Duke has unprecedented depth, experience up front

DURHAM, N.C. — Duke’s depth chart was released on Tuesday and while it’s hardly breaking news, it’s noteworthy that of the nine starters on the defensive and offensive fronts, eight are juniors or seniors. On the depth chart, there are no freshmen on the offensive line and just one along the defensive line.

To have the kind of experience along the front lines is yet another example of how head coach David Cutcliffe has been able to turn the program around. 
After a rash of injuries on the offensive line in fall camp, it helped Cutcliffe realize he still had to count his blessings. 
“That makes me sleep much better, I can promise you that,” he said. “I’m very confident in all of those guys on both sides of the ball as to what they’re going to give us effort-wise and their ability to play like a winner.”
And since all of these players are pretty experienced, the old “we’d like to hit someone else” cliche rings especially true in this case. Senior defensive end Justin Foxx has been going up against senior right guard Perry Simmons for as long as he can remember, and after nearly five years of that, both of them are more than ready to hit someone else.
“Oh yeah, I’ve been going against Perry Simmons for our whole career. We actually went against each other before we got here in camp,” Foxx said. “Me and him have been going against each other, making each other better. It’s a great relationship, me and Perry because I work hard, he works hard so we’ve just been making each other better all these years.”
Foxx and his teammates have had an up-close-and-personal view of the offensive line since they’ve been at Duke, and he thinks it’s one of the best the Blue Devils have had since he’s been in Durham. 
“They’re looking great right now. It’s a veteran group of guys. The only new guy starting is (sophomore center) Matt Skura, so it’s a veteran group of guys. They’re physical. They’re nasty. They’re going to play hard. It’s been good going those guys, making each other better.
And behind that veteran offensive line, there are four running backs with significant experience ready to show that the Duke offense can actually be multi-dimensional. Foxx thinks they’re ready to do that, too. 
“They’re all big, physical guys. As a team, we had a great offseason in the weight room. A lot of big numbers were put up, a lot of guys getting bigger, stronger. And the mentality is a little different. (Offensive line coach John Latina) has been good at bringing a different edge to them. So I think they’re going to be very dominant in the run game this year.”
Duke had 1,628 team rushing yards last year, and with the experience in the backfield returning — plus a dual-threat quarterback in Anthony Boone — Duke should be even better this year. 
The 1,628 yards last season and 125.2 per game were the most by a Duke team since 2005 (127.1)
Senior running back Juwan Thompson said that since the running backs last year proved they could be counted upon to gain yards and make plays, they’re going to be trusted more when it comes to play-calling this year.
“I feel that we showed a lot over these past 4-5 years as a unit, and then last year we stepped up and did a lot of different things to where if we just put any back out there, we would know that the back is going to make a play,” Thompson said. “We had three backs that did very well last year and we’re just trying to work everyone into the rotation and get everyone on the same page to where we can just, at any given time, he knows we can run the ball numerous times and he doesn’t have to worry about deferring to the pass. We can split that 50-50 with the run-pass game.”
Duke doesn’t have as much experience in other places, though. 
Duke’s starting cornerbacks, both seniors, are seasoned veterans. But they are being backed up by four freshmen who should see playing time. And senior starter Ross Cockrell has taken a liking to that group, seeing a lot of himself in them … except for that part where freshman Ross Cockrell had to play right away. Now, barring injury, these freshmen should get a chance to develop under the tutelage of an All-ACC corner. 
“I think it’s going to be an easier adjustment because one thing that I’m trying to do is help them make that transition,” Cockrell said. “I know when you’re a freshman and you’re out there and you’re on an island, it can be nerve-wracking. A lot of things going through your head before the play and after the play.”
What went through Cockrell’s head as a freshman cornerback?
“You’re tired. The players are moving fast so you’re just like, ‘Man, this guy’s fast.’ You’re breathing hard. You’re trying to look for the call. You’re trying to think about where to line up, what kind of coverage you’re going to play. So there’s a lot that goes on before every snap that can get frustrating when you’re a young player and haven’t been used to doing that.”
Cockrell not-so-fondly remembered his first play in college against Elon. They targeted him right away on a slant, and it went for 15 yards. He’s shown the freshmen game tape from his first year at Duke, and a lot of it was worse than that 15-yard gain.
The tape he showed the freshmen was much like the Driver’s Ed video that teenagers see. Teenagers — and freshmen DBs– tend to think they’re invincible. “Oh, that won’t happen to me,” they think anytime an older person tries to tell them a cautionary tale.
But not these freshmen, according to Cockrell.
“They weren’t like that at all. They took it in stride,” Cockrell said. “You can coach off of anything, bad plays and good plays. I try to coach off of bad plays so they don’t happen to them.
“Some DBs are going to be cocky and brash and stuff like that, but I think the good corners are humble and understand that at any moment, you can get beat on a play. Even if you’re in perfect position, sometimes there’s no defense for a good offense. You have to realize that, make tackles and next play.”
Cockrell has bigger things to worry about than the freshmen, though. As one of Duke’s captains for the second straight year, the duty of calling the opening coin toss will fall to him. But he has  a strategy in mind already.
“Tails never fails,” he said.