Duke’s young DBs and vets in new positions creating buzz

DURHAM, N.C. — Duke’s first day of class will be this coming
Monday, which will mean that fall camp is essentially over as well. The
focus then shifts to Week 1 opponent North Carolina Central — and the
buzz surrounding some Blue Devils on both sides of the ball is getting
louder and louder.

Some are in new roles, like Isaac Blakeney (a
tight end moved to the slot) or Brandon Braxton (a wide receiver moved
to safety last year who is now back at receiver).
And some of the more buzzed-about players are just new, period.

It’s
not often that freshmen defensive backs play at all early in their
careers, much less play well. But when asked about which young DBs have
impressed throughout fall camp, the answer has almost always been the
same person.

“I think Breon Borders is really good.” Braxton said.

“Breon
Borders, the way he’s caught on and learned, he’s so fast,” Blakeney
said. “Even some things that he can’t do fundamentally well yet because
he’s young he makes up for in athleticism which is also great.”

“Breon
Borders is one of the best first-year freshmen I’ve seen with ball
skills, just being able to go up and compete for balls and just be in
the hip pockets of everybody that runs routes,” quarterback Anthony
Boone said.

A 6-foot cornerback out of Statesville, N.C.,
Borders was a multisport athlete in high school (basketball and track),
winning the state title in the 300-meter hurdles last year. He’s already
one of the fastest players on the team, but speed and athleticism don’t
always translate.

Duke has had plenty of talented defensive
backs in the past who have been forced into action early in their
careers. They didn’t play because they were better — they played
because there was no depth, and the Blue Devils didn’t have a choice.

Those
young DBs started off showing flashes of brilliance, but that was it.
Just flashes. Borders and fellow freshman Bryon Fields (who is often
mentioned right after Borders by his teammates) are just good.

“These
guys are different. It’s not just flashes. It’s rep after rep. They’re
consistently just making a lot of plays and causing a lot of havoc on
the back end of our defense,” Boone said.

Head coach David
Cutcliffe got his team to a bowl for the first time since 1994 last
year. With more winning has come better recruiting, and also part of
what sets Borders and Fields apart.

“I feel like they’re a lot
more bigger and physical than then ones we’ve had in the past, a lot
faster, and they’re catching on a lot better,” Blakeney said. “I feel
like we’re winning games, so we’re getting better recruits and I think
that’s all that is.”

And naturally, like any elite defensive
back, the freshmen don’t lack confidence. “I wouldn’t say that they’re
cocky or feeling themselves — they just have that confidence in their
game that a good player would have,” said wide receiver Jamison Crowder.
“If you feel like you’re a good player and you go out and you display
it, show it every practice, day-in and day-out, that’s the one that
they’ve shown.”

Yes, Crowder has gone up against them from time
to time in practice. So while he has been talking them up, he wanted to
clarify that he’s still the veteran, and he’s still dominating that
matchup.

“I don’t want to sound cocky but I made plays on them,”
he said. “But I guess it’s just something that the young guys have to
get used to. They’ll be all right though as they gain more experience.”

But
when asked about a moment where one of the young defensive backs had
gotten the better of  them, Duke’s pass-catchers’ memories suddenly got
very hazy.

“Uh….I can’t remember,” Crowder said, laughing and
scratching his head. “In camp, none of the young boys made a play on me.
But they’re right there in position.”

“Not that I can remember, honestly,” Braxton said, grinning. “Maybe sometimes, but I can’t really think of one right now.”

“Um,” Blakeney said. “(Borders) has gotten some of the receivers. He hasn’t caught me yet. Hopefully, I’ll keep it that way.”

Slightly new faces in kind of different places

Blakeney
and Braxton may be dominating the freshmen DBs in practice — well, at
least if you ask them — but both are trying to adjust to different
roles this year.

Blakeney was a third-down tight end last year —
“kind of like a designated hitter in baseball”, as he explained it —
and now he’ll be in the slot.

It won’t be a huge adjustment for
him schematically, since he was primarily a receiving tight end last
year. But he came to Duke at 190 pounds, bulked up to 240 to play tight
end … and then promptly was asked to lose weight this offseason.

“It
was very hard losing weight. That was my first time having to go
through that my whole life,” Blakeney said. “But it was a good process
and it’ll all work for the better.”

It’s easy to see why Duke did
it, though. As long as Blakeney drops enough weight to get faster, he
will be a matchup nightmare for opponents at 6-6. He just has to put it
all together and go from being a situational receiver to an every-down
receiver.

Duke lost last year’s leading receiver Conner Vernon
to graduation, but Blakeney said that replacing him is going to be a
group effort. And he’ll be part of that.

“I’m tall. I’m big. I
can run. So I’m just trying to stretch the field,” Blakeney said.
“Everybody likes to talk about Conner left and things like that. I feel
like no one person should try to take it all upon themselves.

“There’s
not one person in the receiving room who shouldn’t think like that,
though. Everybody feels like they’re the No. 1 receiver. Everybody has
that mentality. That’s kind of what makes all of us great. You should
expect a lot from all the receivers in the room this year.”

Braxton is just trying to remember what it was like to play offense.

After
a rash of injuries in Duke’s secondary last year, he was forced to
switch to safety and he became a starter. Then he fell victim to the
injury bug, missing five games towards the end of the year.

This
year, though, he’s back at wide receiver again. He started out in the
slot, but on the first day of camp, he was moved back to the outside.

“I
didn’t know a dang thing,” Braxton said, laughing. “I was running the
wrong route. I think I had at least 12 mental errors. I was messing up
real bad, but I got in my playbook and now I know most of my stuff.”

He lives with Boone, and the QB has been a pretty good resource at his disposal at all times, which helps.

And his experience at safety a year ago has helped quite a bit, too.

“It’s
a lot easier, and it’s cool. Watching film in the offensive meeting
room, now I look more at the defense and be like ‘Oh, they’re rolling
down’ or ‘They’re playing quarters and rolling the two’ or something,”
Braxton said. “It’s a lot easier for me to see, which helps me at
receiver.”