Sports

This key Duke defensive player isn't letting an injury hold him back

Duke’s Jeremy McDuffie, left, goes after Georgia Tech’s Qua Searcy on Saturday.
Duke’s Jeremy McDuffie, left, goes after Georgia Tech’s Qua Searcy on Saturday. bthomas@heraldsun.com

When Duke fought hard to claim its fifth bowl appearance in six years and followed it up with a coveted bowl win last December, an injured Jeremy McDuffie was a bystander.

When Duke hits the field Aug. 31 to open the new football season against Army, a healthier McDuffie fully expects to be available as Duke seeks to build on last season’s strong finish.

A senior safety, McDuffie played well enough during Duke’s first 10 games that he was named third-team all-ACC. In Duke’s 11th game, a 43-20 win over Georgia Tech that halted a six-game losing streak, McDuffie suffered the second torn ACL of his playing career.

The Nov. 27 surgery on his right knee, coupled with still having a redshirt season to use, cast doubt on his availability for 2018.

But when Duke’s players hit the field for their first self-practice of the summer on July 5, McDuffie running around, taking part in the non-contact drills with his teammates.

“It’s been a process getting back into things, ups and downs with the injury,” McDuffie said. “But I’m getting back into it.”

The 5-11, 175-pound McDuffie injured the ACL in his left knee in 2014 during his senior football season at Shiloh High School in Snellville, Ga. He recovered well enough to play in 13 games, with two starts, as a Duke freshman in 2015 when the Blue Devils went 8-5 and won the Pinstripe Bowl.

His second recovery process has been smoother, he said, because he’s in a different situation as a Duke student.

“It’s a lot different from high school,” McDuffie said. “With the high school injury, I was dealing with off campus rehab, sometimes I only went two or three times a week. Not getting the same type of intensive rehab. Now this time I feel much stronger. I rehabbed five times a week, a lot more complicated and focused on me. It was a lot more beneficial to me that way.”

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Zach Challingsworth (80) of the Pittsburgh Panthers catches a pass against Jeremy McDuffie (9) of the Duke Blue Devils at Wallace Wade Stadium on November 14, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina. Pittsburgh defeated Duke 31-13. Lance King Getty Images

Coaches aren’t allowed to attend the players’ self-practices. But Matt Guerrieri, McDuffie’s position coach who was promoted to co-defensive coordinator during last winter, said he spoke to McDuffie after that first self-practice.

The report was positive.

“He said he was running around out there and everything felt good,” Guerrieri said.

When the injury hit against Georgia Tech, McDuffie was replaced by freshman Michael Carter II at Duke’s strike safety position. Carter recorded 10 tackles over Duke’s final three games, including a 36-14 Quick Lane Bowl win over Northern Illinois that allowed Duke to finish 7-6.

The strike safety position is an important slot in the team’s 4-2-5 defensive alignment. That’s where current Arizona Cardinals linebacker Jeremy Cash played in 2015 when he was named ACC defensive player of the year.

Due to his injury, McDuffie didn’t participate in spring practice. The depth chart coming out of spring has McDuffie or Carter as the starter at strike safety. Junior Dylan Singleton and sophomore Marquis Waters are listed as starters at the other two safety slots.

McDuffie will have to prove he’s fully healthy when August practices begin to get the starting job back. Redshirt freshman Leonard Johnson will also work at that position.

Duke football coach David Cutcliffe discusses helping his former quarterback, Thomas Sirk, as he transitions to tight end in an attempt to make the NFL.

While recovering, McDuffie was glad to help the younger players with tips during spring practice. But he’s glad to be giving on-field lessons again with his own play.

“Helping younger guys wherever I could,” McDuffie said. “Let them know something about personal experience on the field. Now getting back into fall camp, I’ll be able to actually show them because I’ll be on the field again so that will be a lot better.”

A healthy McDuffie will certainly be a factor in Duke’s secondary.

“Anytime you are talking about adding an all-ACC player that’s a good thing,” Guerrieri said.

Duke had only three senior starters on defense last season when that group finished third in the ACC by allowing just 20.2 points per game and fourth in the league in total defense (332.6 yards per game).

Two first-team all-ACC players, linebacker Joe Giles-Harris and cornerback Mark Gilbert, are among the returning players. The group is working this offseason to be even better.

“Communication on the field, that’s one thing we’re picking up,” McDuffie said. “So that we all come together as a cohesive unit because we have a lot of great individual players. Just making us come together. Overall we have great individual players. Once we come together there is no stopping us.”

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