DURHAM – Duke keeps losing players – and, improbably, winning games.
The Blue Devils (4-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) are off to their best start since 1994, and they’ve done it despite a seemingly endless stream of injuries.
“I would be amazed to see what we’d be like if we had all the players that are injured,” backup quarterback Anthony Boone said Tuesday.
Four starters – including quarterback Sean Renfree – were hurt last week in the Wake Forest win. All four were listed as starters on the two-deep released for this week’s game against Virginia (2-3, 0-1).
Coach David Cutcliffe, who previously characterized Renfree as day to day, declined Tuesday to discuss specific injuries until Thursday, when the weekly injury report is released.
At least 10 players each week have appeared on the injury report as being out either for that game or the entire season.
And those bumps and bruises have come so quickly and abundantly – especially in the secondary, the key area of the defense’s 4-2-5 alignment – that Cutcliffe said he and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles developed an ongoing plan they call the “potential rotation of disaster.”
“We do a contingency depth chart and we address it in practice,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got corners that can play safety, and safeties that can play corner, and safeties that can play different positions. And here’s the two-deep – the real two-deep – and then here’s another two-deep, and here’s another two-deep of what-ifs.”
They’ve certainly had to use it. Neither top linebacker Kelby Brown nor key tight end Braxton Deaver have played this season as they recover from leg injuries. Projected starting receiver Blair Holliday suffered serious head injuries in a July 4 watercraft accident.
Safety Jordon Byas missed the first three games with a knee injury.
Starting defensive end Justin Foxx missed the last three with an injured hand.
And, naturally, the win in Winston-Salem didn’t come without a price: cornerback Lee Butler, linebacker Dave Helton, safety Brandon Braxton and Renfree all wound up getting hurt.
Renfree was knocked out in the third quarter with a right elbow injury.
He was hit and forced to fumble on a blitz by cornerback Chibuikem Okoro. Boone stepped in and led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives, scoring the go-ahead score on a keeper around the right side with 11:35 left.
“It just shows that we have a lot of young guys that are producing and a lot of guys are buying into, ‘Hey, we may not be real deep and you may have been with the third team last year or the second team last year, and now you’re a starter,’” Boone said. “So you’re going to have to go out there and produce and make plays for us to win games.”
Somehow, the Blue Devils have dodged injuries at a few other key spots.
The same 11 offensive players have started every game – including a veteran group of five offensive linemen who have an average of nearly 21 starts per man.
Go-to receiver Conner Vernon has been the model of consistency, matching the ACC’s career receptions record last week with his 232nd career catch.
Taken together, they’re big reasons why Duke has its best start since the 1994 team opened 7-0 on its way to its most recent bowl berth, the 1995 Hall of Fame Bowl.
“A lot could be said about what’s happening to them and their season, finding ways to win, using different players to get it done,” Virginia coach Mike London said. “It’s self-evident right now, the way they’re playing.”