Next man up.
If I had a hundred dollars for every time I’ve heard that . . .
Well, you can fill in the blanks.
But clichés become clichés for a reason. They have an element of truth to them.
And next man up can decide the success of a season. Or the non-success of a season.
No Duke position this season has tested next-man-up more than Duke’s secondary.
The Blue Devils came into the 2018 season with two returning All-ACC players anchoring the back of the defense. Junior Mark Gilbert was a first-team All-ACC cornerback in 2017, while senior Jeremy McDuffie a third-team safety.
Gilbert was being touted as a likely All-American. But his season ended after less than six halves, a hip injury the culprit. McDuffie had off-season ACL surgery and seemed to be progressing well, even playing 13 snaps in Duke’s opener against Army. But some soreness set in and McDuffie has not played since that opener. He is practicing this week but it’s not clear when he will next see game action.
It got worse. Duke moved promising sophomore Michael Carter II from safety to corner, where he started the Baylor game, after Gilbert’s injury. Carter went down with a knee injury early in that game. The injury does not appear to be catastrophic but again there’s no firm timeline for his return.
Next man up?
You bet. Two of Duke’s secondary stars against Baylor were players who had barely seen the field a few weeks ago.
Leonard Johnson is a redshirt freshman, primarily a safety, although he has played cornerback, even a few snaps as linebacker against Army.
David Cutcliffe says Johnson is “very gifted athletically, one of the most gifted athletes on our team.”
Making his first Duke start, Johnson salted away the Baylor game with a 53-yard pick-six that put the Blue Devils up 40-20, with 3:39 left.
“That’s a bigger deal than you think,” Cutcliffe says of that play. “You’re right on the edge. When you finally make that play, everything changes. I’ve had some of my older players talk to Leonard on the sideline after that tell me how different he was.”
Then there’s Myles Hudzick, a redshirt sophomore cornerback, thrown into the Baylor game when Carter went down. Hudzick led Duke with nine tackles.
Hudzick was named one of Duke’s top spring players but dropped behind Carter and Blackwell once fall practice began.
He hung in there.
“We’re very talented. Anybody can start, anybody can play. It’s all about that next-man-up mentality. I knew I would be called upon sometime and it happened against Baylor. I was ready. Everything happened so fast. I didn’t have time to think. I practice against some of the best guys in the country but it’s different in a game. You gotta stick to your plan. I pray on it and work hard, keep working and keep moving.”
Duke’s four captains give a “Captain’s Award” after every game and Hudzick was the post-Baylor pick.
“Myles Hudzick got the award,” Cutcliffe says “and there was a huge eruption of cheers from his teammates, which makes me feel as good as a win because in reality, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Myles has worked very hard.”
Hudzick, Johnson, Carter and sophomore safety Marquis Waters are all on the young side. With Gilbert and McDuffie out, the veteran leadership comes from junior safety Dylan Singleton, who Cutcliffe says is “playing like an All-American. He’s playing at a really high level. He’s got great football savvy.”
Duke has played 15 defensive backs in three games, 13 of whom have at least one tackle. Only McDuffie uses up his eligibility this season.
Singleton leads Duke with 28 tackles and has forced two fumbles and recovered one. Waters has 14 tackles and shares the team lead with three quarterback hurries. Carter leads Duke with four passes broken up. Duke has allowed a modest 6.3 yards per pass, picking off four passes, while allowing only two touchdown passes.
This depth is no accident. Cutcliffe has long said that you can never have too many defensive backs and has prioritized those who can run, cover and tackle. Corners can move to safety and vice-versa. McDuffie was a corner for two seasons. DeVon Edwards moved between both spots, as have Carter, Brandon Feamster and others. Strike safety, boundary corner, if you’re good enough, Duke will find a place to use you.
“Our coaches have developed a culture of practicing well here regardless of whether you think you’re going to play a down or not so that when you’re called on, you should be ready to play,” Cutcliffe says. “We aren’t a program that just gives our reps to the ones. We rep three-deep, four-deep. Everybody matters on that practice field. That’s a culture you have to work really hard to build.”
The schedule gets tougher after this week and it’s realistic to expect ACC quarterbacks to test Duke’s young but talented defensive-back-corps. It would help if Carter and McDuffie can get healthy and if Duke can continue the potent pass rush that can help keep ACC quarterbacks from exploiting Duke’s secondary youth.
But the trend lines are encouraging. Duke’s inexperienced defensive backs have held together under some difficult circumstances, a development which bodes well for the future, both short-term and long-term.