Anunike, Duke finally see their fortunes change

Dec. 26, 2012 @ 09:47 PM

Getting Duke football from the depths it reached during the last decade, when any win was rare, was a painful, painstaking process.

Kenny Anunike was there every step, and oftentimes limp, of the way.

Tonight, when Duke plays Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl (6:30 p.m, ESPN) at Bank of America Stadium, the 22-year-old Anunike will experience what he figured would be the culmination of his career.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity,” Anunike said. “It’s truly a blessing to still be playing and playing the sport that I love.”

A tight end turned defensive lineman, Anunike signed with Duke in February 2008, less than two months after David Cutcliffe took over a woeful Duke football program. In the years since, he’s lost one entire season and all but four games of another to a pair of catastrophic knee injuries.

He fought back from both, navigated the position change in between and, this season, earned honorable mention all-ACC honors as he helped Duke (6-6) become bowl eligible for the first time in 18 seasons.

“For Kenny Anunike, perseverance is probably an understatement,” Cutcliffe said Wednesday. “He’s one of these guys who has done more rehab than the law allows. He plays in pain. He’s had great moments on the field. He just covers the whole spectrum.”

And, for Cutcliffe and Anunike, the only thing better than playing in a bowl game tonight is the fact they get an extra chance to experience it again next season.

In November, the NCAA granted Anunike a sixth season of eligibility for 2013. He missed the entire 2008 season with one knee injury. He suffered his second knee injury four games into the 2011 season.

This season is his fifth on campus and he received his undergraduate degree earlier this month. But Anunike said Wednesday he’s been accepted into graduate school at Duke for next semester, which means he will indeed play one more year with the Blue Devils.

“I will play here for my sixth year,” Anunike said. “I’m excited about that. I could have gone into the real world but I heard the real word isn’t somewhere where you want to be. Put it off as long as you can. I keep getting that from everybody so I guess I needed to take that advice. I have one more year of fun. Play football, be around my boys and coach Cut. We can take this program to new heights.”

Cutcliffe will be glad to have a player like Anunike back to anchor next season’s defense Entering tonight’s game with Cincinnati, Anunike has nine sacks in his previous 14 games.

With Anunike along the defensive line, Cutcliffe is confident Duke can play in a bowl again next season.

“I told him (Tuesday) night `We’re going to do it again, Kenny,’” Cutcliffe said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we will in now his senior year next year. It reaffirms Kenny. I think Kenny is glad this isn’t his last game. This taste is going a long way for him.”

Two of this year’s seniors, safety Walt Canty and quarterback Sean Renfree, have seen what Anunike has gone through along with the entire Duke program. Renfree signed with Duke in 2008, while Canty joined the program in 2009.

They both said they’ve learned plenty from Anunike along the way.

“People questioned if he could stay healthy,” Renfree said. “He’s played well all year and has been strong. It says a lot about who he is as a person and a football player. The fact that he’s coming back for another year, it will be even better. I’ll be excited to watch him next year.”

Canty wasn’t one who questioned whether Anunike would be effective this season following that knee injury in September 2011.

“For those of us who know Kenny, that’s the type of person he is,” said Canty, a second-team all-ACC selection at safety this season. “He’s always been a hard worker. Even with his injuries, he was always working hard to get better.”

At defensive end tonight, Anunike will play against a Cincinnati offense that’s No. 32 in the country in rushing, averaging 199.8 yards per game. The Bearcats (9-3) are also among the toughest teams in the nation to sack, having allowed only 13 in 12 games.

There were days in the not too distant past when the idea of facing an offense of such caliber meant certain defeat for Duke. Anunike knows about those days because they were true when he arrived on campus.

But he’s helped change Duke’s football fortunes. Tonight he gets to reap some of the benefits.

“There were a lot of guys who were just here to get their degrees,” Anunike said. “I wasn’t one of those guys. I wanted to win. I knew coach Cut was just the guy for that. He also wanted to win. If anybody was going to do that, it was going to be coach Cut. If I could buy in and get the rest of the guys to buy in, I knew that this day would come someday. It’s finally a reality.”