Throughout spring practices and blue-white game, Duke football is all-in on Diaz's commitment to excellence

Manny Diaz coaches during Saturday's spring game.
Manny Diaz coaches during Saturday's spring game.

If Manny Diaz’s coaching philosophy could be summed up in one word, it would be “excellence.”

The new Duke head coach has spoken time and again about the pursuit of excellence in all areas since taking the helm in December. On defense, that means attacking at all three levels and forcing opponents into mistakes. Offensively, it means razor-sharp execution for all four quarters.

“To excel that one thing is to excel at all things. And if we can be elite at anything, we should be elite at everything,” Diaz said at his introductory press conference Dec. 9.

While the Blue Devils’ spring game was by no means perfect, flashes of Diaz’s plan for the future shone through. Established talents like junior cornerback Chandler Rivers and senior wideout Jordan Moore clearly stood out among their peers, and newcomers such as redshirt sophomore quarterback Maalik Murphy and freshman corner Vontae Floyd provided an insight into possible future starpower.

But most importantly, players seemed to buy into Diaz’s vision.

“I’ve got a lot of work to do,” Murphy, who transferred to Duke from Texas, said of his outing. “I feel like my teammates will honestly vouch for that. They know how bad I want to win. At the end of the day, we're all competitors, and we want the best for the team. So I know I gotta get better, because I'm not perfect.”

While Murphy’s performance was not ideal — he missed two open targets in the end zone — he did not turn the ball over and made a number of high-level throws. A highlight of Saturday’s game was a near-perfect toss from Murphy to Moore, who hauled in the touchdown with Rivers draped on his back. 

The new signal caller showed all of the traits one may expect from a transfer quarterback learning a new system, as well as the arm strength of a former four-star recruit. So, his focus on improvement is a welcome sign for one of the top-ranked players to ever play in Durham.

The continuous-growth mindset extends far past Murphy, though, as every member of the Blue Devils’ roster learns from their first workout. Strength coach David Feeley, a key reason Diaz came to Duke, implements a grueling workout plan that forces his players to improve each and every day. 

This is especially crucial during the offseason, as weight room goals can serve as motivators in place of in-game rewards. Moreover, the work helps build the mental skills necessary to learn when players finally step on the football field — especially under Diaz’s mandate of excellence.

“It's weird, in a way, sometimes you're hunting failure,” Diaz said after one of the team’s spring practices. “You want to know where you're not complete, you want to know what you don't know, you want to know why you're not succeeding in these situations so that you can learn how to correct it the next time.”

While it may seem like hunting failure would lead to an intensity that takes away from the enjoyment of practices, the opposite appears to be true. The team’s chemistry was particularly evident in the one-on-one portion of the spring game, where offensive and defensive players competed against each other with the rest of the roster there to celebrate the winner.

Despite some less-than-ideal conditions — the offensive line had just five players dress for the spring game — the team has gushed about the new coaching staff and the spring season. Diaz even brought in an ice cream truck for the players after one spring practice as a reward for meeting a goal for the first time.

“Honestly, this spring has been fun. I feel like I’m just going out [and] playing football like a little kid again, like playing in the backyard just having fun with your teammates, your brothers,” Rivers said after a spring practice. “We've been learning a lot, paying attention to details day in and day out.”

“[Diaz] said this to me when we first met: Sometimes players have a hard time letting themselves go and just [having] fun — get vertical, make those edges and set hard edges to go and make plays,” redshirt sophomore defensive end Wesley Williams said after the spring game. “It's been difficult, but it's been really fun. And once I adapted, like the rest of the defense has, it's been a lot of players making plays.”

A trademark of last year’s success was the Blue Devils’ ability to wear down their opponents. The offense relied foremost on its run game to establish time of possession and field position, and a bend-don’t-break defense often forced opponent’s drives to stall out just before the end zone. 

This year, Diaz wants Duke to be the aggressor. Disruptive plays on both sides of the ball can put opponents on their heels and allow the Blue Devils to take control. That kind of dominance takes complete excellence — Diaz says that even doing something 75% right is “really, really bad” — and it requires players to feel fully comfortable in their role.

That does not happen overnight, especially under a new head coach. Through the spring, Duke has started on Diaz’s path to excellence, and it will continue over the summer. Only time will tell where the Blue Devils stand when the season begins in August.

Dom Fenoglio | Sports Managing Editor

Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity sophomore and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.


Share and discuss “Throughout spring practices and blue-white game, Duke football is all-in on Diaz's commitment to excellence” on social media.