Coming into this season, all the talk surrounding Duke was its immense returning talent. But as we all know, things can change very fast, and you can lose players unexpectedly at any moment. The Blue Devils have experienced this firsthand, as injuries to quarterback Riley Leonard and tight end Nicky Dalmolin the past few weeks, among others, could have had season-derailing potential.
When it could have chalked up struggles to untimely injuries and laid down during ACC play, the Blue Devils instead responded with an astounding rejection of this narrative, embracing a next-man-up mentality to dismantle N.C. State at home Saturday night 24-3, proving that the future, both immediately and in the long-term, is extremely bright.
With Leonard out against the Wolfpack with a high ankle sprain suffered against Notre Dame, head coach Mike Elko turned to redshirt freshman signal caller Henry Belin IV to man the ship. After an interception on his second pass attempt could have derailed the game from the jump, the New York native settled back in, finding redshirt freshman tight end Jeremiah Hasley on a crosser route and subsequently taking the top off the stout N.C. State defense, unloading on a deep shot to wideout Jalon Calhoun that resulted in a 69-yard touchdown, Duke’s longest completion of the year.
Belin only finished the game with four completions, but two of them went for touchdowns, as he found Hasley for a touchdown in the second quarter. In the second half, the youngster only threw one pass attempt, as Elko elected to simply try and milk the clock. However, the coaching staff was obviously not afraid to put the ball in Belin’s hands, dialing up several long balls that didn’t necessarily connect but were promising nonetheless.
“I think it was a little weird, four completions, but yeah, I think we went out there and we executed,” Belin said. “We did what we needed to do.”
Duke has stuck to the same plan for most of Elko’s tenure: lean on a strong defense and pound the rock. However, the Blue Devils seem as if they have their talented signal caller of the future in Belin, who showed flashes of becoming a solid starter after the inevitable departure of Leonard.
Besides Leonard, Duke also suffered another major loss on offense, as senior tight end Nicky Dalmolin also missed Saturday night’s contest with an undisclosed injury. In his absence, Duke turned to Hasley and redshirt junior Cole Finney. Hasley in particular was excellent, as he hauled in half of Duke’s receptions on the night, proving that the linebacker-turned-tight end can become a valuable part of the Blue Devil offense for years to come.
“Jeremiah Hasley, how about him stepping up and replacing Nicky Dalmolin and doing the things that he needed to do as we continue to just be a next-man-up operation,” Elko said.
The calling card for the Blue Devils all season long has been their defense, and that script did not change against the Wolfpack. Duke terrorized N.C. State’s inexperienced quarterback MJ Morris all night long, with the majority of his yardage coming in garbage time in the fourth quarter. Eighty-two of the 303 yards it conceded came in the last frame, and Duke still was able to hold Morris scoreless past the first quarter.
While the defense has several veterans who were known forces coming into the season, it is the unsung heroes who excelled against the N.C. State attack. The big story of the night on the defensive end was redshirt sophomore linebacker Tre Freeman, who was a wrecking ball in the middle, racking up 15 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. The Durham native also provided the most explosive play of the night for defensive coordinator Tyler Santucci’s unit, picking off Morris and returning it to the N.C. State eight-yard line, setting up the Hasley touchdown.
“I think I had a good game. Clemson, after that I kind of stalled a little bit and now because I'm on track, my confidence is high right now,” Freeman said.
On the back end, the Blue Devils were also dealing with injury, as graduate safety Jeremiah Lewis did not play Saturday. But once again, it was a young gun who had changed positions that stepped up, as sophomore Terry Moore was a major difference maker in the secondary. The Washington, N.C., native filled in for Lewis admirably, tallying seven tackles, 0.5 sacks and serving as a key cog in an elite Duke secondary, who is the best passing defense in the ACC up to this point.
“Terry's a guy that we have a lot of confidence in,” Elko said. “I think he's capable of playing at a really high level. He's very athletic. He's very dynamic. He comes down on the football really well for a safety and so I think he'll just continue to get better every time he goes out there.”
Next up for Duke is perhaps its biggest matchup of the season, as it will travel to Tallahassee, Fla., to take on presumed ACC favorite Florida State. The Blue Devils will obviously welcome the return of Leonard if he is ready, but Belin has shown he can manage the game well if his number is called again.
No matter what happens next Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium, Duke has shown that for the rest of the season, and moving forward into the next years of the Elko Era, “next man up” will be not just a saying, but the standard.
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