Duke's Foxx works his way back
If Duke’s defense is to show improvement from a year ago, the job begins up front.
For the defensive linemen to perform better, the group needs its most important parts.
One of those parts, after a tough offseason rehabilitating a surgically repaired knee, is in line to start in Saturday’s season opener with N.C. Central (4 p.m., ESPN3).
When Duke began practice on Aug. 5, Justin Foxx appeared a long shot to be in the starting lineup. Three weeks later, he is listed atop Duke’s depth chart at defensive end along with fellow redshirt senior Kenny Anunike.
“The training room and Justin’s perseverance came together,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “I don’t know anybody that is more diligent than Justin Foxx. He did everything they asked him to do and carefully didn’t do too much because sometimes you can set yourself back.
"He’s also very tough. He just didn’t waste a day after his surgery. It was amazing.”
During Duke’s first week of practice, Foxx wasn’t even running in practice. But about a week into practice, Duke trainer Hap Zarzour offered Cutcliffe some encouraging news.
“Hap told me, about a week in, `We have a shot,’” Cutcliffe said Tuesday. “I said, `Well, we’ve got to see.’ We’ve got to see him do some full-speed work. He started doing full-speed work about 7-8 days ago and passed every test — no swelling, no issues.”
While Cutcliffe had doubts about Foxx’s availability for the season-opening Bull City Gridiron Classic game, Foxx had different thoughts in mind.
“It’s my senior year,” Foxx said. “There was no way I was going to sit out that first game.”
Foxx is a difference maker for the defense. A year ago, he played in nine games with seven starts when Duke went 6-7 and played in the Belk Bowl. Foxx missed four games with a ruptured ligament in the ring finger on his right hand.
He still finished with 46 tackles, including 4.5 sacks, and won the Mike McGee Award as Duke’s top defensive lineman.
Knee surgery on Jan. 7 made for a difficult offseason. Foxx didn’t participate in spring practice, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t working. Cutcliffe remembers many a night he would be leaving the Yoh Football Center after a late meeting only to see Foxx in the weight room.
Foxx also utilized Duke’s underwater treadmill to maintain his stamina without adversely affecting his knee.
“His conditioning is incredible,” Cutcliffe said. “I wish I could run as long as he runs on that underwater treadmill.”
Foxx’s teammates were impressed enough with his approach and work ethic that he was voted one of four team captains last week. Quarterback Anthony Boone, left guard Dave Harding and cornerback Ross Cockrell are the others.
Foxx said one of his duties is to keep things moving in the right direction during practice.
“Practice tempo,” Foxx said. “If practice is going bad, especially for the defense, we have to tell people to pick it up.”
Duke is counting on the defense picking up its performance this season. The Blue Devils allowed an ACC-worst 36 points per game.
An experienced defensive line is at the heart of the Duke game plan to improve its defense. In addition to Foxx and Anunike, Duke lists redshirt senior Sydney Sarmiento at defensive tackle and redshirt junior Jamal Bruce at nose guard.
“We have a lot of older guys and are more experienced, especially on the front seven,” Foxx said. “We also have a lot of depth at all positions. We’ve got our whole line coming back. We only lost one linebacker.”
As glad as Cutcliffe is to see Foxx healthy again, he’s equally as happy that the Blue Devils have enough depth so that Foxx doesn’t have to play every snap against NCCU.
Junior Dezmond Johnson is likely to see as many snaps as Foxx.
“Fortunately he doesn’t have to play,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s going to get his rest at proper spots. I’m not afraid to play Dezmond Johnson at that position 50 percent.”
After a lot of hard work over the last seven months, Foxx is ready for whatever the coaches ask of him.
“I’ll be good for as many as they put me out there,” Foxx said. “It’s up to the coaching staff and the medical staff, but I’m ready to play the whole game.”