When Duke took the field Saturday against N.C. Central, it had three redshirt freshmen starting: quarterback Daniel Jones, offensive guard Zach Baker and linebacker Joe Giles-Harris.
The Blue Devils had eight true freshmen – six on defense – who were used in the game. Only once, in 2012, has Duke coach David Cutcliffe played that many true freshmen in a game.
Facing N.C. Central, an FCS team, in the season opener offered the opportunity to take a look at the newbies. The Blue Devils led 49-0 at the half and won 49-6, making any freshman errors – and there were some – moot.
“I thought they handled it pretty good,” senior cornerback Breon Borders said. “They held their own. They made a few mistakes, but it happens to us all.”
Cornerback Mark Gilbert and safety Dylan Singleton – the younger brother of starting safety Deondre Singleton – got their first taste of college football. Defensive linemen Terrell Lucas, Chidi Okonya and James Hornbuckle, and linebacker Koby Quansah also played.
“The three defensive linemen probably, for the most part, played like freshmen defensive lineman,” Cutcliffe said. “Now let’s take another step.
“Koby Quansah did a lot of good things and played pretty fast. Mark Gilbert played fast. It was good to see him play as fast as he did. Dylan Singleton made some plays and played fast when he was in there in the second half.”
Offensive guard Julian Santos and placekicker AJ Reed were the other two true freshmen who played.
“For Julian that’s a huge learning curve,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s very gifted, he has great feet, he’s a very powerful youngster. So he’s got his feet wet now.”
Reed kicked all seven extra points and Cutcliffe said his timing on the kicks was good.
One freshman who did not play was receiver Scott Bracey, from whom much is expected. Bracey has been slowed by a hamstring but is practicing more, Cutcliffe said.
Sophomore linebacker Ben Humphreys said Hornbuckle, a 6-foot-5, 235-pounder from Murray, Ky., may have been the surprise of fall camp. And the coaches have praised the pass-rushing ability of Okonya, a rangy 6-6, 220-pounder from Riverdale, Ga.
“Chidi has natural instincts for pass rush and long arms and a quick get-off,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said.
It will be interesting to see how many of the true freshmen play Saturday when the Blue Devils face Wake Forest in the ACC opener at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Cutcliffe said the Blue Devils would “face some fire” this week in the ACC opener. The pace of play will be faster, the opposing players better. As Cutcliffe put it, “You’ve got to compete a little differently.”
Cutcliffe says he’s calling it the “year of the new” at Duke. Playing eight true freshmen is a big part of the “new.”