Preseason practices were becoming almost too much to bear for senior defensive end Phillip Alexander.
“Camp is a real grueling thing because you get aches and bruises,” said Alexander, who missed nine games with a fractured leg last season. “I was just taking it on with the feeling that I was getting closer to playing a real game against a different team.”
Alexander’s payoff comes Saturday, however, when a month of meticulous preparation culminates when the Blue Devils open their season against East Carolina.
“This would be a real exercise in mental toughness if you practiced football for two and a half hours a day for a month and then didn’t get to play in a game, had nothing to look forward to but another practice,” head coach Ted Roof said Monday at his weekly press conference. “At least there’s a light at the end of the tunnel now. All these things that we’ve been telling them, now they see that yeah, there is something out there.”
Yet after a 2-9 season, the Blue Devils still have miles to go before they can sprout aspirations for their first bowl since 1994.
“There are probably about 118 other Division I coaches today talking about how excited they are about the season and how much improvement they’ve made and all that kind of stuff,” Roof said. “You feel good about it but at the same time you want to see it. The proof is still in the pudding, and you’ve got to perform on game day.”
Duke enters the game as young as it does excited—As many as 18 true freshmen could see playing time for the Blue Devils this season, Roof said. Duke begins the season with eight freshman on the first or second team including starting placekicker Joe Surgan.
“We understand that there are growing pains with every true freshman you put out there, but at the same time, guys with ability have a big upside, and you should see growth,” Roof said. “You ought to see an improved performance because everything they’re going through is a learning experience. You just hope that doesn’t cost you the ball game somewhere along the line.”
Conspicuously absent from the Blue Devil depth chart, however, is defensive tackle Vincent Oghobaase. As one of the nation’s top-50 high school football players last season, Oghobaase may have had more expected of him than any Blue Devil entering the season. Yet the 6-foot-6, 335-pounder continues to recover from a serious knee injury and will sit out the season opener.
Despite the injury, Duke is healthier than last season, when necessity forced Roof into playing more true freshmen than all but one team in Division I-A football.
Alexander returns as one of the leaders of a defensive line that starts all upperclassmen, and starting running back Cedric Dargan returns healthy after an injury-hampered 2004 campaign. In addition, last year’s injuries may benefit this year’s team as backups along the defensive line and at running back are considerably more experienced.
“Last year I had to carry the ball 20-25 times a game,” Dargan said. “This year I don’t think I have to do that because we have good quality depth at running back. I have a lot more confidence in [our backups] this year.”
Conversely, quarterback Mike Schneider hopes to see less of his backups this season. After a quarterback carousel last season saw departed senior Chris Dapolito and junior Curt Dukes siphon away his playing time, the redshirt junior appears firmly ensconced as the team’s starter entering the 2005 season.
Despite learning his third offense in as many years, Schneider has prepared during the off season in a manner that will hopefully cut down on the mental mistakes that put him on the bench during his freshman and sophomore campaigns.
“He’s always had a good arm, and he’s decently mobile, but the intangibles are what make a quarterback,” Roof said. “I’ve really seen Mike grow in those areas…. When he gets hit in the side of the head and dusts himself off, or he throws an interception, what happens after that? That’s where I’ve seen Mike Schneider grow, and I have every reason to believe that we’ll see that when it happens during the course of the season.”
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