Football is a game full of misnomers. Even the name of the sport itself is deceiving, as the ball is almost exclusively handled by a player’s hands rather than his feet.
Duke has discovered another of football’s misnomers this season—its safeties are hardly safe.
As the Blue Devils limp into this week’s contest against Virginia, it is no secret that the team has been plagued by injuries this year. After losing a number of key contributors to long-term injuries during the offseason, bumps and bruises continued to pile up during training camp.
These injuries left Duke shorthanded all over the field, though an uncannily high number of these ailments have affected the safeties. Entering Saturday’s contest against the Cavaliers, six of them have missed games due to injury.
“When you go in our training room, you don’t have a place to sit because our secondary is in the way,” head coach David Cutcliffe said.
The physical nature of the position is undisputed. Safeties both take and dish out a number of hits during the course of every game. Some say the trademark of a game-changing safety is his ability to lay out an opponent with a bone-crushing hit.
The Blue Devils’ injuries at the safety spots are no surprise considering the 4-2-5 scheme the team utilizes. Duke has three safeties on the field at all times, and often uses at least one of them in run support.
“You’re just in the middle of everything. You run a lot, number one, so you always have the potential for fatigue. And then you’re also at times playing like a linebacker in our system,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re really a select breed. At times they’re glorified linebackers, other times they have to play like corners. It’s really a tough position to play.”
For some, the road to recovery will be a long one. Both redshirt junior Taylor Sowell and freshman Corbin McCarthy will miss the remainder of the year after suffering injuries in the season’s opening weeks. Redshirt freshman Chris Tavarez was a key contributor on special teams until he underwent surgery to repair a torn left meniscus two weeks ago. He is out indefinitely.
Others Blue Devils have made full recoveries. Redshirt senior Jordon Byas missed the first three games of the 2012 season while recovering from offseason knee surgery and has since returned, earning ACC Defensive Back of the Week honors in Duke’s win against Wake Forest.
“It’s unfortunate, but we’re finding ways to get past it,” Byas said. “Hopefully everybody recovers as quickly as they can.”
During Byas’ absence, redshirt junior August Campbell filled his spot in defensive secondary until Campbell too went down with an upper body injury. He has since left the team for personal reasons, leaving Duke down yet another safety.
Junior Brandon Braxton was the most recent Blue Devil safety to be bitten by the injury bug. Braxton, who converted from wide receiver at the beginning of the 2012 season, is having a breakout year after switching to his new spot in the secondary, ranking third on the team in tackles. He was knocked out of last week’s victory against Wake Forest and will not play against Virginia.
Freshman Dwayne Norman stepped up in Braxton’s absence last weekend and turned in the strongest performance of his collegiate career, recording eight tackles. His performance not only earned the praise of his head coach, but drew a lofty comparison to one of Duke’s NFL-caliber alumni.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Dwayne Norman. He’s continuing to step up and do whatever we ask him to do. He had his best game by far, and it was encouraging to see,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s wearing No. 40 which means something to me because that was Matt Daniels, who’s one of my favorite players of all time.”
As Duke’s depth chart in the defensive backfield continues to dwindle, even its cornerbacks have stepped up to fill voids left by injured safeties. Starting corners redshirt junior Ross Cockrell and redshirt senior Lee Butler—who was also knocked out of the Blue Devils’ last game and is listed as questionable this week—have both rotated into safety spots in the absence of key contributors like Byas and Braxton. As more safeties have continued to go down, Duke’s versatility in the secondary has been its saving grace.
“[Defensive coordinator] Jim Knowles and I sit down every week and look at potential rotations of disaster. Because of what’s happened, we do a contingency depth chart,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got corners that can play safety and safeties that can play corner and safeties that can play different positions. We have a plan—if we lose people, here’s what we do.”
Despite losing new players to injuries every week, the Blue Devil secondary is flying higher than ever, and has found a way to turn a tough situation into a positive one.
“It’s actually helping to make us better, because we’re all getting a better understanding of what each safety position is,” Byas said. “It’s getting us to better understand the defense and better understand our position, so in a way it’s helping us. It hurts us in numbers, but the safeties are learning more.”