Duke started last Saturday’s game at Baylor with five starting players injured and sidelined.
During the game, two more starters left the game with injuries and didn’t return.
Duke plugged in second and sometimes third-string players and won 40-27 anyway, improving its record to 3-0 this season.
A decade ago, such a thing would have been unheard of at Duke. In eight seasons from 2000-07, the Blue Devils won just 10 games. Some of the starters weren’t as talented as fellow ACC teams, let alone Duke’s reserves.
David Cutcliffe, now in his 11th season as Duke’s coach, has led a coaching staff that’s changed all that.
While going to five bowl games in the last six seasons and winning 22 of their last 25 games against non-ACC opponents, the Blue Devils’ have amassed the depth needed to not only survive with key players injured, but thrive.
Duke has done it through recruiting better athletes.
In recruiting class analysis compiled by 247sports.com, the six recruiting classes from 2002-07, prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival, averaged a 67.2 national ranking.
Cutcliffe’s first seven classes from 2008-14 averaged 64.4 nationally.
But Duke’s last four classes from 2015-18, which have stacked the current roster, averaged 48.5 nationally.
That’s only part of the story, though. Duke’s staff has also nurtured players in such ways as to keep them engaged even when they aren’t at the top of the depth chart.
“It’s pretty amazing to see the success we’re having as a program,” Cutcliffe said. “The part I’m talking about is what nobody ever sees. We try to attract people that understand that.
At practice, we are not a program that just gives our reps to the ones. We rep three deep, four deep, everybody matters on that practice field and I think that’s a part of the culture you have to work really hard to build.”
It comes through words and actions, both on the practice field and off.
Derek Jones, who coaches Duke’s cornerbacks, regularly posts coaching tidbits on his personal Twitter feed. Last Sunday, he posted a comment related to what the Blue Devils have endured this month.
“Always coach everyone at your position, not just your starters and primary subs,” Jones wrote. “Call on everyone in the room in meetings and force them to answer questions so you know what they know, because you never know when you’re going to need them.
That coaching approach has been tested this month when Jones saw all-ACC cornerback Mark Gilbert lost for the season to a dislocated hip suffered during a 21-7 win at Northwestern on Sept. 8. Last Saturday at Baylor, one week after collecting his first career interception at Northwestern. sophomore cornerback Michael Carter II suffered a sprained knee that still has him unavailable to play.
Now Jones has redshirt freshman Josh Blackwell and redshirt sophomore Myles Hudzick as his starting cornerbacks.
Hudzick had one career tackle until, following Carter’s injury, he recorded a team-high nine tackles at Baylor.
“Regardless of where you’re listed on the depth chart always prepare as if you’re a starter, because you never know when you’re going to have to step in and step up,” Jones tweeted last Sunday.
Hudzick said he’s followed Jones’ advice so he was ready when his chance came last Saturday. Named one of Duke’s most improved defensive players during spring practice earlier this year, Hudzick saw players like Carter and Blackwell surpass him on the depth chart leading into the season.
Still, he stayed focused through the disappointment.
“We are very talented,” Hudzick said. “Anybody can start. Anybody can play. It just turned out that Josh and Mark were starting. It’s all about that next man up mentality. I knew at some point this season, regardless of if I was starting or not, that I was going to have to step up.”
Also in the defensive secondary, redshirt freshman Leonard Johnson has replaced injured senior safety Jeremy McDuffie (knee) in the starting lineup. Johnson intercepted a pass and returned it 53 yards for a touchdown at Baylor.
Redshirt senior defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord, a starter in Duke’s last 15 games, left the Baylor injured which meant more playing time for sophomore Axel Nyembwe. He’ll be the primary reserve behind sophomore Derrick Tangelo and redshirt junior Trevon McSwain at defensive tackle if Cerenord remains unavailable for Duke.
On offense, redshirt junior Quentin Harris started at quarterback against Baylor in place of Daniel Jones, who had started Duke’s previous 27 games. Jones is out with a broken left clavicle.
Despite having thrown just 15 career passes at Duke, Harris tossed three touchdown passes in a winning effort at Baylor.
He did so working with a reserve center in Jack Wohlabaugh, who started in place of injured starter Zach Harmon. Wohlabaugh enrolled at Duke last January as a transfer from Ohio State who had never played a college game.
Yet Harris and Wohlabaugh showed no ill-effects from their lack of experience as the Blue Devils had no penalties or turnovers at Baylor.
“It’s ingrained in us, something Coach Cut harps on and preaches,” Harris said. “Next man up mentality because you never really know when your time will come. That’s an example with me for sure. So you really have to practice each week like you are going to play. You saw how prepared the guys were and how much attention to detail they had and how focused they were, especially in the defensive secondary with guys stepping in and making the transition seamless.”
Duke remains without redshirt junior wide receiver Aaron Young, who gained 114 receiving yards with a touchdown when Duke beat Army 34-14 on Aug. 31. Young injured his hamstring in practice a few days later and remains sidelined. But the Blue Devils have scored six touchdowns via the pass over the last two games without him.
Duke plays N.C. Central at 3:30 p.m on Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium and will remain without many of its injured starters. There’s hope some of them will be available the following Saturday when the Blue Devils open ACC play against No. 13 Virginia Tech.
But even if those players remain sidelined, Duke has shown the ability to remain competitive because of the depth built up over the last four years.