One of the most important parts of Duke’s opening-day win over Army hasn’t been much talked about.
That was the return to the field of senior safety Jeremy McDuffie.
If you blinked you might have missed him. McDuffie played only 13 snaps.
Duke says no. McDuffie’s limited usage was no accident and he is on track for a full recovery.
“He didn’t play much in the Army game,” David Cutcliffe said. “He was very limited. That was the plan.”
McDuffie came to Duke as a cornerback, good enough and promising enough that he played 13 games as a true freshman in 2015, starting 11.
The speedy McDuffie—he was a prep track standout-- moved to safety before last season, a better match for his advanced tackling skills. He notched 10 tackles against North Carolina, nine against Florida State, eight against both Virginia and Pittsburgh, 56 in Duke’s first 10 games.
He did this without any diminished pass-coverage skills. He had nine passes broken up and intercepted three passes, returning one 42 yards for a score against Virginia.
McDuffie’s 2017 season came to an untimely halt in the Georgia Tech game, when he tore ligaments in his right knee.
Despite missing almost three entire games, McDuffie finished fourth on the team in tackles with 58 and second in passes defended with 12. He was named third-team All-ACC.
McDuffie had surgery to repair the damage on November 27.
There was no guarantee he would return at all this season. Because he played as a true freshman, he had not been redshirted. A medical hardship for the 2018 and subsequent return for 2019 was an option.
McDuffie stayed away from contact work during spring ball, doing the methodical work of rehabilitating major surgery. Whenever I raised the subject, I was told the same thing. “He hasn’t had any setbacks.”
McDuffie talked briefly to the media during fall practice.
At least we think it was him. He had been to the barber. Shorn of his distinctive long locks, it took us some time to recognize the new Jeremy McDuffie. But McDuffie assured us that he wouldn’t have a Sampson-like loss of strength and that he was working towards the season opener against Army.
It may have helped that McDuffie had had a similar injury in high school and knew his way around a rehab.
The Army game was a good one for McDuffie to ease back in. Duke usually plays a 4-2-5 defense, with two linebackers, three safeties and two cornerbacks. However, against run-oriented, triple-option teams like Army and Georgia Tech, Duke frequently opts for a third linebacker at the expense of that third safety.
Thus, Duke went with junior Dylan Singleton and sophomore Marquis Waters at safety, Koby Quansah as the third linebacker, and McDuffie seeing spot action, enough to shake off some rust. McDuffie was beaten on a long pass but also made a nice, open-field tackle.
Best of all, his body held up.
What about this week? Down the line?
“We don’t know if he’ll play much this week,” Cutcliffe says. “We’ll play him on special teams, trying to get him back into the flow.”
Expect Duke to go back to its regular defense, with promising redshirt freshman Leonard
Johnson likely to see the field a lot.
“One of the biggest difficulties you have with any recovering player after surgery is them
feeling comfortable on the field,” Cutcliffe says, “not thinking about their knees but focused on playing. So, we’re trying to work through that every single day.”
His teammates are excited for his return. All-America linebacker Joe Giles-Harris says
“Jeremy McDuffie is a helluva football player and an even better person. He fought the whole off-season to be ready for week one. He’s a big leader on defense, a team leader.”
Fellow safety Singleton adds “I love my brother Jeremy. It was great having him
Duke has as many play-makers on the defensive side of the field as any Duke team in my memory. A healthy McDuffie could be one of the best and a key to a big season. Duke is playing it safe in hopes that Jeremy McDuffie will be hale and hearty at the end of the campaign, not just the beginning.