Duke

Duke football’s first day in full pads gives players a chance to work on tackling

Duke coach David Cutcliffe addresses the media

Duke football coach David Cutcliffe talks about the first day in full pads for the Blue Devils.
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Duke football coach David Cutcliffe talks about the first day in full pads for the Blue Devils.

Duke defensive end Tre Hornbuckle arrived at post-practice interviews in full gear on Tuesday.

It was the first day the Blue Devils wore full pads, and Hornbuckle, a senior from Murray, Ky. hadn’t yet shed his gear before standing in the middle of the scrum. For defensive players, or football players in general, the first day in pads is one they circle on their calendars.

Spring ball seems like a long time ago, and even a summer full of workouts can’t match the excitement, or intensity, players get on that first day of putting on all their equipment. Full gear means all contact, real football, as most would say.

But Duke coach David Cutcliffe doesn’t want organized chaos on the first day his team can hit. He has a method to the madness, starting with one of the most basic aspects of the game: tackling.

“We all know that there’s not near as much scrimmaging, not near as much live play,” Cutcliffe told the media after practice on Tuesday. “The way you teach it, you go a 75 percent teach focus, then you get a not finished, but a little more 100 percent.”

The Blue Devils only ran 10 live plays on Tuesday, but Cutcliffe did get to see more tackling taking place during other drills.

Duke’s leading tackler from last season, Joe Giles-Harris, is gone, but three of the next four top tacklers are back, led by Dylan Singleton, who finished with 73 stops last year.

Cutcliffe doesn’t want to beat his team up in fall camp, but rather hone in on the “focus work,” which means more drills on where to attack a ball carrier, wrapping up, bringing your feet when you tackle. If that’s done properly, Cutcliffe said, it’ll look like the players are going at 100 percent.

When the Blue Devils go full speed in pads, Duke defensive end Tre Hornbuckle, who finished with 29 tackles last season, said it separates the men from the boys.

When they did go full speed, Hornbuckle, who finished with 29 tackles last season, said it separates the men from the boys.

“You’ll see where peoples’ heads at,” Hornbuckle said on Monday. “You’ll see who is really ready to put it on each other and it shows on tape. You’ll see who’s ready to hit each other and who’s not, it’ll expose you.”

But there is a fine line between just running around and slamming into each other and the proper tackling technique. Hornbuckle admitted the team missed too many tackles in 2018, and with the excitement of the first day in full gear, Duke has to be careful not to forget technique, resisting the urge to finally hit somebody for the first since spring.

Cutcliffe doesn’t want players falling to the ground to avoid injury on every drill, but that’s the only way he dials anything back when going live.

“The woah is better to have to giddy up,” Cutcliffe said. “Hopefully we will keep that mentality.”

One thing Hornbuckle learns the first day the pads come out is how mentally tough his teammates are.

“It’s a test of your character,” he said. “It’s hot, you’re uncomfortable, it’s a battle. You have to keep fighting day in and day out and you have to depend on your brother to keep pushing you.”

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Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.
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