While Thursday marked Duke’s first official practice of the new football season, the work needed to prevent a repeat of last season’s 2-9 record began months ago.
“I thought our spirit and energy and attitude is what it’s been since last January, very willing to do what it takes to be successful,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said following Thursday’s morning practice. “Do we have a lot of work to do? Absolutely.”
Last fall, with the pandemic raging and restrictions in full effect, the Blue Devils suffered through a season with their fewest wins since 2007.
Since January, though, Duke’s players and coaches went through a far more normal offseason that included conditioning and a full spring practice slate. The players returned to holding practices on their own in the summer until NCAA rules allowed the coaches to begin working with them again Thursday.
“The biggest difference from last season to this season is having that spring and summer together,” graduate student cornerback Josh Blackwell said. “Building that team cohesion, growing together and building the team camaraderie. That, along with having the belief that we are a good football team and we can be a good football team, will make the difference.”
Teams are allowed 25 practices prior to their first game. For Duke, game time will arrive on Sept. 3, a Friday night, with a road contest at Charlotte.
Improving on last season’s dismal performance means getting better play on both sides of the ball.
Signs that may be possible were present Thursday as three veteran players whose injuries left Duke vulnerable last season were back on the practice field.
Center Jack Wohlabaugh, safety Lummie Young and Blackwell were full participants and their experience and talent are sorely needed.
Wohlabaugh was an all-ACC candidate last season but he suffered a torn knee ligament before Duke played its first game. A redshirt senior, his play will go a long way to determining if Duke’s offensive line will be sturdy enough this season.
The Blue Devils return two players with starting experience at the guards in Casey Holman and Jacob Monk. Having Wohlabaugh in the middle makes that a stronger group, especially with two new starters working with the No. 1 offense at tackle in Graham Barton and John Gelotte.
Still, Cutcliffe will monitor Wohlabaugh closely this month.
“A bigger guy with a knee, I’m going to watch him on a day-to-day basis as to how much,” Cutcliffe said, “but he’s on go. He’s full speed. But I’ll try to manage that a bit.”
Blackwell and Young both started games last season but were limited by injuries.
A cornerback, Blackwell started Duke’s first two games before suffering torn cartilage during a September practice. He had surgery and missed the rest of the season.
Young, a safety, played into November, starting four of the five games in which he appeared, before rupturing his left Achilles tendon.
Like Wohlabaugh, the two veterans were on the practice field as full participants Thursday.
“I feel great,” Blackwell said. “My rehab was hard. But I think having the time in the spring and the summer to get back in the swing of things was definitely needed. But I feel great now. I’m actually stronger than I’ve ever been.”
Blackwell, senior Leonard Johnson and junior Jeremiah Lewis are all returning cornerbacks with starting experience. At safety, Young and juniors Nate Thompson and Jalen Alexander have all started games.
Having Blackwell and Young on the practice field is important as a defense that allowed 38 points per game last season is in need of improvement.
“I feel really good about our secondary,” Cutcliffe said. “I keep asking our coaches, `Who’s gonna start?’ you know, with a smile on my face. And what I’m telling them is I expect to see the cream stirred and it rise to the top. There’s competition. There’s a lot of athletes.”
Even when Johnson left practice on Thursday with what Cutcliffe called “a little tweak,” the Blue Devils still had depth.
Having missed playing in bowl games the last two seasons after making one in six of the previous seven campaigns, the Blue Devils are determined to get back in the postseason mix. Having lost 16 of 23 games during 2019 and 2020, they know only hard work can turn things around.
“It’s definitely been motivation for me,” junior wide receiver Eli Pancol said. “You never want to feel that feeling again. Once you feel that losing mentality you never want to feel that again. So it’s been motivation for me. I want to change that. Flip the script around.”