Duke had its first fall football practice Friday.
Nothing unusual about that. It is the first week of August, after all and Duke is scheduled to have its first gave in five weeks, visiting Notre Dame’s fabled stadium.
Duke also had a media availability Friday, reviewing that first day of practice.
Again, nothing unusual.
And we found out that two Duke players would miss the 2020 season.
Unfortunately, nothing unusual about that. Football is a collision sport and injuries are a part of the deal. After last fall’s first practice we learned that quarterback Gunnar Holmberg would miss the season with a knee injury. After the first practice of spring ball we learned that running back Jaylen Coleman had injured an Achilles and would miss the season.
But this is where we take a turn away from normality. Long snapper Ben Wyatt and offensive lineman Jacob Rimmer aren’t injured. They aren’t sick. The aren’t in academic trouble, aren’t suspended, aren’t in any kind of trouble at all.
Instead, they are opting out over a concern of contracting COVID-19. Questions about how this will impact Duke’s depth chart seem secondary to questions about whether this constitutes a trend.
The loss of Wyatt and Rimmer is hardly catastrophic. Wyatt was pretty good at his task. In fact, he was named to the Mannelly Award Watch List earlier this week. That award is given to the nation’s best long-snapper and is named after former Duke lineman Patrick Mannelly, who lasted 16 years as long snapper in the NFL, all with the Chicago Bears.
But we’ve reached a level of specialization where we have long snappers and short snappers. John Taylor has been Duke’s short snapper and there’s no reason to think he can’t do both.
“He knows our entire operation,” David Cutcliffe says of Taylor. “He can direct traffic out there. He’s very talented. We’re fortunate.”
Rimmer is 6-7, 300 pounds. But in three seasons at Duke the injury-plagued offensive lineman has played 26 games.
Are there larger ramifications?
There’s a glass-half full way of looking at it. Duke’s football players have had almost a half year to learn about COVID-19, to hear about it, to talk about it. And only two opted out. That’s got to be a good sign. Right?
But there’s a glass-half empty side. What if it’s not the end but rather the beginning of the end, the tip of the iceberg? How many players can Duke lose and continue? Will that remain an abstract question? Anyone not embedded in the program doesn’t really know and I’ll not hazard a guess.
Safety Michael Carter, center Jack Wohlabaugh and Cutcliffe were the people on the other end of the impersonal Zoom experience. Nobody hid from questions about the pandemic but nobody volunteered much either and no one asked any really tough questions.
Wohlabaugh did confirm that the team “has been distanced and trying to follow guidelines. We had shields on our face masks but everything felt pretty normal besides that.”
Carter called the first practice “a breath of fresh air,” adding “of course, we had to follow the COVID-19 guidelines for practice and social distancing and everything like that.”
Cutcliffe added that having a world-class medical institution nearby was a good thing.
Not the conversations we imagined having this time last season.
There was one promising data point. Cutcliffe said the staff was “somewhat surprised in how good a shape our team came back in.” If the team can show the discipline necessary to stay in shape during a quarantine, the discipline necessary to find places to run and lift weights and eat healthy and avoid compromising situations, then presumably they have the discipline to stay away from off-campus parties.
Cutcliffe said “this is the most fun I’ve had since March, trust me. A lot of spirit on our field today.. . . the energy was absolutely outstanding.”
Duke seems to be doing all the right things. Test, isolate, quarantine and test some more.
“We still have a lot of questions that have to be answered,” Cutcliffe acknowledged. “I don’t have a precedent for this. I’ve really been scratching my head, making different types of practice schedules. We use science. We’ve got heart-rate monitors. We’ve got player-load monitors. I’m going to study them.”
Will that be enough? It takes two to tango, or in this case to not tango. Lots of links in the ACC chain and we have no idea how many of those are or will become weak enough to break the chain. Was Friday the start of something sustainable? Or was it a Potemkin Village, ready to crash at the first strong wind?
Five weeks till opening kickoff. We’ll know soon.