It wasn’t long ago that there would be days when Duke didn’t have enough healthy offensive linemen to field a second string in practice.
“The defense would kind of like, go off to the side, and the (backups) would run against air,” Duke guard Dave Harding said.
Tough to get better that way.
There are so many reasons why Duke has been able to go from 4-8 to 10-2 in the space of six years, but one of them is very simple. One of the most perennially injury-riddled teams in the ACC for years, the Blue Devils this year stayed remarkably healthy throughout the regular season.
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Thirteen of Duke’s 22 starters have started every game this season, including all five on the offensive line for the second year in a row. That number has been on a steady upward climb, from nine in Duke coach David Cutcliffe’s first two years at Duke, while the number of games missed to injury has gone down.
Quarterback Anthony Boone missed three games with a broken collarbone and linebackers Kelby Brown and cornerback Ross Cockrell each missed one, but the most important players in the starting lineup have otherwise remained remarkably healthy across the board.
“We’ve been more fortunate, and everybody knows this, than any year we’ve been here as far as who’s on the injury list,” Cutcliffe said.
The effects are apparent heading into Saturday’s ACC Championship Game against Florida State in Charlotte: Four games won in the fourth quarter this season and three comeback wins from double-digit deficits, a 4-0 November record after going 1-19 in Cutcliffe’s first five seasons, a total of 37 points allowed in the fourth quarter, a top-25 ranking and Coastal Division championship.
This is not necessarily a coincidence. It’s the product of several different efforts within the Duke program, from improvements in strength and conditioning to increased depth that allows starters to bear less of a burden in practice.
It’s also the side effect of one of Cutcliffe’s remedies for Duke’s November swoons – minimizing wear and tear on players early in the season so they’ll have more gas in the tank late. That helps keep players out of the training room as well.
“We’ve been smart,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s been a team that we could manage that way, because they worked so hard early, they worked so hard in August, they’re veteran in the right places. We did take care of them. And I think that’s been important.”
Still, some of it, without a doubt, is due to luck – or as Cutcliffe prefers to call it, “good fortune.” And Duke hasn’t been completely immune, missing all three of its projected quarterbacks coming into the season at various times (Boone, Brandon Connette and Thomas Sirk) as well as several defensive backs.
“It’s football,” Duke defensive back Ross Cockrell said. “You never know how things are going to work out with the injury situation, guys running into each other all the time. We’ve been fortunate enough in that regard this year. It’s huge, because it’s given us consistency.”
There will always be years when more players are hurt, and years when there are fewer. In the years when there are fewer, though, it opens the door to setting school records and playing for an ACC title.