Duke Football: 2012 Preview

Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell says he doesn’t know what went wrong last year in the Blue Devils’ season-opener against Richmond. He just knows he doesn’t want it to happen again.

Even though cornerbacks are supposed to be able to forget bad plays, junior Ross Cockrell still remembers them. And he remembers when Duke opened the 2011 season against Richmond, taking the field for the game full of fire in their black jerseys, which were a surprise from head coach David Cutcliffe before the game.

About three hours and countless head-scratching mistakes later, Duke found themselves 0-1, having suffered an embarrassing loss to an FCS team yet again. “I think this year, we’re finally turning the curve and expecting to win,” Cockrell said. “Last year, I think we might have hoped to win more, but now we expect to win. I think now, the plays that didn’t go for us last year will start to go for us this year and we’ll see what happens.”

Cockrell is part of a Duke secondary that has been hit by a rash of injuries, particularly at safety. Taylor Sowell ruptured his Achilles and is out for the year, while projected starter Jordan Byas is out indefinitely after recent knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Walt Canty is the only experienced safety starting, and his backup, Anthony Young-Wiseman, is questionable with a leg injury. Three of the six healthy safeties on Duke’s depth chart are true freshmen, and they will almost certainly have to play on Saturday.

“What we have to watch with freshmen is cramping after pregame warmups, and that’s the truth. You expend way too energy as a young player, the anxiety, the pressure,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re going to be coming into that tunnel after pregame warmup, they’re going to be soaking wet. You’ve got to remind them to drink, take deep breaths.

“They’re pretty natural football players. I always remind them, it’s the same measurements on that field. Everything is the same that you’ve done all your life. Just forget it all when you get into the game. Then when somebody hits them really hard, all that nervousness is gone.”

In total, Duke will be down 11 scholarship players and that number could grow to 13 against a good Florida International team coming off of an eight-win season.

But this particular Duke team is prepared to face whatever lies ahead of them. When sophomore wide receiver Blair Holliday got in a watercraft accident on July 4 and suffered a serious head injury, his prognosis looked bleak at first. He has continued to improve steadily, and Duke will wear a No. 8 sticker on the back of their helmets this season.

Cutcliffe updates Holliday’s condition as often as he can, and on Wednesday, he went to see Holliday for the first time since he was moved to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. The Duke head coach saw Holliday’s mom and brother first. While he was speaking to them, he saw a tall and lanky person walking down the hallway towards him.

“He walked up and I was able to give him a big hug. It was the first time I’ve been able to hug him. You couldn’t hug him before. (He’s) free of monitors, free of wires,” Cutcliffe said. “It was pretty neat. I liked feeling small around him. He’s a big man in lots of ways.”

Holliday’s injury understandably shook his teammates. They have been inspired by his fight to recover. But even before his injury, that was a close-knit group. Since, it’s become something entirely different. They’re not just teammates and friends. There’s a deep bond that comes with shared experience.

“If a team that was out there that could handle this kind of adversity, it’s this team. And it’s a tribute to the older guys on the team, the quality of the character, the investment they’ve put into each other, the investment they’ve put into this program,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t know if people really understand the mentality here. I think it’s carried us to even another new place that we maybe needed to go, or found out we could go. There’s a closeness when you walk in our team room.”

Season Prediction: 5-7 (2-6). The final six games of the season will make or break bowl eligibility for Duke. If the Blue Devils get to that stretch of hosting Carolina, Clemson and Miami and traveling to Virginia Tech, Florida State and Georgia Tech with at least four wins, they’ll have a chance. But it’s hard to find even two more wins in that slate. It’s just the bad luck of the draw in ACC scheduling, but it may be what holds Duke back from reaching its first bowl game since 1995.

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