Bowl-bound Devils overcame more than fair share of adversity

Dec. 06, 2012 @ 08:46 PM

Duke will complete a remarkable football season Dec. 27 at Bank of America Stadium.
The work that landed the Blue Devils in the Belk Bowl, the school’s first postseason bowl game since 1994, began back in the Triangle earlier this year.
“Our team has worked very hard,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said during a Belk Bowl press conference on Thursday. “It started a year ago this January. This team took it upon itself to be the best group that I’ve ever been around at being self-motivated as far as the work they got in on their own.”
All that work paid off in an unexpected way in July when Blair Holliday, projected as a starting wide receiver, was severely injured in a personal watercraft accident on Lake Tillery.
Fellow wide receiver Jamison Crowder was driving the personal watercraft that collided with Holliday, sending the sophomore to UNC Hospitals with a traumatic brain injury.
Around the same time, projected starting tight end Braxton Deaver suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for the entire season. A few weeks later, defensive lineman Jamal Bruce broke his foot while training for the start of practice.
Even as close as the team was, Cutcliffe said the situation was tenuous as to how the players would handle the upcoming season.
“It’s a very emotional thing to go through,” Cutcliffe said. “We always know that adversity makes us or breaks us. I knew there was a chance for that with this team.”
The team unity that grew out of offseason workouts, where the veteran players put the younger players through drills when no coaches were present, helped the Blue Devils endure.
“Our leadership,” Cutcliffe said. “Wow, did they play coach, captain and player. Our staff has done an outstanding job through a lot of different things that have occurred. I hate to use the word adversity but there were a lot of opportunities to be creative in coaching. Our staff has done a tremendous job of that.”
Senior captains Sean Renfree, Walt Canty and Conner Vernon, along with junior captain Ross Cockrell, helped pull Duke through the grief and shock of Holliday’s injuries and Crowder’s guilty feelings. Because of that, Duke won six of its first eight games this season to become bowl eligible.
Even though the Blue Devils lost their final four regular-season games, their 6-6 record qualified them for the postseason. Duke will play Cincinnati (9-3) in Charlotte’s Belk Bowl on Dec. 27 (6:30 p.m., ESPN).
Cutcliffe expects this game, win or lose, to be the start of even greater things at Duke.
“This year’s team has been passionate about the program and where the program is headed,” Cutcliffe said. “So this is certainly one of the goals, to reach this bowl eligibility. But it’s just the beginning.”
Cutcliffe said he held plenty of one-on-one meetings with the players in the aftermath of the Holliday-Crowder accident. The players were faced with a difficult situation but they were able to post the best Duke football season in nearly two decades.
“Because of what they displayed, it really didn’t matter if we’d won a game,” Cutcliffe said. “But I wanted them to define that. How important is that to the story? They did a fine job of managing that. It was hard to get through that period of time.  But I am very proud now that we’ve been through it. I just look at so many of the players on our team and how they’ve grown.”
Three of Duke’s fall 2013 recruits are expected to be enroll in school in January.
Cornerbacks Evrett Edwards and Dequavais Mann and quarterback Parker Boehme will enroll for the spring semester, which would enable them to take part in spring practice.
Edwards is considered among the top players in Duke’s incoming class, which consisted of 12 other verbally committed players as of Thursday.