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'He's finding himself': Duke football's Aaron Young displays potential in career night

MURFREESBORO,Tenn.—It can be hard to stop momentum.

As Aaron Young was suspended in midair after high pointing a 25-yard shot from Quentin Harris, it took a forceful toe tap with the left leg just inside the end zone to change the story of the throw, and perhaps a career.

Young’s mesmerizing touchdown to end the first half of Duke’s 41-18 win over Middle Tennessee was the highlight of a night the redshirt senior has been waiting for since the start of his career. Young tallied six receptions for 106 yards and two touchdowns, headlining a passing attack that helped the Blue Devils put the Blue Raiders away early.

After an injury-riddled 2018 and doubts on whether or not he would ever don Duke blue again, Young showed off the valuable skillset Saturday that has been apparent since his freshman season.

“I couldn’t be happier for a young person than I am for Aaron,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I told him back at the hotel that I want to see him relax and try to have some fun tonight. Quit worrying. Loosen up a bit. Low and behold, I’m going to tell him that every week I guess. He sure had fun.”

Young bullied the Blue Raider secondary all night with his elite size and reliable hands. He even displayed some fancy footwork on the first touchdown and an earlier fourth down conversion.

“He’s always been a hard worker and you can see what he’s able to do when he is fully healthy,” Young’s quarterback Harris said of him. “Just his ability to go up for contested catches, use his physicality as a 6-foot-5 receiver and use that to his advantage.”

The trajectory of the California native’s career has seesawed since he arrived on campus in 2015. After redshirting his first season, Young played in 11 games in 2016, starting two and catching as many touchdowns. After earning second team freshman All-ACC by Athlon Sports that season, he followed it up by playing in all 13 games in 2017.

The following year, poised to be a breakout threat, he ran into a rough patch. Young totaled four catches for 114 yards and a score in the Blue Devils’ season opener, but would go on to play in just one more game during 2018 while dealing with a nagging hamstring injury. Then in January, the Murrieta Valley High School product announced he would enter the transfer portal and play elsewhere for his final year of eligibility. Two weeks later though, he had a change of heart and chose to stay in Durham to finish out his career.

“Last year was a very emotional year just because of the way things turned out with the injury,” Young expressed. “It does feel very good to come back out here and get a win for the team and play well.”

Throughout the 2019 season, Young has been flanked by a talented group of young freshmen who are making immediate impacts for a receiving unit that was expected to struggle in 2019. Both Eli Pancol and Jalon Calhoun reached the end zone Saturday for their second and third touchdowns of the year, respectively. Neither of the two were elite recruits expected to contribute right away—both were ranked as three-stars—but made their mark in camp to earn significant roles early on. 

“They all are very mature for their age,” Young said. “They are definitely more mature than I was as a freshman. That is a big part of why they are able to be on the field so early and why they’re all true freshmen and making plays already. They’ve done all the things right off the field. They’re working hard, studying hard, doing their best to get better in the training room no matter what it is.”

Besides Scott Bracey, who entered this season with 11 career receptions, Young was the only non-freshman wide receiver to catch a pass against the Blue Raiders. The redshirt senior has taken on a leadership role for the inexperienced group, especially with expected starter Jake Bobo missing the first three games with a clavicle injury.

“He’s not going to say much of anything,” Cutcliffe said on Young’s ability to lead. “He’s not a verbal guy at all, but the way Aaron goes about working, he’s consistent and he never misses. He’s tough physically.”

For as impressive as the receivers have been through a quarter of the regular season, they’re expected to get even better. Bobo was active for the first time this season and was on the field prepared to take a snap before a timeout was called. The sophomore didn’t see action after that, but is expected to contribute in two weeks when Duke faces off at Virginia Tech and will give Harris another big target.

Anything can happen over the course of the season to turn a streaking unit in the other direction, from slumps to injury. With his emotional 2018 behind him however, Young is unquestionably the Blue Devils’ most reliable option as a pass catcher and will be called upon for consistent top performances as the program begins its quest for a second ACC Coastal division title.

“The script hasn’t been written like he wanted it to and now he’s finding himself,” Cutcliffe said. “Now my job is to make sure he maintains that same spirit.”

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