Cutcliffe looks to future, shuffles 4 young players
Having a month between the end of the regular season and the school’s first bowl game in 18 years gave Duke football coach David Cutcliffe plenty of time for creativity.
As a result, a handful of players will find themselves in different positions when Duke plays Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium on Dec. 27 (6:30 p.m., ESPN).
“It’s something that gives us some options to look at,” Cutcliffe said.
Part of the reason is injuries, which have ravaged Duke’s secondary this season. That’s why freshman Shaq Powell now finds himself playing safety after playing running back in the regular season.
It’s also why Nick Hill, a redshirt freshman wide receiver who is deep on Duke’s depth chart behind more accomplished players like Conner Vernon, Jamison Crowder and Desmond Scott, has shifted to safety.
Another part is planning ahead for next season. That’s why Nick Sink, a starter at defensive tackle in the regular season, finds himself playing tight end.
Cutcliffe said Duke plans to utilize more power running sets next season and the powerful Sink will add heft to Duke’s blocking schemes.
The Blue Devils have also decided to shift sophomore linebacker Britton Grier to defensive end. At 6-1 and 235 pounds, Grier has only three tackles in his career. The hope is his speed can help him get pressure in the backfield.
Sink and Powell are the most interesting moves, given their roles on this year’s team.
A 6-5, 285-pound redshirt sophomore, Sink started Duke’s last seven regular-season games at defensive tackle. He has 28 tackles with one tackle for loss.
But Cutcliffe sees a bright future for Sink at tight end. During his prep career in Kernersville at Forsyth County Day School, Sink caught 80 passes for 1,207 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“I’d like to have a 6-5, 285-pound tight end,” Cutcliffe said. “He has great hands. He was first a quarterback and then a heck of (tight end). We’re looking at the opportunity to be a little more physical.”
Powell came to Duke earlier this year from Las Vegas as a highly rated running back. Rivals.com rated him as the No. 6 all-purpose back in the Class of 2012.
This season at Duke, Powell has seen spotty action as a reserve behind Josh Snead, Juwan Thompson and fellow freshman Jela Duncan. Powell has carried the ball 28 times for 93 yards, averaging 3.3 yards per carry.
With Thompson, Snead and Duncan all back next year, Powell’s role on the team could be more significant on defense.
“It’s something completely foreign to him,” Cutcliffe said. “But he’s just a natural football player. I see him playing in this game (against Cincinnati). I also told him he’s on call and can play offensively. He’s going to certainly play in the kicking game.”
Scott, a senior from Durham’s Hillside High, knows all about changing positions. A running back his first three seasons with the Blue Devils, he moved to wide receiver this year and has caught 61 passes for 606 yards.
He’s been impressed with how the younger Powell has looked.
“I think he’s going to do great,” Scott said. “He’s an athlete. He made a couple of plays today and yesterday I saw them on film. I think he’ll be an asset to the defense.”
NOTES — Duke linebackers coach Jim Collins returned to work Thursday following the death of his wife, Geri, on Tuesday after a two-year battle with cancer.
Collins met with the linebackers and attended practice with the Blue Devils.
“I think that was good therapy when you get in there and you start teaching and you are reviewing practice tape,” Cutcliffe said. “He actually told me that was the best he’s felt when he was in there with the linebackers. What he and Geri both loved about this was practice. We were glad to see him back out.”
Duke’s players, coaches and staff will attend Geri Collins’ funeral at Duke Chapel at 9 a.m. Saturday before leaving for Charlotte to attend Belk Bowl festivities. Cutcliffe said the team won’t practice on Saturday.