Duke center Jack Wohlabaugh and cornerback Leonard Johnson met with the media after Tuesday’s practice.
Here are some highlights.
Offensive lineman are perhaps the most anonymous group of players in team sports. But Wohlabaugh has been on the mind recently not for what he’s done but for what he’s not done.
Which is play. Wohlabaugh missed the final three games of the 2019 season with a foot injury and all of last season with a knee injury.
So, health is the overriding question.
Here’s what he had to say.
“My knees are really healthy now. But when you haven’t played football for a year, coming back from a knee injury, stuff can be a little rough. Just trying to get back into it, trying to get back into football shape. I’m able to do everything out there, just maybe not to the best of my standards but I know it’s a process and it’s coming along well.”
The term “load management” has come into vogue in recent years and that’s certainly the case with Wohlabaugh, as Duke tries to thread the needle that requires him to get enough work to shake off the rust, while minimizing the risk of further injury.
Wohlabaugh is a pretty competitive guy but he’s smart enough to understand the dynamics.
“Coming back and maybe not performing as well as I want to and then also having to hold yourself out, it’s well I went out there for a couple of plays and didn’t do as well as I wanted and now I can’t go back in and do better. But the last four or five practices I’ve kind of taken it into my own hands a little bit and done a lot more. My knees feel really good. The more I do it, the better I’ll get. But Hap [trainer Hap Zarzour] and Coach [Greg] Frey have been really good with load management, making sure that if one day I’m a little sore, hold back a little bit, so it doesn’t have a domino effect into the next couple of days.”
There is one sobering note concerning the center position. Will Taylor took over for Wohlabaugh last season and played well. But he suffered a knee injury after six starts. Taylor is in school and in the program but definitely will not play this season and may not play again.
Casey Holman and grad-student transfer (Abilene Christian) Kade Parmelly have been working some at center. But Duke would like for redshirt freshman Addison Penn to grab the backup spot and establish himself as the heir apparent for 2022. Penn has the size at 6-3, 300 and he’s been a center for his entire career. But the playing portion of that career was in high school in Texas, so he’s still adjusting to the college game.
One thing Duke will not do is move Graham Barton back to center. Barton took over after Taylor went down. Barton was a true freshman who had never played a down at center but acquitted himself well. But Barton is ensconced at left tackle now and Duke wants him to stay there.
Wohlabaugh says Barton has a chance to be a special player.
“Last year, at the end of fall camp, before I got hurt, he was at right tackle and he was definitely a guy everyone was noticing. He was pushing to where he could play right then. Then I went down and Will went down and he picked it up pretty smoothly. He’s definitely a guy who has the right mind set and you can see, he’s physically built well. He’s a big dude [6-6. 315], who can get after people. He’s in a really good place.”
Wohlabaugh noted that line coach Frey is an excellent technician and teacher, who finally has had the time to instill his system, which includes running over people. Something the physical Wohlabaugh is all in favor of.
Leonard Johnson is a redshirt senior. He has played both safety and cornerback at Duke but seems to have settled at cornerback and says that feels like home.
“I’ve played at it the last few years. It’s wherever my coach needs me, whatever puts us in the best position to win. If they want me at corner, If they feel like I can shut down half of the field, then I can do that. Overall, I like corner. I think I fit better at corner.”
Johnson is in his fifth year in the program and says this is the deepest group of defensive backs he’s seen.
“This year we’ve got some younger guys who can relieve the older guys so that we aren’t playing 90, 80 snaps a game. We’ve got depth this year, a lot of competition.”
He’s impressed by a number of younger players who are competing to see the field.
“Cam Bergeron is in our room. A physical corner, which we like. Dylan [Merrell] is out right now, but he’s getting better. He’s a young guy but even in the meeting room he’s a vocal leader. That’s a great thing for us. But all the young guys are going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
Johnson acknowledges that the pass defense struggled down the stretch last season and has some ideas of how Duke can improve.
“There’s a lot of things we have to work on, like tackling; finishing, we’re always working on finishing. Other than tackling, just competing the whole time.”