While they're one of the last teams to return to practice amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Blue Devils are finally ready to head to Durham and prepare for a trip back to bowl eligibility.
Duke will bring its players to campus Sunday in the first phase of the return of collegiate athletics as the program prepares for the upcoming 2020 season with offseason workouts. The athletes will arrive at Wallace Wade Stadium to get tested for COVID-19, where they will only interact with medical personnel. It won’t be a straight jump into action for the Blue Devils, as players will quarantine until test results come back before the coaches can join the team. Then, after initial physicals for the entire roster, Duke football will slowly start working its way back into the flow of things.
“We’re going to evaluate the conditioning level of players,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “You don’t just go out there and start cold, not really understanding where we are. We’re going to do as much warm weather work as we can. People don’t think about that. Everybody is focused on the positive or negative tests, but none of us have been outside as much as we normally would be, particularly players. So we’re going to do a heat acclimation."
New times will bring along new ways in how the program operates, and while there are obvious protocols like keeping the team quarantined together and away from the masses, Cutcliffe explained there will be a new approach to practices. There likely won’t be as many team meetings and film rooms packed together in the facility, but more on-field instruction and meetings outside. Cutcliffe also expressed a desire for more team activities to keep the players having fun together and not spending free time spread out over campus.
Months ago it seemed inevitable that the college football season would go on without a hitch, but now there is more uncertainty than ever, especially with major conferences now electing to eliminate nonconference games from their schedules. However, Cutcliffe, though not as optimistic as before, is still confident that football will be played in some capacity.
“I’m very optimistic, still,” Cutcliffe said. “I was extremely optimistic six weeks ago to a month, but one, we all thought hot weather would help us, and that has not been the case. But two, as we have reopened, seeing how difficult it is for the general population to live strictly and to mitigate, it makes you a little less optimistic. I don’t think our world has to stop, but our world has to become more disciplined.”
Cutcliffe did spend some time discussing what would happen on the field if games take place, expressing his excitement about the personnel Duke returns on defense. The Blue Devils lost a few key veterans, such as safety Dylan Singleton and defensive linemen Edgar Cerenord and Trevon McSwain, but the Blue Devils will still have depth all over the field. There’s also buzz around the return of former All-ACC cornerback Mark Gilbert, who should be ready to play after missing all of last season with injury.
“I like the fact that if you look at us up front, we have disruptive people that are going to be difficult to deal with,” Cutcliffe said. “We have speed, the best speed we’ve had at linebacker, and actually size. I think it will be the best secondary group that we’ve had, quite possibly the deepest. We’re going to be an aggressive defensive football team.”
The biggest bright spotlight on the defensive front should follow defensive end Chris Rumph II, who has racked up preseason accolades as one of the best returning defensive lineman in the ACC, if not the country. The redshirt junior will lead an impressive pass rushing group in 2020 after finishing his 2019 campaign with a 3.5-sack effort against Miami, the second-most in a game in school history.
“We’ve been learning installs, I’ve been trying to get the young bucks up to date on what they need to know because they really didn’t get to go through spring,” Rumph said. “I’m just really trying to work with the whole defensive line and make sure we’re all prepared to play. Everybody has to be ready to play, and everybody can play on our defensive line. We have a special group this year.”
While there is a lot of optimism around the defense, the Blue Devils’ biggest question mark lies on the other side of the ball with how the offense will adjust with Cutcliffe as the new offensive coordinator and a fresh face under center. Whether the starting quarterback turns out to be Clemson transfer Chase Brice or one of Duke’s returners in Gunnar Holmberg or Chris Katrenick, they will inherit an experienced offensive line and a solid group of weapons to try to flip the script on the program’s offensive identity.
“I know this offense is ready to go,” senior guard Rakavius Chambers said. “This offense is tired of being embarrassed and tired of not scoring enough points. I think everyone has bought into [Cutcliffe] and his mantra. We’re going to be the top offense in the ACC—that’s our goal. I’m excited to get back. We’ve had great meetings with [Cutcliffe], installing plays and looking at film. I’m excited to get back and work out all the kinks."
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Though it’s largely up to the leaders at the top of conferences and medical professionals, the team knows its actions and responsibility will have a large impact on if football will be played come September. By following protocols and staying together as a team, Rumph is confident that Duke’s players will have the discipline to keep COVID-19 infections as low as possible in the locker room.
“Our team is different,” Rumph said. “We have a different culture than normal ACC or SEC teams. We really want to play football, and we’re going to social distance. I have 100 percent faith in the whole team hanging out with each other. We’re all taking this very seriously.”