In November 2008, Walt Canty gave a verbal commitment to a football team that had won just eight of its last 55 games. In three weeks, he will play his final game as a Blue Devil, concluding the best season for Duke football in nearly two decades.
The senior safety has helped take Blue Devils from the cellar of the ACC to the team’s first bowl game since 1994. Named one of the Duke’s four co-captains before the start of his senior campaign, Canty proved to be a dependable leader throughout the team’s 6-6 season.
“If there ever was a captain, he’s a captain,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I trust him completely.”
After registering a combined 153 tackles through his first three seasons, Canty had a team-leading 102 stops in the 2012 regular season. No one else on the team had more than 80 and just two other Blue Devils—Jordan Byas and Ross Cockrell—finished the regular season with more than 60. Beyond the scope of Duke, Canty’s 8.5 tackles per game ranked ninth in the ACC.
The senior inherited the title of Duke’s tackle king from fellow safety Matt Daniels, who graduated last year and has appeared in four games for the St. Louis Rams this year. A captain his senior year and one of Cutcliffe’s all-time favorite players, Daniels took Canty under his wing early on in the younger safety’s Duke career.
As Canty developed into a team leader in his own right, he too worked to leave his mark on Duke football. He said reinventing the mentality surrounding the program was the most important, and hardest, change he attempted to enact during his four years.
“I feel like overall more guys have begun to buy in to what’s going on and buy in to the mindset that we expect to win,” he said. “Everyone is expected to be accountable for their actions on and off the field.”
But raising the expectations both players and fans had for the program was not a burden Canty shouldered by himself. In fact, Cutcliffe had already outlined the revival of Duke football before Canty ever called himself a Blue Devil.
The vision Cutcliffe and defensive backs coach Derek Jones laid out while recruiting the 6-foot-1 safety played a large part in Canty’s decision to commit to a then-8-for-55 Duke program in 2008.
“Coach Cut always preached faith, family and football as he continues to preach and that’s something that I really like,” Canty said. “I wanted to be a part of the change in culture here at Duke football.”
Canty’s desire to remain close to his hometown of Roebuck, S.C. also influenced his decision to attend Duke—the first FBS school to offer him a scholarship. To top things off, Canty has spent the last four years living with redshirt junior safety Taylor Sowell, his best friend and teammate at Dorman High School.
“At times it can get hard, trying to balance the school work, social life and football and all that, but overall it’s been a really good experience,” Canty, a public policy major, said of his time at Duke.
His favorite football memory came in the closing seconds of this year’s game against North Carolina, when the Blue Devils achieved bowl eligibility by stealing the win on their final drive.
As for his football plans after Duke, Canty is reluctant to look too far ahead—he and his fellow seniors have one last goal to accomplish first.
“We’re going to take care of the bowl game, and then we will see what goes on,” he said.
Throughout the season, Cutcliffe has repeatedly praised his senior captains for their role in the program’s best season since 1994.
“Our captains are incredible… almost everyone on the team voted for them,” Cutcliffe said. “When you have that kind of respect that they have from their teammates, and then they are the kind of people they are, they are going to carry us not just through games and adversity—they carry every practice.”
That adversity included a combined 18 losses in Canty’s sophomore and junior seasons and a number of blowout defeats this year. Despite the demanding path Duke football had to travel to reach another postseason, Canty’s confidence never wavered.
“You don’t change when you get your tail whipped,” Cutcliffe said. “You don’t lose your confidence in those circumstances. They know. We have enough leaders—enough guys who have played plenty of snaps. Nobody is going to tell Walt Canty he isn’t a good football player—he is.”
Luckily for the Blue Devils, four years ago Canty also believed Duke could be a good football program.