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Noah Gray And Marquis Waters Zoom The Media

As Georgia Tech looms

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Duke
 Nov 7, 2020; Durham, North Carolina, USA; Duke Blue Devils running back Jordan Waters (7) goes in for a touchdown past North Carolina Tar Heels linebacker Eugene Asante (7) during the second half at Wallace Wade Stadium. 
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

We knew this wasn’t going to be easy. Go back to August when the college football was trying to cobble together a semblance of a season and we saw such word as “adaptable,” “flexible” and “uncertain.”

It’s definitely played out that way. Duke has done a spectacularly good job of managing the pandemic, both as a university and as a football program, so good that national news outlets have noticed.

Still, Duke has had games canceled, moved up, moved back. Open dates have become game dates, game dates have become open dates and Duke’s 2020 season has been maxed out at 10 games.

How has Duke managed to hold together?

Senior tight end Noah Gray discussed that dilemma in a Tuesday afternoon Zoom call with the media.

“From the beginning we’ve had to adapt and change the way we’ve been conducting our business. We knew that going into the year games were going to be changed, things were going to be moved. We knew that. Being able to be adaptable was going to be very important for our success this season and this week has been like no other. I think that individually and we as a team have done a tremendous job understanding the circumstances that we’re in and moving forward with it, trusting the process, trusting our coaches, trusting the school that everything is going to be all right and that we’re going to do everything possible to get on the field, whenever that’s going to be.”

Senior defensive back Marquis Waters adds the context that this flexibility has to be matched by an equal dose of discipline.

“We hold each other accountable and make sure we all stay in the bubble . . . because we all want to play football.”

How has Duke used the extra practice time?

Gray says Duke has tried to balance the need for rest and recuperation with the need to get better on the practice field.

The key is efficiency.

“We’ve been able to get into the film room and kind of study our opponents more so than maybe in the past. Our coaching staff has done a great job of putting together different tips and reminders that we’re going to need going forward. In terms of practice, we’re kind of taking what we’re learning in the meeting room and being able to smooth out some stuff.” Duke’s coaches have “implemented things in our schedule that give us the ability to practice at a high level but also make sure we’re taking it easy on our body and being 100 percent healthy and ready to go against Georgia Tech.”

Waters calls the extra time off “very frustrating,” adding “we put a lot of preparation, especially coming off a bye week, doing a lot of preparation preparing for a team [Wake Forest] and getting ready for that team and then it’s canceled.”

But Georgia Tech looms, not Wake Forest and Waters says Duke has made the adjustment.

Waters says one of the keys is controlling Tech’s quarterback Jeff Sims, the kind of mobile quarterback who can give any defense trouble. This is a team that scored 46 points against Louisville, after all. So, they have some weapons.

But Sims can be pressured into mistakes; he has 10 interceptions in seven games.

How does Duke minimize the damage Sims can do to Duke while maximizing the damage Duke can do to Sims?

Waters has some thoughts.

“We have to get him on the ground. We have to tackle well. We have to keep him inside the pocket and force him to make hard throws, pressure him, put him on the ground. Every week we always look at quarterbacks and say we’ve got opportunities and that’s a big emphasis on our game. I think we [the secondary] could contest more balls . . . . finish more plays with turnovers, get off the field on third downs.”

On the other end of the field Duke needs to find a way to get Gray more involved in the offense. He has only two catches combined in Duke’s last two game, for 10 yards, after hauling in 24 passes in Duke’s first six games.

Gray’s not going to publicly criticize his coaches or teammates, of course and took the high road when asked about the recent drop in productivity.

“I’m just doing what my coaches are asking me and what the team wants. That may not reflect in my statistics but I’ve never been about that and honesty I could care less about the numbers that I’m putting up . . . as long as I’m doing what the team needs me to do. My body feels great.”

What does the team need him to do?

“Be the best possible teammate that I possibly can be. I’m just going to go out and practice and do what my coaches need me to do, be in the spot that my quarterback needs me to be in and we’re going to go from there. If I have to catch the ball 20 times, I’ll do it, if I have to catch the ball one time, I’ll do that.”

I’ll go with 20 catches.

One addendum. Tech has allowed limited crowds at home games this season and Gray says the plan right now is for limited numbers of Duke parents to be in attendance.

Kickoff at 7 P.M. Saturday and the people who do this for a living call it a toss-up.