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Will Duke’s Offensive Line Step Up This Year?

For Duke to improve, it’ll have to.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 06 Florida State at Miami
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - OCTOBER 06: Florida State Seminoles Run Game Coordinator and Offensive Line Coach Greg Frey on the field before the start of the college football game between the Florida State Seminoles and the University of Miami Hurricanes on October 6, 2018 at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, FL.
Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

You’re probably familiar with the concept of Suspension of Disbelief.

The dictionary defines this as “an intentional avoidance of critical thinking or logic in examining something surreal.” You go to your local theater’s production of “Oklahoma” and you’re not surprised when normal people start singing about the church social or impending statehood.

Suspension of disbelief.

Which brings us to Duke’s 2020 football season. Duke has a schedule now and it’s actually pretty compelling. Duke would be the opponent in Notre Dame’s first ACC game. Duke would play its first game against Charlotte. Duke would host ancient rivals North Carolina and Wake Forest and more recent rival Virginia Tech.

Notice I didn’t say “will.” Lots of canaries have gone into lots of coal mines and the returns aren’t encouraging.

But lets suspend disbelief for now and anticipate that 11-game Duke schedule. It could happen.

Along that line let’s ask ourselves what does Duke have to do to improve on last year’s 5-7 mark?

There’s more than one answer of course. An ancient football aphorism states that you are what your record says you are and Duke’s 2019 record says there were multiple areas in need of improvement.

None more in need of improvement than the offensive line.

Let’s go back to David Cutcliffe’s best Duke seasons. Duke won the 2013 ACC Coastal Division title and was a missed field goal away from repeating in 2014. Duke went 27-13 overall, 15-9 in ACC play from 2013 through 2015.

Those teams were led by stellar offensive lines. Laken Tomlinson (San Francisco), Matt Skura (Baltimore) and Lucas Patrick (Green Bay) are all playing in the NFL. Takoby Cofield spent two seasons on Washington’s Taxi Squad and played in Canada. Tomlinson was a first-team All-American and Duke’s first first-round NFL draft pick in a generation. Skura, Cofield and Perry Simmons joined him as All-ACC Players during this three-year span.

John Latina was their position coach. He retired following the 2015 season. Duke hasn’t been .500 in ACC play since then, hasn’t sent any offensive linemen to the NFL and has had only one All-ACC lineman since, center Austin Davis, who was third-team in 2017.

No coincidence.

Latina was by all accounts a great teacher. No nuance was too nuanced for his attention, none were above his ability to correct. His linemen came out of high school with comparable rankings to the Duke lineman who have come after them, the ones who weren’t All-Americans, the ones who aren’t starting for NFL playoff teams.

It’s not like great Duke linemen are being ignored. Duke averaged 3.6 yards per carry last season, tied with Pitt for last in the ACC. By contrast, Duke averaged 4.6 yards per carry in 2013, 4.8 in 2014, 4.8 in 2015.

That’s not a drop-off. That’s a chasm.

Greg Frey was hired to fix that. Frey played for Florida State’s 1993 national champs and ACC title teams in 1993, 1994 and 1995. Doesn’t mean you remember him. All but the best offensive linemen fly under the radar and Frey was far from being a great offensive lineman.

But he’s become a pretty good coach.

Frey is a lifer. He’s been an offensive line coach at South Florida, West Virginia, Michigan—two stints—Indiana and Florida State, sometimes moving up, sometimes moving laterally, even down.

His one plus year at his alma mater ended badly.

Lawyers are involved.

Frey spent last season as a quality-control coach at Florida, looking at tons of film and helping to design game plans.

Frey has coached All-Americans, he’s coached future NFL players, he’s even coached a Remington Award Winner (nation’s best center), Michigan’s David Molk.

I had a chance to talk with Frey earlier this week about getting Duke’s offensive line back to championship levels.

Frey came to Duke on January 21 replacing Jim Bridge, who left Duke for Memphis.

“We’re thrilled to have coach Frey join our staff,” Cutcliffe said at the time. “It isn’t often you have the opportunity to add an individual who, within the landscape of college football, played at the highest level, has coached at the highest level and comes with 20-plus years of experience on the sideline. Coach Frey’s coaching and mentoring abilities are inspiring, and he will have an immediate and positive impact on the young men in our program.”

Frey returns the favor, saying the opportunity to work with Cutcliffe was one of the major attractions of coming to Duke.

Frey hit the ground running. He was on the road recruiting by January 22, helping bring in Stanford grad-student transfer Devery Hamilton.

Frey spent the next few weeks watching film, getting up to speed and preparing for spring ball.

All three practices worth of spring ball. Then, splat. Spring practice disintegrated and his players scattered to the four winds before he barely had time to introduce himself.

Frey decided to forgo the temptation to issue marching orders to his scattered band of warriors.

Instead, he tried to get to know them.

“April, May, June was more about ‘hey, how are you doing, how’s your family, are you staying safe, do you know what you need, those types of things.’”

He liked what he found.

“The players are so unique, so special.”

Good offensive lines work as a unit of five. Call them a well-oiled machine, a well-choreographed ballet, even a military unit. Regimentation can creep in. Cogs in the machine and all that.

That’s not Frey’s style.

I asked him to characterize his coaching philosophy.

“My focus as an O-line coach is always to develop each individual player. There’s no cookie-cutter way to coaching young men. Each player is an individual, each player is unique, each player has a different skill set. This year will be a little different because we’ll have something protecting their face, whatever the medical people deem as necessary, so we’ll adjust to that. We’re ready to really adapt to whatever’s necessary. I want to coach who they are, not my vision of who they are. This is their career, not mine.”

You may have noticed that all of his previous experience has been at large, state-supported schools.

Duke is not a large, state-supported school.

Frey embraces the difference.

“You need to see what needs to happen for each guy physically. What are you trying to get at? Do you want to try and play in the NFL? We have guys here who have a desire to become a doctor or become a lawyer. They love football but if they don’t make it in the NFL they’re going to go professional in another career. So, the first thing is getting a feel for what they’re looking for out of the experience because everybody’s experience is different. To get the most out of a player . . . . you’ve got to figure out what they’re trying to accomplish . . . some of the things I know I can bring to their games and how we transition that.”

Frey made no attempt to ignore the elephant in the room. This is not a normal year.

“I do believe that we’ll be physically ready when the time comes. That’s how I decided to handle it. We’ve got a good feel for the mental things but we’ve got to get on the field and practice. But it’s going to be a very fluid thing. We need to be able to adjust in any way to help these young men.”

That group of young men includes four returning starters, center Jack Wohlabaugh, guard Rakavius “Rock” Chambers and tackles Casey Holman and Jacob Monk.

Wohlabaugh is the key. He’s on the Remington Watch List and Frey says he belongs there.

“If everything rolls the way they are, I can’t wait to see him match up against these [opposing] guys. I think he’ll do well.”

Hamilton, Monk and Holman are tackles. That suggests a move and Monk was recruited to play on the interior.

Frey doesn’t say that won’t happen. But he offers a more nuanced answer.

“One of the things about our current state of affairs with the coronavirus is versatility is going to be huge for this season because you don’t know how—you’re going to go for safety first and go from there.. . . We’ve never gone through a season like this so it really becomes a situation where you’ve got to have a fluid lineup ready, with multiple guys. You’ve really got to have a plan with multiple centers and multiple guards and multiple tackles so that when the time comes, we’re going to work different lineups with different people and people are going to have to work different positions than they were recruited for. In a year like this there is no starter. Everybody is a starter.”

Does Duke have the depth it might need to survive these perilous times?

Robert Kraeling is a redshirt senior. He started at right tackle two years ago, lost his starting job last season and moved to guard. His versatility and experience could be crucial. Will Taylor started at center late last season when Wohlabaugh was out with a foot injury. Counting Hamilton, that’s seven players with starting experience. Junior guard Maurice McIntyre has played a lot, redshirt sophomore Peace Addo not so much. Patrick Leitten and Jake Rimmer are coming off injuries. Ron Carr and John Gelotte redshirted their freshman seasons.

These guys needed the work they didn’t get last spring.

Frey says he’s prepared to get them up to speed..

“Where a coach’s talent is is taking what you see and what you feel and making that version of the Duke offense special. That’s where we are now, trying to use our player’s talents to the best of their abilities.”

Hamilton says he kept in touch with Frey over the summer and has encouraging things to say about Frey’s teaching abilities.

“Lots of Zoom, walk-throughs, hammering in on the playbooks. He not only shows us how to do something, he shows us how that will apply to a particular situation.”

Frey hasn’t had a chance to fully put his stamp on his position group. But he has clear ideas of what he wants it to look like.

“I like guys that work hard. I like athletic guys, guys that take the game serious, not life or death but guys that learn the game in a serious manner so that the team believes in your work effort and your toughness. Guys that show up every day and work hard every day.”

He says he’s crossing his fingers that his guys get to show that stuff this season. But if not, well work and toughness will never go out of style.