Working to win again, Blue Devils take time to meet Durham kids at summer camp

Michael Carter’s introduction to college football at Duke included two important events last Thursday.

The freshman cornerback went through his first players-only self practice that morning. But by 1 p.m., he was at Durham Academy in front of a group of elementary school students.

The kids, students from nearby public schools who attend a free summer camp funded and worked by older Durham Academy students, peppered Carter, three other Duke freshmen and coach David Cutcliffe with questions.

“Is playing football hard?”

“Do you have to go to the hospital when you get tackled?”

The Blue Devils smiled and answered. For Carter, it was an eye-opening experience about how far his life has come.

“Very humbling,” Carter said. “I’m in a position now where I can influence a lot of people. So that makes me feel good.”

Carter, tight ends Noah Gray and Jake Marwede and quarterback Chris Katrenick joined Cutcliffe at the camp. Katrenick has been on campus since enrolling early in January. The other three came to Duke after graduating from high school this spring.

They’ve all joined their teammates in Duke’s off-season conditioning program. They get limited time, a few hours a week, working with the coaches under NCAA guidelines. They go to class. They attend seminars where outside speakers provide guidance.

On Thursday, the football part got a little more real with the on-field work in what the players call “self-practices.” Per NCAA rules, coaches aren’t allowed to attend. So the veteran players run things and the young players get a taste of the sport at a higher level.

Carter is taking his cue from senior cornerback Bryon Fields and senior safety Alonzo Saxton.

“I’ve learned hard work from them because they give 110 percent on everything,” Carter said. “It seems like they never get tired. They are always behind their teammates trying to make sure everybody is giving 110 percent too. Making everybody better.”

Duke went 4-8 last season, missing a bowl game for the first time since 2011. Injuries played a major role in that happening as senior starters Thomas Sirk (quarterback), Jela Duncan (running back), DeVon Edwards (safety) and Anthony Nash (wide receiver) suffered season-ending injuries between August and October.

Young players, like freshman quarterback Daniel Jones, were forced into playing time earlier than planned last season. The job this offseason is to build on that experience while blending the returning players with Duke’s recruiting class, ranked No. 48 in the country.

Cutcliffe has seen enough from his players to believe the 2016 record will be an exception, not the norm, for Duke football. One example? The players routinely arrive for team activities early and begin seven to 10 minutes before the scheduled start time.

“This team’s depth, its ability, is showing right now,” Cutcliffe said. “We obviously are healthier than we have been for a long time. That’s critical for any team. But this team is deeper. This team can withstand some of the things that we were hit with a year ago much easier. The day-to-day habits, the work ethic, there’s a hunger there. I don’t think anyone who’s been around here like what we tasted last year. I didn’t do a very good job in camp I think of making the team understand how hard you have to work to be successful. So we haven’t done it yet with this team, but I know we’ve got a shot, a real good shot.”

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC