Sixteen days and counting. That’s how long it is before Duke opens its 2019 football season against Alabama, a neutral-site game to be held in Atlanta.
Duke is getting serious about the Crimson Tide. They’re having their second scrimmage of the fall Friday night and it’s a “lock-down” practice, closed even to the media. If Duke has any tricks up its sleeves, this is the time to work out the kinks.
But the ‘Bama opener is still going to be followed by 11 or 12 more games.
The media had a chance to talk today with starting center Jack Wohlabaugh. He says Duke has to balance getting ready for the opener and getting ready for the season.
“You’re always thinking self-improvement. That’s what makes a good player. As we get closer to Alabama it becomes a combination of who you’re playing and what you can do to get better, what you’re going to expect and knowing your weaknesses and what to work on and what the other team brings. Finding that perfect combination is what the coaches help us out with, of what we have to do.
It’s not that much different [opening with Alabama]. You have to have the same intensity, try to bring it to every game. We know that Alabama is a very serious opponent but right now we’re focused on our team, trying to get better, trying to be the best we can be.”
Duke’s offense struggled early in last Saturday’s scrimmage, penalties stalling drives.
“Lots of time early in camp the defense is a little ahead of the offense,” Wohlabaugh says. “ Fight back with them, get ahead of them and really compete.” Penalties are “always a point of concern at the beginning of camp. The penalties will go away with time., But you have to make it an emphasis, something you have to get on early in camp so its not a problem later in the year and doesn’t come back to bite you.”
Wohlabaugh has been encouraged by the development of young offensive players, especially freshmen linemen Jacob Monk, Elijah Wroten and Ron Carr and redshirt freshmen Maurice McIntyre and Peace Addo.
“I’ve been really impressed with all the young guys. They’ve all stepped up. The main thing I’ve noticed is that in the film room, they’re answering questions, asking stuff. They want to be involved and that translates in practice. When you know what to do, you can step it up a notch, take it a step further.”
Then there’s John Gelotte, a 290-pound true freshman who’s doing some work at tight end. Wohlabaugh starts every play with the ball in his hands but never gets it back and most offensive linemen never touch the ball.
So, they’ve living vicariously at the possibility of Gelotte catching passes.
“Maybe one day I’ll get out at tight end,” Wohlabaugh jokes.” I’ll probably need sticky gloves. You see him [Gelotte] on the film and he’s making big-boy blocks, moving people down the field. Even in a walk-through he went out [as a receiver] and Coach Bridge said ‘throw him the ball’ and the whole line started clapping. We’re rooting for him. Hopefully, he’ll get a touchdown or something and we’ll have a big-boy celebration in the end zone.”
The offensive linemen aren’t the only freshmen catching Wohlabaugh’s eye. True freshmen running backs Jaylen Coleman and Jordan Waters impressed in the scrimmage and Wohlabaugh says they’ve been doing the same things in practice.
“They definitely caught my eye. You’re blocking and you see them make a cut. What definitely caught my eye was the physicality of them. They’re down field and they’re not going out-of-bounds, they’re fighting for those extra yards. It definitely motivates us to go down and hit somebody.”
Waters had cramps after Saturday’s scrimmage but is fine now. David Cutcliffe is a fan of having three or even four running backs in his rotation and he’s very comfortable using true freshmen at that position. Deon Jackson and Brittain Brown are atop the food chain but it will be interesting seeing how Coleman and Waters, redshirt freshman Mataeo Durant, redshirt sophomore Marvin Hubbard and veteran Elijah Deveaux compete for playing time.
Defensive back Josh Blackwell is starting at cornerback as a redshirt sophomore. He’s equally impressed by young defensive backs, citing true freshmen corners Tony Davis, Jalen Alexander and Isaiah Kemp.
“They’re bringing energy and competing for playing time. There’s lots of talent in the freshman class.”
Blackwell is from Buford, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb, one of a number of Duke Georgians looking forward to going back to their home state for the 2019 opener. Senior safety Dylan Singleton is one of those and Singleton is fully recovered from the fractured left ankle that prematurely ended his 2018 season.
Blackwell says Singleton is the spiritual leader of the defense.
“Seeing him running to the ball and looking for someone to hit energizes us all.”
Every good football program blends experience and youth and Singleton is one of the veterans Duke will rely on to integrate the talented newcomers into the program while continuing to win football games.
We have two weeks to see where that process is. But it’s just one data point on a long season.