For many football players, participating in track and field in the spring is a fun way to compete and improve skills that translate to their primary sport in the fall.
But Jeremy McDuffie is not one of those athletes.
A standout cornerback in high school, McDuffie was just as successful on the track. As a junior, McDuffie led Shiloh High School in Georgia to its first 6A championship, winning three individual events in addition to a sprint relay. The Snellville, Ga., native capped off his memorable spring by posting the sixth-fastest time of any high-school athlete in the 110-meter hurdles with a blazing 13.83-second effort.
As he weighed football scholarship offers from Duke, Florida and Tennessee, among others, and a track and field offer from Southern California, McDuffie’s plans changed dramatically when he tore his left ACL late in his senior football season. The 5-foot-11 speedster was not able to run his final track season after committing to Duke in February 2015 as he recovered from the injury, and the lengthy recovery process and his spring football commitments prevented McDuffie from participating in track and field during his first two years in Durham.
But with the Blue Devils wrapping up spring practice in early March this year—they still have weightlifting four days per week—and McDuffie finally feeling 100 percent healthy, he embraced the opportunity to get back on the track.
The results were almost immediate.
In his first outdoor event of the year at the Battle of the Blues April 1, McDuffie posted the second-best triple-jump mark in Duke history at 51 feet, 1 1/2 inches. Just a week later, he posted a time of 14.43 seconds in the 110-meter hurdles at the Tennessee Relays—good enough for the fourth-best mark in Blue Devil history—and helped the sprint medley relay team take first.
Although he was not able to match those marks last weekend at the Duke Invite, McDuffie was still upbeat knowing how far he has come after a lengthy recovery process from his torn ACL.
“Emotionally it was tough, just not being able to play my last two games, [dealing with the] recruiting stuff and not being able to run my last track season. It just put me in the mindset to grind harder and be able to come back faster,” McDuffie said. “I’m just grateful that I’m back. It feels good to be back doing something that you love. It’s fun getting back to it.”
McDuffie’s role on the track and field team this year continues a long tradition of standout Blue Devil football players also excelling in the more individual spring sport. However, McDuffie’s ability to balance both has been critical as he transitions to a new position on the back line of Duke’s defense—strike safety, arguably the most important role in the Blue Devils’ unique 4-2-5 scheme.
After playing in every game as a reserve cornerback despite not being 100 percent in 2015, the versatile, 175-pound defensive back saw action in 11 games as a true sophomore last fall, compiling 17 tackles in his second year as a backup cornerback.
Although he was primarily used in coverage during his first two seasons, McDuffie will play a completely different role next fall—one that requires him to attack the line of scrimmage, make open-field tackles and play multiple types of coverage depending on the situation. The thought of following in the footsteps of ACC Defensive Player of the Year Jeremy Cash and Corbin McCarthy, who led Duke in tackles for loss in 2016, at the strike-safety position might seem daunting, but McDuffie is confident he is ready to step into the role as a projected starter.
So is position coach Matt Guerrieri, who along with defensive backs coach Derek Jones is adjusting to life without program mainstays like McCarthy, Breon Borders, Deondre Singleton and DeVon Edwards.
“A lot of times guys get labeled as corners or safeties, but we like to think of it as the five best defensive backs on the field in our defense,” Guerrieri said. “His speed and physicality are going to be on display at that position…. Some of the fast guys do just that, they run great, but they might not be as physical as a bigger guy. Jeremy is a guy that has the physicality and has the speed and athleticism to succeed in that role.”
McDuffie’s ability to adapt to his new position and mesh with other former reserves who will step into the spotlight on Saturdays in the fall could determine how successful the Blue Devil defense is in bouncing back from a disappointing 2016 season. Riddled with injuries, Duke gave up at least 35 points four times and 15 passes of 40 or more yards.
Unlike his predecessors at strike safety, McDuffie is more familiar with covering speedy wide receivers all over the field. This could help the Blue Devils limit the explosive plays that shredded them a season ago and are the top priority for any defense in the run-and-gun age of college football.
“[Cash and McCarthy] were a lot bigger—they had a different playing style. I’m coming into it trying to incorporate some of what they did but also trying to incorporate some corner stuff like man coverage and things like that they weren’t doing as much,” McDuffie said.
Although he might need to get a bit bigger to hold his own near the line of scrimmage, McDuffie stood out as a leader and was one of the team’s most improved players in spring practice, Guerrieri said.
In addition to preventing big plays, Duke’s secondary is concerned with making its own impact plays by forcing turnovers and generating tackles for loss as the fall approaches.
“He loves it. He played a position in high school where he was able to run the alley, make tackles and be really aggressive,” Guerrieri said. “He’s an aggressive by nature guy and he’s thrived.”
But before he completely turns his attention to slowing down ACC offenses on the gridiron, McDuffie still has some unfinished business left on the track.
As he continues getting more comfortable in the 110-meter hurdles and triple jump, McDuffie could make a push for an NCAA championship bid. He has already qualified for NCAA regionals May 25-27 in Lexington, Ky., and will be looked to as a point contributor two weeks before that in both of his individual events as well as a relay at the ACC championship, said Norm Ogilvie, Duke director of track and field.
“Jeremy has been especially good because he really loves track—he’s blended in great with our team,” Ogilvie said. “He feels like a full-fledged member of our team.”
Although McDuffie had to miss the indoor season because of his spring football commitments, Ogilvie noted that both programs benefit a great deal from the relationship since Duke football head coach David Cutcliffe’s staff can sell athletes who excel in both sports and Ogilvie’s squad can add explosiveness in the spring.
The Blue Devils have plenty of speed at multiple positions, but don’t be surprised next fall if the fastest “Cheetah” in Duke’s secondary is roaming from the strike-safety position.
“I always feel confident in my speed—I always felt like I was the fastest one on the [football] team,” McDuffie said. “A lot of the guys on the team feel that way. When they come on the track, that’s the only way they’re going to be able to test it.”
Hank Tucker contributed reporting.
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