DURHAM – Of all the factors that helped revive Duke’s football program, depth is arguably the biggest.
The reason Duke has depth today that it did not have even a few years ago is its willingness to wait on players in the form of redshirts. The Blue Devils believe redshirts are a major factor in their first-ever appearance in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game, which will be played Saturday in Charlotte against No. 1 Florida State.
“It’s a discipline the coaches believe in, and it pays major dividends down the road to have guys a year older, a year bigger,” Duke left guard Dave Harding, a redshirt senior, said. “I think that’s a huge advantage for us.”
Duke (10-2, 6-2 ACC) leans heavily upon the redshirt policy, by which a player can be a fully enrolled member of the team who is given extra eligibility if he does not play or misses most of a season because of an injury or unforeseen circumstance.
Nine of Duke’s defensive starters have been redshirted. Eleven key offensive contributors were redshirted. Every starter on the defensive line was redshirted. So was every starter on the offensive line and his backup. Four specialists were, too.
Nearly half of the players on Duke’s roster – 51 in total – already have reshirted at least once, which does not include 27 true freshmen on the roster, many of whom likely will be redshirted after the season.
Duke is a veteran team with real depth at many positions, and Duke’s players believe it wasn’t an accident.
It was part of coach David Cutcliffe’s design.
“That’s a veteran move by Coach Cut,” said Duke defensive end Kenny Anunike, a sixth-year senior because of two redshirts. “That’s basically loading your back end.”
Duke’s opponent on Saturday, Florida State, has only four redshirts filling its 24 first-string spots on its offensive and defensive depth chart.
Cutcliffe said he didn’t have much of a choice at Duke. Players who could go to the NFL after three years weren’t exactly beating down Wallace Wade Stadium’s gates when he arrived in 2008, so he went after players who would grow.
“There are people out there – and we’ll certainly sign all of them if they want to come – (who are) three-and-dones,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ll play true freshmen, which we do, if they’re ready and they’ll make a difference in us winning and losing, and they’re mature enough, etcetera. But we’re a developmental program.”
Beyond redshirting, Duke has encouraged some players to forego their final semester of high school by graduating early. The move allows a player to enroll in college a semester ahead of schedule, meaning a football player can go through spring practice.
Quay Mann, a Northern Nash graduate and now a Duke freshman, was one of them. By the time the season rolled around in August, Mann didn’t feel like a freshman.
“I think a lot of people really didn’t look at me as a freshman anymore,” Mann said. “That first semester definitely helped. Because of the spring, I knew the workload; I knew what to be ready for. I think I’m going to be even more prepared for the next season.”
Barring an emergency, Mann also will redshirt this year. Should that hold, he will have spent 20 months on campus before he plays a single snap in a game.
Redshirt senior Ross Cockrell said the off year is a crucial part of a player’s development, especially for a defensive back like Mann, who had to learn complex coverages unlike the basic ones he played in high school.
“The playbooks are so much bigger than high school. There’s just so much you have to learn,” Cockrell said. “I think that’s the most important thing about being redshirted: Not only do you get better physically, you get better mentally as well.”
Duke tried to avoid rushing players who weren’t ready for the field. Instead, Harding said, they even take some redshirt players with them on the road in anticipation of the hurdles the players will face when they are needed in games.
Now, Harding said, Duke is stashing away players simply because it doesn’t need them yet.
“The coaching staff has done a great job of holding out,” Harding said. “We have guys now – this year as freshmen – that could definitely contribute and help us out on both lines of scrimmage.”
Duke believes its second-string players can enter games and have little or no drop-off from its starters, and many players pointed to depth as a reason Duke has won 10 games in a season for the first time in school history.
The Blue Devils haven’t rushed, and now they believe they have a base solid enough to compete consistently in the ACC.
“You might sacrifice a few opportunities where guys might be able to play initially,” Anunike said, “But (Cutcliffe is) looking at what they might blossom into later in their redshirt junior year, redshirt senior year, and see how much more they’ll benefit the program than if they got thrown right into the fire and played their freshman year.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com