Duke

Duke's special teams vital to dreams of football playoffs

Dukeís Jamison Crowder, right, outruns Syracuseís Parris Bennett, center, as Crowder runs a punt return back for a touchdown in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game in Syracuse, N.Y., on Nov. 8. Duke won 27-10.
Dukeís Jamison Crowder, right, outruns Syracuseís Parris Bennett, center, as Crowder runs a punt return back for a touchdown in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game in Syracuse, N.Y., on Nov. 8. Duke won 27-10. AP

As soon as Syracuse lined up to punt with just under 11 minutes left in the game, Duke knew what was coming. The players on the field recognized it and began to shift. And their teammates on the sideline made sure they knew it, too.

“Fake! Fake!” Everybody started yelling.

Sure enough, it was a fake punt attempt by the Orange, and it was snuffed out quickly. Syracuse running back Devante McFarlane was stopped by Josh Snead and a host of other Blue Devils after just 1 yard. And that effectively ended the game.

Few questions excite Duke coach David Cutcliffe as much as one about special teams. That phase of the game has been a point of emphasis for the Blue Devils throughout his tenure, and special teams touchdowns have been vital to Duke’s success in the past two seasons.

During last year’s 10-2 regular season, the Blue Devils scored four times on punt and kick returns, with both returners – DeVon Edwards and Jamison Crowder – earning all-American honors. This year, there have been three special teams scores – a 52-yard punt return by Crowder in the Syracuse game, a 99-yard kickoff return by Edwards against Pittsburgh, and a 12-yard interception returned for a touchdown by Joe Ajeigbe after a punt snap went awry. And that doesn’t count Edwards’ 98-yard kickoff return last week that was nullified by a holding penalty, something that was still bothering Cutcliffe on Tuesday.

“It was a shame that DeVon didn’t get his second return,” he said. “Great run. It wasn’t a good run, it was a great run.”

This week, No. 19 Duke (8-1, 4-1 ACC), in first place in the ACC’s Coastal Division, takes on last-place Virginia Tech (4-5, 1-4). Elite special teams play was a trait long associated with the Hokies – Frank Beamer’s teams were so good at making game-changing plays on special teams that their aggressive style of play received its own nickname: Beamer Ball.

As Virginia Tech’s program, though, continues its 3-year downturn, there are fewer of those special special teams moments. (The Hokies have blocked five punts and kicks in the past three years. For comparison, they blocked 33 from 2000-2005, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.) Injuries have limited the use of starters on special teams in recent years. In contrast, Duke regularly runs out veteran key players for that phase of the game (Crowder, Edwards, Snead, etc.).

And special teams film is one of the last elements of review before a game. Take the fake punt at Syracuse as an example.

“We put it to them on tape the night before,” Cutcliffe said. “We knew it was coming. We looked at all of their 2013 tape, and we saw that formation. It was run one time as a fake punt, and our kids knew it.

“Josh Snead and all of those guys on the punt return team, they are defensive football players first. That’s what people don’t realize, on punt return, you’re on defense. Just with us, when we go to punt, we tell our kids that that’s an offensive play. And we play it those ways. It’s a mentality that you take that I learned a long time ago with the kicking game.”

The challenge this year for Duke’s two return men, Crowder and Edwards, has been the lack of opportunities. Teams are more reluctant to kick toward them – 44.4 percent of kickoffs to the Blue Devils have been touchbacks, the third-highest percentage in the ACC. Finding punt return opportunities has been challenging for Crowder, too, but the special teams staff has a few counters in the works there.

“They’re either punting it high and short or punting it over near the boundary,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve done a better and better job – you have to alter schemes there a little bit more than you do with kickoff return – and we’ve been able to alter a few schemes that have helped us down the stretch. Hopefully that’s something we’re going to continue. That would really help us try to be successful in November.”

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