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Duke Football: Back At It

After a Covid pause

Duke v Virginia
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 26: Mataeo Durant #21 of the Duke Blue Devils rushes in the first half during a game against the Virginia Cavaliers at Scott Stadium on September 26, 2020 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Duke football has resumed spring practice after a Covid-19 related pause.

Running back Mataeo Durant and linebacker Shaka Heyward zoomed with the media Friday to discuss spring ball and the state of the program.

Durant’s take on getting back to work?

“As a group, we were just ready to get back at it, doing something that we’ve loved for so long. We were just hoping it wasn’t another episode from last year where we weren’t able to get the preparation to having a very successful season. Going back out there this week, there was a lot of enthusiasm and excitement just to get back to work.”

Durant and Heyward are two of the program’s most accomplished returnees, probably the two Blue Devils most likely to make some pre-season All-ACC teams.

That’s not all they have in common. Both are dealing with new position coaches, Durant with a coach completely new to the program, Heyward with a familiar face in a new role.

Familiar-face-in-a-new-role is one of the main themes of 2021 Duke football. Re’quan Boyette has moved from running-back coach to wide receivers and Jeff Faris has moved from tight end to quarterbacks. The duo are taking over as co-coordinators for the offense. Zac Roper has moved from quarterback to tight end, Trooper Taylor from wide receiver to cornerbacks, Sam McGrath from quality control to linebacker.

The new kid on the block is running-back coach Calvin Magee. Naturally, he’s a former NFL tight end.

Yes, you’ll need a scorecard.

Is there a method to this madness?

Well, there’s an old saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Duke football went 2-9 last season. That’s broke and needed fixing. Shuffle the deck and deal a new hand filled with the energy and enthusiasm of breaking out of a rut and doing something new.

That’s the theory, at least.

Here’s how Durant describes the offensive changes.

“I just feel like it’s so beneficial for the team. Coach Boyette is a great coach. Any position he’s in, I know he he has the best interests of the whole team. Us having a new running-back coach, right now, we’re still in the early stages of learning things like he wants us to do, techniques that he’s had over the years, So far, we really love the way he coaches. He’s so enthusiastic every morning. We find it so easy to gravitate towards him and follow his lead.”

Heyward says “attention to detail” characterizes McGrath.

“Coach McGrath hasn’t dropped the ball at all. He’s picked up right where we left off, continuing to get better. We’re doing better things than we were, just getting better every day. He’s harped on not going backwards.”

There’s no question that Durant and Heyward will be keys to any Duke turnaround. Redshirt junior Gunnar Holmberg and redshirt freshman Luca Diamont are competing for the starting quarterback spot, with a couple of incoming freshmen long shots. The winner will be Duke’s fourth starting quarterback in the last four seasons.

Durant has 234 career rushes and 28 receptions, 262 touches, by far the most of any returning player in the program.

Durant averaged 6.8 yards per carry last season, 8.9 per reception. He’s a weapon and Holmberg and/or Diamont would be well-advised to rely heavily on his talents and the talents of the other running backs.

“The easiest thing we can do is to let them know we have confidence in them. Simply do our job as running backs and do our jobs the best we can. It doesn’t have to be just him going out and throwing the ball every time.”

How much help will Durant have at running back? Deon Jackson graduated, Jaylen Coleman and Marvin Hubbard are rehabbing Achilles injuries and promising freshman Trent Davis won’t arrive until summer.

That leaves Durant, Jordan Waters and some walk-ons.

David Cutcliffe has a history of rotating running backs, preferably three, sometimes more. That 2013 Coastal Division title team had four running backs in the rotation.

Durant says he’s ready, willing and able to take on a bigger role, should that be required.

“One of the key things is . . . durability. I’m doing the correct things every day to make sure that I have my body right to be able to take those hits from those 250, 240-pound linebackers and be able to play the entire game, if needed.”

He also says that Waters is ready for a larger role. Waters came to Duke as a safety, maybe a wide receiver, before a rash of injuries led to a position change.

“Jordan’s development, I see it during spring, every week, he’s getting better and better.”

Heyward led Duke with 80 tackles last season, 8.5 for losses. Fellow linebackers Rocky Shelton, Dorian Mausi, Christian Hood and Sayyid Stevens also return. No graduation losses, no one entering the transfer portal.

That’s a lot of experience for a defense replacing much of its secondary and almost all of its defensive line.

Heyward says his position group will be crucial to helping Duke’s young defense get up to speed.

“Our leadership, knowing the defense. We’ve been here for some of the longest time, me and Rocky, so our experience and our vocal leadership will help out our entire defense.”

Mausi and Hood saw the field last season as true freshmen and Heyward sees improvement in both.

“Dorian and Christian both have elevated their game in the film room. They’re getting a lot more familiar with the defense and understanding the concepts of what we do and why we do it. They’ve really stepped it up.”

Heyward added that defensive tackle DeWayne Carter has opened some eyes this spring.

“He’s really stepped it up.”

Duke wasn’t very good last season and Durant and Heyward own that.

“It was really tough to go through that knowing we were in so many games,” Durant says. “If we didn’t turn the ball over so much, we could say we would have won x-amount of games. But that wasn’t the reality of the situation that happened. Coming into spring we’re preaching ball security. As long as we have the ball, we know what we can do.”

Heyward says “leadership and accountability” are the keys to getting Duke back to its winning ways. “Last year, that left a terrible taste in our mouth.”

The Spring Showcase will be broadcast on the ACC Network on March 27, giving the 2021 Duke team a chance to display some of that leadership and accountability and hard work.