DURHAM – Duke coach David Cutcliffe dubbed Takoby Cofield “Big Cat” almost immediately.
Cutcliffe saw the Tarboro graduate as his left tackle of the future, the man who would be able to hold the edge in a Duke offense that hinges upon independent linemen. Even though Cofield played in a run-heavy system at Tarboro, Cutcliffe was confident Cofield was his guy.
“I think he saw me pass block six times in three or four tapes,” said a laughing Cofield. “He just had to go off that I could move.”
Cofield is slated to make his 22nd start today for Duke (4-2). He goes into Virginia as the steady left tackle this time, a testament to how far he has come since being a wide-eyed novice on the most recent trip to Charlottesville, Va.
Now a redshirt junior, Cofield was a redshirt freshman on the previous trip to Virginia. He was planning to watch that game and absorb some lessons but received a much bigger teaching session when he was pressed into action because of an injury.
On his first series, he badly missed an assignment, and the Virginia defensive end planted former Duke quarterback Sean Renfree like a new batch of shrubs.
“I had had two bad practices that week,” Cofield said. “Then, I have to go in early in the second quarter. Like, my third or fourth play, I got beat on a play-action fake, and Sean got drilled.
“I just remember going to the sideline with my head in my hands, like, ‘Oh my God. What is going on?’”
Cofield has come quite a long way since then, holding down the starting job since last season.
Duke’s coaches never lost faith in Cofield, and so far, they’ve seen exactly what Cutcliffe envisioned when Cofield was in high school – but they still think he can become even better.
“When you get a guy back that was a returning starter, you expect him to make great gains, and I think he has the first half of the season,” Duke offensive line coach John Latina said. “We still have half a year left. (The) teams we’re playing get really good here, and so it’s going to be a real good measuring stick to see how far he’s come.”
Latina said Cofield has “everything you want from a left tackle,” which is why he is slated to hold the starting job for three years.
Andrew Harding, who was the offensive line coach during Cofield’s junior and senior seasons at Tarboro, said Cofield has been a true lineman since the outset. Cofield always has been the biggest in his classes – he couldn’t play recreation league football because he was too big – but Harding said Cofield embraced the line.
The Vikings tinkered with moving Cofield from tackle to guard as a senior, and Harding saw Cofield’s ability first-hand when they ran a play in practice that called for the guard to pull and hit the defensive end.
“Takoby hit him, and I mean, he laid him out. Just laid him out. It was an annihilation block,” Harding said. “(Then Tarboro offensive coordinator Don) Reams yelled, ‘Run the play again!’ I kind of smiled. We start to run it again, and the defensive end took off running. He was literally running away from Takoby.”
The Vikings moved Cofield back to tackle, and Harding said he knew Cofield was elite that season when they played Roanoke Rapids, which had defensive end Kareem Martin, now a UNC starter.
“Takoby embarrassed him. He embarrassed him,” Harding said. “He looked at Reams and said, ‘Run the ball behind me.’ He meant it. … He was moving (Martin) off the ball like he was nothing.”
The Tarboro coaches loved Cofield’s drive. From the Cofield house, though, that was a requirement not an expectation.
Takoby’s father, Toney Cofield, worked as a firefighter for 27 years and held two jobs for about 20.
His mother, Ava, works for Edgecombe County Public Schools, and both his parents called for their children to be leaders.
“When we know that you’re an ‘A’ student, we don’t expect anything less than your best,” Toney Cofield said. “If give your best, and your best is a ‘C,’ we’ll accept that ‘C’ and be proud of it. But when I know you’re an ‘A’ student, I won’t accept anything less.”
When Duke’s demands – fast practices, complex sets and a wide-ranging offense – came calling, Cofield was able to adapt. One of the reasons Duke targeted him was because it felt he could cope with the necessities of being a Duke lineman.
“We have really smart kids and they can handle a lot of things, and it starts with that,” Latina said. “If, mentally, they can’t handle it, you’re limited.”
So, when Cofield was beat in that first Virginia game, the coaches stayed patient with him. But now that he is the main man at left tackle, the expectations have changed again.
“It was a moment like that where I saw, OK, this is how hard I have to work to be as good as I want to be,” Cofield said. “It’s a night-and-day difference (from then), even the expectations. Some stuff I used to do back in the day, they’d say, ‘OK, that’s not bad.’ Now, they’ll chew me out for it.”
The Blue Devils went to their first bowl game in nearly 20 years in Cofield’s first season as a starter, and they’re hoping for their first winning season since 1994 this year.
Cofield has been an integral part of the team’s 4-2 start, even absorbing the absence of starting quarterback Anthony Boone for a month. Success hasn’t changed Takoby, Toney Cofield said. Even if he’s pretty easy to spot in a crowd, Takoby doesn’t feel big.
“He’s a very, very passionate, humble kid. He doesn’t feel like he’s bigger than anybody else,” Toney Cofield said.
For those that have been around Cofield for a while, his progressing career isn’t a surprise.
“(At Tarboro) he said, ‘I’m going to be a Division-I lineman.’ Did we know it at the time? There was potential,” Harding said. “He knew it. He absolutely knew it, 100 percent, he was going to be a Division-I lineman. And he was.
“I think he’s going to get a chance to play at the next level, and I think he’s going to play at that next level for a very long time. His determination is that good, and you can’t beat that out of that kid.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com