Football head coach David Cutcliffe knows this saying rings true as ever in today’s explosive, 80-plays-per-game style of football. And as important as speed on the field is, it’s the speed at which a program is able to improve in the offseason that can separate programs.
After some personal reflection time following the loss to Texas A&M in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, Cutcliffe decided Duke football needed something extra, a new edge. Looking to give five of his fastest players a chance to become even faster, Cutcliffe turned to Director of Track and Field Norm Ogilvie.
Cutcliffe made the decision to have the annual Spring Game moved up more than a full month to March 1. Following the completion of spring practice, wide receivers Issac Blakeney, Anthony Nash and Ryan Smith, alongside running back Josh Snead and defensive back DeVon Edwards, took on a bit of a sport change—they went from being football players to sprinters.
“[Cutcliffe] threw the idea out there and with so many benefits out there, you kind of had to take it,” Blakeney said. “All of us out there are team guys. So when he explained all of the benefits of what would happen, if you say no, you kind of feel like you’re shortening the program. He’s trying to start something new and trying to get that edge.”
The group began training immediately with sprint coach Shawn Wilbourn to work as Duke’s new 4x100 relay team, and although the training took some getting used to, the players have already begun to see the effects.
“I’ve only been running for two weeks, and I feel a lot faster and lighter on my feet,” Blakeney said.
Last Saturday’s 4x100 relay at the VertKlasse Meeting at High Point University was the pinnacle of the group’s hard work. After struggling to consistently stick baton handoffs and nail down their timing in practice, the team of Blakeney, Snead, Edwards and Smith showed what it could really do in front of an audience as the Blue Devils finally timed up their steps correctly and won the relay by a convincing four-tenths of a second with a time of 41.32.
With the school record set at 41.06, Ogilvie is confident that his new athletes will be able to break the record by the time the season concludes and they head back to the gridiron.
“I didn’t think they were going to pull off the win, but they’re great athletes, so I think they’re going to get a lot better,” Ogilvie said. “The 41.3 is just the beginning. I expect them to break 41 later in the season, which is very respectable on a national level.”
But a first-place finish against Maryland-Eastern Shore and N.C. Central is not reason enough to celebrate for the squad. With ACC Outdoor Championships, Penn Relays and Virginia Challenge all looming, the group has carried its competitive nature from the football field to the track.
“We ran 41.3. The record is 41.06. I honestly felt like our race was pretty sloppy,” Blakeney said. “Obviously, I’m glad we got the win but there’s a lot of things we can improve on. As we get in better shape, we’ll finish stronger.”
Cutcliffe's 2014 cohort is not the first bunch of skill players to come out and find success in Ogilvie’s track program. From 1987-1991, Randy Jones was a standout kickoff returner for former football head coaches Steve Spurrier and Barry Wilson as well as an accomplished sprinter for Ogilvie. Jones’ success in both sports drew the attention of the United States Bobsled team, which would go on to recruit him and include him for three straight Olympic Games. His 2002 performance in the four-man event earned his team the silver medal, the first medal for the U.S. in men’s bobsledding since 1956.
As Jones showed, whether it’s pushing a sled, handing off a baton or bowling through a defender, the combination that allows an athlete to do any of these things is size and speed. As naturally gifted athletes who spend their off-hours in the weight room year-round, football players are not always able to benefit from the intense speed training that takes place on the track. With the foundation set for the foreseeable future, Cutcliffe has now created an opportunity to work on shaping the fastest possible athletes by having his players work with the sprint coaches—a tactic already in place at elite programs such as Oregon and Florida State.
“Most football players are guys with lean [muscle] that can push a sled and run at the same time,” Snead said. “That’s what you get from a football player. We’re not your average-size track guys that are really small. Being able to have the muscle and speed is very beneficial.”
Although this year’s football-to-track crossover group consists of only five players, it allows for recruits hoping to be dual-sport athletes at the next level to have a middle ground. Should the Blue Devils' crossover experiment continue, it will provide a chance for those players who wish to compete in both a top-25 football program and in track to do just that, which Snead noted would help the program. This two-sport option suddenly makes Duke an even bigger draw for top-tier athletes looking to make the most of their college experience.
But it is not just the recruits who will be drawn to the crossover opportunity. Current players outside of this spring's five-man crew showed interest in running, but Cutcliffe decided to keep the trial group small, just in case things did not pan out in competition. But with Saturday’s victory in the books, Duke’s ‘recruiting class’ for the 2014-15 sprint team suddenly got a lot deeper.
“There were actually teammates who beforehand wanted to do it,” Blakeney said. “But it’s more of a start thing—we’re just kind of the test run to see how it works, and I would say Saturday solidified everything we were thinking. We can actually compete. We can actually do this. I also say High Point probably wasn’t the biggest meet in the world, but it’s definitely a start.”