A natural: Duke football player Jeremy McDuffie excelling in track and field

Long before he decided to play football at Duke, Jeremy McDuffie dreamed of Olympic gold.

As a junior at Shiloh High School in Snellville, Georgia, McDuffie’s performances in the triple jump and hurdles had him on the road to making such dreams come true.

Now, after being away from the track for two years, McDuffie is back using the speed and agility that makes him effective on the football field to help him in that sport.

Set to be a starting safety for Duke football this fall, McDuffie posted the second-best triple jump in school history at 51 feet, 1½ inches on April 1 at the Battle of the Blues Meet at Duke’s Morris Williams Track Stadium.

A week later, at the Tennessee Relays in Knoxville, Tennessee, McDuffie’s 110 hurdles time of 14.43 seconds was the fourth-fastest time in Duke history.

“I mean,” McDuffie said, “I felt like track was always natural to me. In high school, junior and sophomore years I was making big times and big jumps. It just all felt so natural. Even coming back I didn’t have much practice, but I was able to perform at a high level just because football put me through a lot and just naturally I was able to jump those distances.”

Back at Shiloh High, McDuffie helped his team win the Georgia Class 6A championship when he was a junior. He won state championships in three events – triple jump, 110 hurdles and 300 hurdles. His 110 hurdles time of 13.83 seconds was the sixth fastest nationally at the prep level.

McDuffie fielded track scholarship offers from schools, including Southern California.

But he had other plans.

“I had offers around the nation just for track, but football is kind of where the bread was,” McDuffie said. “So it was take the football scholarship and run track while you are there.”

That plan nearly fell apart eight games into his senior season of football when, on kick return, he was hit high and low by two opposing players and suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

Duke, Florida and Tennessee were the three final schools he was considering for football, but he hadn’t committed to any of them.

Duke assistant coach Jeff Faris happened to be in attendance that night, and McDuffie said he was reassured that Duke still had a scholarship for him.

“I was kind of worried about where colleges would be and who would, like, stay faithful to me and believe in me,” McDuffie said. “But Duke was always there for me.”

It wasn’t a tough decision, said Duke assistant coach Matt Guerrieri, now McDuffie’s position coach on Duke’s defense.

“We are so committed to these guys in getting to know them,” Guerrieri said. “It was something that we knew he’d be able to battle back from.”

While recovering from surgery, McDuffie signed with Duke in February 2015.

“My parents always loved Duke, and they thought that was the place for me,” McDuffie said. “All of my family members were like, ‘Whether you do football or not, Duke is always going to be the place for you. They’ll support you academically after college.’ Just that degree holds a different name.”

Still wearing a brace on his surgically repaired knee, McDuffie played well enough in preseason practices that he earned playing time in Duke’s 2015 season-opening game at Tulane. Though not 100 percent healthy, he played in every game as a true freshman reserve cornerback.

When that season was done, McDuffie went through Duke’s spring practice, which didn’t end until April, and didn’t participate in track.

As a sophomore reserve cornerback last season in football, McDuffie played in 11 of Duke’s 12 games and recorded 17 tackles.

When Duke went through an earlier spring practice, the coaching staff decided to move the 5-11, 180-pound McDuffie from cornerback to safety.

And it’s not just any safety position. McDuffie is playing the strike safety slot in Duke’s 4-2-5 alignment, which is the same position Jeremy Cash played when he was the ACC defensive player of the year in 2015.

“The strike position I actually love it,” McDuffie said. “You are, like, the most athletic person on the field. So I’m able to blitz, I’m able to go ahead and get a slot corner, drip back in coverage or I can go deep and I’ll be a safety over all the other corners and make sure everything’s all right. I’ll get to almost play a linebacker, safety and a corner.”

Duke is looking to McDuffie to make tackles, break up passes and create turnovers.

“I love that they have that trust in me,” McDuffie said. “I’m going to work hard to prove that that’s the spot for me to have. I just want to prove that I can be trusted with it.”

Guerrieri said the speed and agility McDuffie shows in track easily translates to football where they combine his increased strength to make him a powerful defender.

“He can do a lot,” Guerrieri said. “It’s hard to get away from that guy with where we can really put him in position to influence a game. Jeremy (McDuffie) has great cover skills, great physicality, a great mentality. We are able to do a bunch of things with it. Blitz or playing man or playing zone. All the different things we can do with him in that position.”

But before McDuffie sets about helping Duke get back into a bowl game after the Blue Devils suffered through a 4-8 season in 2016, he’s also training to earn some track hardware.

He goes through his weightlifting with football four mornings a week prior to going to class. He practices with the track team in the afternoons.

He’ll compete in the ACC Championships May 12-14 at Atlanta, near where he grew up. He’s already qualified for the NCAA East Regionals, which are May 25-27 in Lexington, Kentucky.

Then it’s back to the weight room to reach his goal of adding another 5-10 pounds of weight to his frame so he can be more effective on defense in football.

He plays two sports. He expects to succeed in both in a big way.

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC