RUNNIN' WITH THE DEVILS

Apr. 11, 2014 @ 06:26 PM

Having dramatically improved one sport at Duke, David Cutcliffe and some of his football players are lending a hand – and two feet – to another this spring.

Five Duke football players, coming off a season where a school-record 10 wins were recorded on the football field, have joined the track team as sprinters.

This is far from a gimmick to help the guys stay in shape. It’s all part of the plan to make the Blue Devils even better in football while helping Duke’s overall athletic department.

“Coach was telling us how we want to elevate the program and how we are going to compete with elite teams,” Duke running back/sprinter Josh Snead said. “There are some things that are going to change. We are going to have an edge in everything.”

At Cutcliffe’s suggestion, Snead joined the track team along with defensive back DeVon Edwards and wide receivers Issac Blakeney, Ryan Smith and Anthony Nash.

Two other speedy players, cornerback Breon Borders and wide receiver Jamison Crowder, considered joining. But Borders’ class schedule interfered with track practice and Crowder decided to focus on strength training as he prepares for his senior season.

“I kind of really love track,” Blakeney said. “I think the track team benefits. They are known for distance and field events. We can help them with sprints.”

The group has done more than just head out there and run around to stay in shape. They are working with Shawn Wilbourn, Duke’s track assistant who oversees the sprinters, to improve their technique.

Sprinting in track, whether in individual events or relays, is different than running as fast you can with the football.

“On the football field the stride pattern is shorter,” Wilbourn said. “We’ve been doing some specific drills, working with them to understand the different positions in track and field verus football. How to open up that stride. How to have patience in accelerations. It is very technical. It takes a while to transition out of the football speed into the track speed.”

As it turned out, not that long for four of the players.

Blakeney, Smith, Edwards and Snead — with just two weeks of practice — won the 4x100 meter relay in a meet at High Point last weekend. Prior to that race, they had only successfully completed the three necessary baton exchanges once during practice.

But their time of 41.3 seconds was just shy of Duke’s school record — 41.06.

“I’m not going to toot the horn but I feel like with great exchanges we can shatter that record,” said Snead, who runs the anchor leg.

The ACC Championship Meet is Thursday-Saturday at UNC Chapel Hill. Duke’s time is seventh best in the league, which means the Blue Devils are in line to score points in an event in which they’re normally shut out.

“I think we can compete and score points,” Blakeney said.

The learning process has gone quickly.

“We haven’t had a lot of practice time,” Wilbourn said. “We’ve been giving them a crash course. We kept exchange zones pretty tight. We have a lot more potential to run even faster with them.”

That speed will, of course, be helpful this fall in football when ACC Coastal Division champion Duke hopes to return to the ACC Championship game.

“Taking this technique that we learn from these sprint coaches and track coaches to our football game should bring us to a new level where you see runs that are 60 yards should turn into 80 yards,” Snead said. “Eighty yards are long touchdowns. We have a lot of home run hitters.”

Wilbourn is adept at working with football and track speed. He was drafted by the NFL’s Buffalo Bills in 1991 and was a finalist in the decathlon at the 1996 U.S. Olympic trials.

“Running track helped me on the football field,” Wilbourn said. “These guys will be faster on the football field from doing this experience.”