As the Blue Devils get set to kick off a new season, familiar faces will be returning in unfamiliar places. A bevy of returning starters will lead the experienced Blue Devil squad against Florida International in their season opener, but three major skill position players from last season will line up at different positions this year.
Brandon Braxton, a junior who caught 40 passes for 352 yards last season at wide receiver, will make his debut as the Blue Devils’ starting safety. Desmond Scott, a senior who was Duke’s second-leading rusher last season with 367 yards and two touchdowns, will start for the Blue Devils at slot receiver. The player with undoubtedly the biggest adjustment, however, will be redshirt sophomore Brandon Connette, who will continue to serve as a backup quarterback to Sean Renfree and Anthony Boone this season, but will also appear as a running back, fullback, wide receiver and tight end.
Head coach David Cutcliffe’s willingness to move skill position players to different positions shows his confidence in his team’s athleticism and ability to adapt.
“Once you’ve played a lot of football it’s easier to adjust to new positions,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t think you can ever have enough guys that can snap a ball at center, and you can never have enough players that can play the skill positions. So that’s what we’ve tried to do on both sides of the ball.”
Cutcliffe approached these players about possibly changing positions early in the offseason, before the team’s annual spring game. The adjustments were made in response to the team’s depth at certain positions and apparent need at others.
Forced to pick up the techniques of a new position, all three players were subjected to a steep learning curve. Braxton had never played on the defensive side before, but Cutcliffe said he saw his natural abilities at safety from the first day.
“Every time I saw Brandon Braxton cover a kickoff it was a thing of beauty, and I knew he had safety written all over him,” Cutcliffe said. “He is such an aggressive, physical football player, and I just felt he had a chance to make such a difference there.”
Scott is much more familiar with his new position as receiver than Braxton and Connette are with their new positions. While playing for two Durham-area high schools, Scott spent significant stints at wide receiver during his freshman and junior years as he waited for space in the backfield to clear up. Even after three years in Duke’s backfield, Scott’s transition back to receiver has been relatively seamless, and the senior should be a reliable third option for Renfree behind senior Conner Vernon and sophomore Jamison Crowder.
“It’s just catching. I’m not scared at all. An athlete is an athlete,” Scott said. “If I felt like this was best going to benefit the team, I was down for the call.”
Although Connette’s role is much less defined, he has had the most to learn this offseason. A quarterback for all of his life, Connette has never lined up anywhere but under center. Luckily, he did not have to waste time learning new parts of the playbook. As a quarterback, he had to know everyone’s offensive assignments.
Connette has done well in Duke’s offseason scrimmages while appearing at running back, wide receiver and tight end in a variety of packages. He has also continued to work on his throwing mechanics and has taken reps at quarterback throughout the summer.
The ways he is used on the field will vary from week to week, but odds are that Connette will spend more time at tight end than he originally expected. The Blue Devils will look to fill the void left by redshirt Braxton Deaver, who continues to recover from offseason surgeries to repair a torn ACL and a fractured left patella.
Cutcliffe’s new initiative to put athletes all over the field demonstrates not only the coach’s aggressive style, but also the ever-changing landscape of college football. By utilizing their skill players at new positions, the Blue Devils hope to emulate the success of programs like Florida, which won two national championships while utilizing athletes like Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin in a number of different positions and sets, Scott said.
“I love it. It keeps a defense off balance and to know that your coach is willing to make these changes and be so versatile also instills in a player that your coach is willing to do anything to win,” Scott said. “When you feel that as a player, you give that much more effort on any given play in practice and throughout a game.”