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.
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“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.”