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Spring Football Brings Change, Optimism

David Cutcliffe & co. are ready to get started

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North Carolina v Duke
DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 10: The Duke Blue Devils run onto the field before their game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Wallace Wade Stadium on November 10, 2018 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Duke football began its 2019 spring football practice March 1, the kind of cold, damp, dreary day that gives March a bad name.

Fortunately, Duke has an indoor practice facility.

Duke is coming off an 8-5 season, including a win over Temple in the Independence Bowl.

Duke has holes to fill. Everyone does. David Cutcliffe could have been speaking for the Coaches Union today, when he told the media “it’s a good start. We’ve got a lot of work to do. A lot of competition at a lot of positions. I liked our first day. I hope I like my second day.”

Not everyone will be practicing. A number of key returnees are rehabbing season-ending injuries.

Cornerback Mark Gilbert missed most of last season with a hip injury.

“He’s moving good,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got great hopes of a 100 percent recovery.”

Safety Dylan Singleton, defensive tackles Edgar Cerenord and Ben Frye, offensive linemen Jaylen Miller and Patrick Leitten, running back Marvin Hubbard III and tight end Jake Marwede also are on the mend.

“It’s enough to make you nervous,” Cutcliffe says. “None of them running yet but hopefully that’s the next step.”

Asked the key questions that need to be answered this spring, Cutcliffe responded “Trying to figure out our best 11 on both sides of the ball. There’s competition and that’s a good thing. When you have graduation, every year in college football, we’re not like a draft. We recruit and we develop. So, you have to adjust schemes with personnel. So, one of the things is to figure out what we’re going to do best on offense and what we’re going to do best on defense.”

Duke is replacing its quarterback, top three wide receivers and two key tight ends, while returning a deep and talented pool of running backs.

More of a running game?

“It’s way too early to say what we’re going to do,” Cutcliffe says, acknowledging that none of his quarterbacks are “imminent first-round drafts. So, we’ll have to adjust.”

Deon Jackson is one of those returning running backs and he says his group is ready for the challenge.

“I think we have a lot of running backs in the stable that are good enough to make plays. As a group, we’re very versatile. We can spread out as receivers, run the jet sweep, run inside or out. This is the most important time of the season, getting everybody locked in and goals set. I think we have more weapons than people know. We love Q and we’re behind him. We see the things he’s done in practices and in games and we all have confidence in him.”

Q, of course, is Quentin Harris, the presumptive starter at quarterback.

“He was comfortable running the offense,” Cutcliffe said of the first practice, “telling other players where to go and what to do. He’s got a lot of confidence. He’s an extremely bright young man. He played today like a starter because he’s been a starter. I thought he took a good approach today.”

Linebacker is the big question mark on defense. Duke lost starters Ben Humphries and Joe Giles-Harris but backups Koby Quansah and Brandon Hill got a lot of work last season due to injuries. They are running first-team last now, with depth developing behind them.

“Competition is good,” Cutcliffe says of the linebacker situation. “We’ve got some people who are going to fight and scratch and claw. Those linebackers are so excited, they’ve got me excited. They’ve got huge shoes to fill and one of the ways you do that is with energy.”

Quansah says the key is to “take everything Ben and Joe have taught us and form our own kind of combination. It’s our opportunity to do our thing. I know what to do when my time comes. I’ve become more vocal, more of a leader. I need to get everybody talking. Communication is vital in this program.”

Redshirt freshmen Rocky Shelton and Shaka Heyward could be keys at the linebacker position. Quansah says he and Hill have been working overtime with them in the weight room and film room. “There’s a lot being thrown at them but we think they’ll be ready.”

Teams in the spring always talk about being ready for the generic opener. But Duke’s opening-day-opponent is about as far from generic as anyone can be, Alabama, in Atlanta.

Quansah says that’s adding some extra juice to the offseason.

“It’s a big stage, big lights, a lifetime experience. Take it in, soak it in but remember why you’re there.”

There will be one chance to see Harris, Quansah and teammates, the Spring Showcase, on Friday April 5, at 6 P.M. It will be open to the public.

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