A key man in Duke’s quest to score more passing touchdowns was raised -- thanks to Christian Laettner’s 1992 basketball exploits -- to hate all things Blue Devils.
“Being raised a Kentucky boy,” Duke wide receivers coach Gerad Parker said, “you were raised, essentially, to not like Duke. That was ingrained in you.”
A Kentucky native who played four years of football and earned two degrees from the University of Kentucky, Parker came to Duke last summer to restart his career.
A February 2017 drunk driving arrest in Indiana following a night out with his wife and friends cost him the assistant coaching job he had been offered at East Carolina.
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Duke coach David Cutcliffe brought Parker in as a football operations assistant for the offense last June before promoting him to wide receivers coach in January.
After Duke’s fifth practice of spring on Monday, Parker said he’s in the best mindset to take full advantage of this second chance at a coaching career.
“I will say that, in reflection of a blessed career that I’ve had in my life, that now I feel more aligned as a man and a family than I did before coming here,” Parker said. “A lot of that is attributed to who David Cutcliffe is. So what he’s done to me is always been a blessing and appreciated. But who he is and who we have become here has kept me better aligned for my future. In a lot of ways I’m beyond thankful that I’m here. I’m grateful for what he is and what this program is. I couldn’t be happier in doing the job I’m doing.”
A Purdue assistant for four seasons, including six weeks as the Boilermakers’ interim head coach to end the 2016 season, Parker’s job now is to boost the production from Duke’s wide receivers.
Touchdowns from that group have dropped dramatically over the last three seasons.
In 2014, wide receivers Issac Blakeney (seven) and Jamison Crowder (six) led the way as Duke scored 23 touchdowns via the pass.
In 2015, wide receiver Max McCaffrey caught a team-best five of Duke’s 18 passing touchdowns.
In 2016, Johnathan Lloyd’s three touchdown catches led the receivers’ group in a season Duke had 18 passing touchdowns.
Last season, TJ Rahming led Duke’s receivers with just two touchdown catches. Though Duke went 7-6 and played in a bowl game for the fifth time in six seasons, the Blue Devils produced only 16 passing touchdowns.
“It is a huge part of what we have to address,” Cutcliffe said. “You have to be a points producer. Catches are great. First downs are great. But there is one statistic that really matters in football and it’s called ppg (points per game). That’s how you win games.”
The players -- and their new position coach -- are working to change their mentality and their play.
“I hear coach loud and clear,” Parker said. “I think the whole staff does and the players do. Learning from past worlds that the biggest thing we can do is expect them and talk about them and make sure the mentality is to score touchdowns. It’s huge. What we are talking about is what we usually accomplish, good or bad. So the biggest thing has been the mentality to score touchdowns.”
On-field work is focused on contested catches, or 50-50 balls. The Blue Devils struggled in that area last season, so turning more of those plays into receptions is a big first step to scoring more touchdowns.
“There are drills and we’ve done some here in practice these first 4-5 days,” Parker said. “Elevating and catching the ball. I want them to feel how it feels to go do it so they can match that in game settings.”
Duke spent part of a practice last week working on throwing the ball down field to the end zone when setting up from the opponents’ 38 and 34. They also worked on throwing into the end zone from inside the 20, where contested catch situations happen often.
“That’s something that we are deeply talking about, evaluating,” Cutcliffe said. “We are keeping a running total of contested catches. When you have the opportunity to separate, can you separate? We are going to study this thing and see where we need to get to the football to score.”
Parker said redshirt sophomore Scott Bracey is having a strong camp. At 6-2, 210 pounds, the former four-star recruit from Richmond caught only eight passes last season.
“I think more than anything he just has to keep on stacking practices where he’s getting better,” Parker said. “He’s learning to do that and caring to do that. I think if he frees his mind up and does those things, he’ll be in great shape.”
Redshirt junior Keyston Fuller has also caught Parker’s eye.
“He’s gifted enough and athletic enough,” Parker said. “If he gets his mindset right, he can be a value to us. He’s done a good job making some 50/50 catches. He has to do that for us.”
Lloyd, now a redshirt senior, and Rahming, a senior, are Duke’s most experienced players at wide receiver. They’ll certainly have big roles in Duke’s offense once again.
So, too, will redshirt junior Aaron Young once he recovers from a minor, undisclosed injury he suffered in practice last week.
“We sure appreciate what he did in his first days before he got hurt,” Parker said. “Getting him back is going to be huge.”
Last season, senior running back Shaun Wilson led Duke in receiving touchdowns with four. The four wide receivers who caught touchdowns -- Rahming, Young, Lloyd and Chris Taylor -- combined for only five touchdown catches.
Three tight ends back this season helped with touchdowns, with Davis Koppenhaver (three), Daniel Helm (two) and Noah Gray (two) combining for seven scores.
“I don’t care who it comes from,” Cutcliffe said. “We are also seeing competition between tight ends and receivers.”
But the receivers have the most room to grow and Parker, with his Kentucky roots as a Duke hater pushed firmly into his past, has embraced the opportunity.