Duke lost its third senior team captain to a season-ending injury last week when Jela Duncan went down, but despite records of 3-5 overall and 0-4 in the ACC Coastal the Blue Devils aren’t demoralized.
Duke has remained competitive without injured quarterback Thomas Sirk (Achilles tendon), injured safety DeVon Edwards (knee) and now Duncan (Achilles tendon). That includes throwing a scare into Louisville before the Cardinals scored in the fourth quarter to secure a 24-14 victory.
“Those guys are still the same voices on our team,” said redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones, who replaced Sirk. “They’re not on the field, but they’re still powerful voices.”
It may be that the Blue Devils’ resilience will allow them to have something to say about the ACC Coastal race in the next two games against co-leaders Virginia Tech (6-2, 4-1 Coastal) and North Carolina (6-2, 4-1 Coastal).
“They’re around daily helping,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said.
“Right before I came over (to the media conference), Jela was in the training room talking to other players. They care and they’re concerned. These are guys that could check out, but they don’t. DeVon played a significant role in our meeting Sunday. Thomas Sirk has been great. I couldn’t be more proud of those three young men.”
The Blue Devils are home Saturday against the No. 19 Hokies and again five days later on Nov. 10 against the No. 22 Tar Heels. Duke is 4-6 against nationally-ranked teams dating back to 2013.
North Carolina lost to Virginia Tech earlier this year, so the Hokies hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Tar Heels need to win out and hope the Hokies suffer another conference loss to win the division.
If the Hokies beat Duke, North Carolina is running out of time. Virginia Tech has only two more conference games after facing Duke against Georgia Tech (5-3, 2-3 Coastal) and Virginia (2-6, 1-3 Coastal).
Duke now has to show it can keep moving forward without Duncan. He was the Blue Devils’ leading rusher with 88 carries for 450 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and six touchdowns.
“It’s tough not having our captains out there, but we’re having guys step up,” said junior center Austin Davis. “A lot of us have to step up in our roles. We have to be more vocal and hold each other accountable.”
Davis credits Sirk’s presence for helping Jones improve as the season progresses and Edwards for helping younger players replace him in the secondary.
“Thomas is in the meeting room with the quarterbacks every day,” he said. “Thomas has been a big help to Daniel Jones as a redshirt freshman, helping him to see things in the meeting room. Devon is helping all those guys out in meetings. I I know when is Jela able to walk again, he’ll help the young running backs.
“All those captains have great leadership qualities. That’s why we elected them. They represent us on and off the field. They’re all veterans that can help younger guys see stuff on the field and in the film room.”
Cutcliffe moved junior Shaun Wilson (5-9, 180) into the starting role with junior Joseph Ajeigbe (5-9, 215) his backup. Wilson has 90 carries for 373 yards (4.1) and two touchdowns and Ajeigbe 26 for 73 yards and one TD.
From the outside, it might seem natural for teammates to support each other, but Cutciffe, 62, has been a coach long enough to know seniors suffering career-ending injuries don’t always remain involved with the team.
“I think we’re so close – and that’s not just talk – I don’t think it would happen here,” Cutcliffe said. “But that can occur. I’ve seen it. It becomes difficult for everybody.”
Virginia Tech and North Carolina apparently can’t count on a demoralized Duke for an easy win.
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