe said Edwards and Sirk – and now Duncan – have appeared in daily football activities.
“They’re in meetings,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re using their experience and expertise. Right before I came over here, Jela was in a training room talking to some other (players). Their care, their concern, they’re all in. DeVon played a significant role in our meeting Sunday. He doesn’t like to be real verbal all the time, but he obviously knows that’s his path right now.”
Duke hosts No. 23 Virginia Tech Saturday, the first game at Wallace Wade Stadium since a rainy win over Army on Oct. 8.
Sirk was on the field in 2015 when Duke beat Virginia Tech, 45-43, in overtime. He threw four touchdown passes against the Hokies that day and ran in the game-winning two-point conversion.
He’s been helping school Jones for the Hokies’ top 20 defense to visit Duke.
“He played a great game last year against them,” Jones said. “He knows a lot of schemes and personnel, so that’s been helpful. I’ll continue to rely on him for certain advice.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan