DURHAM, N.C. – Duke coach David Cutcliffe updated his depth Sunday for the Blue Devils’ season opener Thursday night at Tulane and most years it would have raised red flags.
On the three-deep chart, one true freshman on offense and four on defense are positioned for early playing time.
Among redshirt freshmen, there are three on offense and four on defense. That’s a dozen first-year players.
But in Cutcliffe’s eighth year of lifting Duke’s program to new heights, the inexperience dotting the depth chart has more to do with his confidence in players recruited the last couple years than exposing holes in older recruiting classes.
Duke’s 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes witnessed unprecedented success at the school with back-to-back nine-win seasons – 10-4 in 2013 and 9-4 in 2014. The Blue Devils are seeking their fourth straight bowl trip and second ACC Coastal title in the last three years. High school kids notice such things.
Just listen to a couple of fifth-year seniors, left guard Lucas Patrick and defensive end Britton Grier, who met Sunday with the media. They came aboard the Good Ship Duke before the turnaround that began in 2012. They like what they’ve seen in fall camp.
“They’re a very fast class,” said Patrick, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound returning starter. “Across the board they get to the ball quick. All camp during scrimmages Ben Humphreys has found a way to the ball whether it’s a tackle or a tipped ball. The offense also has skilled players like T.J. Rahming making good plays.”
Humphreys is a 6-2, 210-pound true freshman linebacker that is a rare Rivals 4-star prospect for the Blue Devils. He is listed as “or” at the No. 2 position with sophomore Chris Holmes behind senior starter Dwayne Norman. When he picked Duke, he switched coasts, arriving from California traditional power Santa Ana Mater Dei. The school more commonly sends talent to USC, UCLA and throughout the Pac-12.
Rahming is a 5-10, 165-pound true freshman wide receiver that was a Rivals.com 3-star recruit out of Powder Springs (Ga.) McEachern. He is the only true freshman listed as a possible starter. He and redshirt freshman Chris Taylor (6-1, 170) are listed as “or” for the No. 1 wideout spot alongside senior Max McCaffrey and junior Johnell Barnes.
“Our freshmen class is very talented,” said Grier, a 6-1, 250-pound first-year starter. “We have a lot of freshmen that will contribute early. Marquies Price and Brandon Boyce are two defensive line freshmen that I think will come in a step up early. It’s a testament to their high school programs and how Coach Cut has pushed people.”
Price is a 6-6, 240-pound true freshman from Fort Valley (Ga.) Peach County listed as No. 2 defensive end to Grier. Boyce is a 6-0, 255-pounder from Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas listed as “or” with sophomore Mike Ramsay as the No. 2 defensive tackle behind Carlos Wray.
Grier has worked on same side of the ball with Price in practice, but Patrick has had to face him head to head.
“He comes to work every day,” Patrick said. “When we went against him in drills and live reps he’d be in the backfield. He’s a big physical kid that really works hard. He enrolled early in the spring and worked since Day 1. Hard work pays off.”
Five other first-year players that are No. 2 at their position are redshirt freshman right tackle Christian Harris (6-6, 290), redshirt freshman center Zach Harmon (6-3, 280), redshirt freshman middle linebacker Tinashe Bere (6-1, 230), redshirt freshman cornerback Johnathan Lloyd (6-0, 190) and true freshman cornerback Jeremy McDuffie (5-11, 170).
At defensive tackle, redshirt freshmen Quaven Ferguson (6-2, 305) and Edgar Cerenord (6-1, 300) are listed as “or” behind junior A.J. Wolf.
With so many freshmen playing their first college game on the road, Cutcliffe addressed logistics as early as an NFL preseason game matching Detroit and Washington on Aug. 20 at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. Cutcliffe took his team on the road – the trip included history sightseeing in Washington, D.C. — to a game that featured three former Duke players.
Team meetings and team meals were part of the routine to simulate traveling to Tulane in New Orleans.
“When you travel you have to know what to do and how to do it,” Cutcliffe said. “Kevin Lehman, our chief of staff, did a great job of laying out the trip. We use ipads for our playbooks and they got that (itinerary) information on their iPad. They passed that test with flying colors in D.C.”
Something else Cutcliffe manages is having veteran players room with the younger players to help them with questions. Patrick remembers it helped him as a redshirt freshman in 2012.
“It was at Boston College, and we won on a last-minute field goal,” he said. “I was rooming with an older lineman, and I felt like my head was spinning. I didn’t know how these functioned. It helped to have older guys to ask questions.”
It comes with having promising young talent taking the field.
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055