In a season mired in uncertainty, one thing remains clear for Duke football—special teams will continue to be a strong suit.
According to Football Outsiders, the Blue Devils ranked 15th in the nation last year in SFEI, a statistic measuring the per-possession scoring advantage that a squad’s special teams unit has against an average opponent. While the average fan may turn away from the television or head to the bathroom when the kicking team trots out, the Blue Devils' efforts in between possessions were a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing 2019 campaign.
“The spirit of the team lives in special teams,” special teams coach Kirk Benedict said. “It is, in fact, offense and defense coming together, and I think the young guys have really taken on that mantra.”
Of course, Benedict is referring to the up-and-comers, names that the casual Blue Devil supporter may not have heard of before: the likes of punters Porter Wilson and Jackson Hubbard, or wideout and kick returner Damond Philyaw-Johnson shouldering large roles on a Duke squad featuring a lot of new personnel. To facilitate team bonding, the immensely large special teams unit has been meeting in its large indoor practice facility on campus, making sure to maintain social distance, but simultaneously building the culture that must reside within every team.
Benedict’s optimism comes even though the Blue Devils lost two dangerous weapons on the kicking side of the equation: A.J. Reed and Austin Parker. Reed hit 15-of-18 field goals while managing to knock through all 34 PATs last season, and Parker showcased a booming leg that earned him an average of 45.7 yards per punt. Fighting through losses at two key positions often proves difficult for a team, but there isn’t any shortage of confidence from Wilson.
“We have the potential to grow and be one of the best special teams units that Duke has ever had,” he said.
It may seem like a wild conjecture from a redshirt freshman who didn’t see a snap last fall, but his confidence is echoed by his coach and fueled by the work put in this offseason. While Duke fans have been talking about the quarterback competition all summer, there has quietly been a showdown brewing at the punter position, with Hubbard tossing his hat in the ring. The senior from Dallas is making it known that his five months in quarantine, and years backing up the thunderous leg of Austin Parker, weren’t for naught.
“We came back looking better than we have in any previous year,” Wilson said of himself and Hubbard. “He absolutely was grinding over break…. I think that drive is important for both of us, you see both of us getting better and better than we were just weeks before…. He’s also the best holder in the country right now, no doubt.”
The efforts of the two punters have drawn a fair amount of attention from Benedict, who relishes the drive that his players have shown in every practice, making mention that there was no decision on who the starter would be.
“[General] Douglas MacArthur once said, ‘Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that upon other days, on other fields, bear the fruits of victory’,” Benedict said, switching a phrase or two but communicating the raw determination that has been on full display through an extended training camp.
The comparison seems an apt one, with the two punters going to war on the practice field for the chance to represent Duke on fourth down.
But even if there is some friendly strife on one end of the field, the other provides the Blue Devils with some security in the continued presence of Philyaw-Johnson, the Blue Devils’ dynamite returner. Recently named to the 2020 preseason All-ACC team, the Pensacola, Fla., native is working toward another big season.
The redshirt junior has been a mainstay at the kick returning position, despite being listed as a wideout. On lightning quick legs, he averaged 32.3 yards per return last year, good for the second best in the nation behind Virginia's Joe Reed.
That number includes his electric performance against Wake Forest, where he racked up 251 kickoff return yards in the game and two returns for a touchdown. The hapless Demon Deacons couldn’t touch him, and Duke will be hoping for more of that this fall.
“He’s really dangerous,” Benedict said. “If I was the opposing team’s special teams coordinator, I would be scared. He’s got elite speed, you’re talking about [the] fastest guy on the team. Damond has that fearless attitude and the elite speed to go with it…he’s the complete package.”
This is high praise coming from Benedict, who despite his easygoing attitude off the field, clearly puts the fire under his players on the gridiron. He has been working exclusively with special teams the past two seasons and has a slightly different path to coaching than is traditionally found on the college scene. Benedict was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany from 2011-2014, being deployed twice in Afghanistan before exiting his role in the army.
He takes a similar approach to the football field—not in the stereotypical sense of drill sergeant, but rather as a molder of young men.
“One of the most rewarding and fun jobs I had in the army was being a platoon leader,” Benedict said. “I say one of because the other one is getting to be the special teams coordinator [for Duke].”
The attitude taken from the leadership of this unit has clearly rubbed off on the players on the field, who understand that their positions may not get the most recognition, but know that they still have a job to do.
So while Blue Devil fans have focused on the changing nature of the season and how this might manifest itself on the offensive or defensive side of the ball, sometimes you need to read between the lines, because this special teams unit has quickly and quietly been preparing itself to dominate every opponent it sees.
“My goal personally is to score every game, no matter if it's wide receiver touches or [a] kick return,” Philyaw-Johnson said.
And that, perhaps, is an impact that will have the Blue Devil faithful scrambling back from the bathroom, eyes locked to their televisions.
For more preseason coverage of the 2020 Blue Devils, check out our football season preview for features, predictions, and more.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.