Blue Devils build team unity with trash pickup service day
Duke’s football players instilled plenty of pride on campus and in the community last fall with their record-breaking, 10-win season.
On Tuesday, with another season looming and hopes high, their work was all about a different form of Duke pride.
Following a team breakfast at 6 a.m., the players and coaches walked around campus picking up trash for an hour as part of their annual campus clean-up effort.
The fruits of their labor were bags of trash that filled about half of a truck bed parked near Wallace Wade Stadium.
“The people around here do so much for us,” Duke defensive lineman Carlos Wray said. “It’s away for us to give back and let them take a chill pill and let us do some of the work for them because they do so much for us.”
As visible as their effort was Tuesday morning, there’s hope for residual good that would show up on the field when the season opens Aug. 30 against Elon.
Senior stalwarts from last year’s team, like all-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell, defensive linemen Kenny Anunike, Justin Foxx and Sydney Sarmiento and offensive linemen Dave Harding and Perry Simmons, have all graduated.
They were part of Duke football’s rise from a cellar dweller that rarely beat anyone to the ACC’s Coastal Division champion.
“With the seniors leaving, the people who built the program essentially, us young guys we have to step up,” Duke redshirt freshman running back Joseph Ajeigbe said. “We can’t slack off. It’s a work ethic around here now. We’ve just got to maintain that work ethic. That’s what we’ve been trying to do this summer.”
Events like Tuesday’s trash pickup are part of team building exercises that college football teams around the country take part in. At Duke this offseason, they’ve contained extra importance.
“Talking to the seniors,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said, “they are excited about their work together, their energy, their focus. This is their standard, not ours. That’s part of this.”
Cutcliffe said he tells the players to establish their own standards. He prefers the term ‘standard’ to ‘rule.’
“A standard is something that you don’t have to obey,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s by choice. You live it by choice. They’ve learned that. It’s something our program has gotten better at. What are your standards, guys? What you expect from each other is more important than what I expect.”
If Duke is to maintain the on-field success that saw it play in postseason bowl games the last two seasons — the first time in school history that’s happened — the players and coaches know the hunger to improve must remain strong.
After going 10-4, the Blue Devils had spring practice in February and wrapped it up with the March 1 spring game. Since then they’ve participated in regular conditioning drills and the players held practice sessions on their own. NCAA rules prohibit coaches from being present in the offseason.
The leadership void was present early on, players said. But that has changed as seniors like running back Josh Snead and defensive lineman Dezmond Johnson have taken charge.
“Those guys have stepped up tremendously in their roles,” Wray said. “A lot of people are trying to lead by example instead of doing a lot of talking. You’ve got guys that talk. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the guys that lead by example are probably the guys a lot more players will follow.”
While penalties like extra reps for a poor workout or running after practice were happening earlier this spring, players say things are more orderly now.
“As the summer has progressed since the spring a lot of that has really digressed as far as having disciplinary issues because the leaders have started to emerge and show themselves,” Wray said.
Duke gathers as a team on Aug. 3 the night before the first official practice of the new season on Aug. 4. They’ll have less than four weeks to prepare for their first game.
Already, Duke football is receiving previously unheard of accolades. USA Today has the Blue Devils rated No. 17 nationally in its preseason top 25.
Heady stuff for a program that, prior to last season, hadn’t posted a winning season since 1994.
But Johnson, expected to be key player in Duke’s revamped defensive line, said the Blue Devils know they still have goals to reach and they are willing to put in the work.
“You can feel the energy at self-practices,” Johnson said. “Guys are ready to go, paying attention to small details. You can really tell that guys are really excited, ready to put some pads on and get the season started off right.”