Duke football’s freshmen pushing for -- and earning -- playing time

Having advanced Duke football from a perennial losing program into one that regularly plays in bowl games, David Cutcliffe challenged his staff to push the Blue Devils even further.

Part of doing that, going from a team that posts seven or eight wins into one that challenges for divisional and league championships, means not settling for what’s comfortable.

“It’s real easy to play the guy that knows what to do,” Cutcliffe said in a press conference Tuesday. “There’s a comfort zone. I told them if you churn, which means coach hard enough, the cream rises to the top.”

That plan is playing out this month as the Blue Devils prepare for their season-opening game against Alabama on Aug. 31.

Freshmen players are all over Duke’s two-deep chart, earning playing time with the first- and second-team units on offense and defense when the Blue Devils held their first scrimmage this past Saturday night at Wallace Wade Stadium.

Competing freshmen

Former Cornith Holders High School lineman Jacob Monk, who enrolled a semester early last January, is ahead of redshirt junior Robert Kraeling as the starting right tackle.

At wide receiver, freshman Jalon Calhoun moved up from second team into a starting role when sophomore Jake Bobo suffered a broken collarbone last week. Calhoun caught two passes for 36 yards in the scrimmage.

Darrell Harding and Eli Pancol are working with the second team at wide receiver. So is Jaylen Coleman from Matthews’ Porter Ridge High School at running back.

On defense, cornerbacks Jalen Alexander, Tony Davis of Gastonia’s Hunter Huss High School and Isaiah Kemp from Wilmington’s Hoggard High School are on the second-team defense. Davis intercepted a pass in Saturday’s scrimmage.

Two other freshmen, defensive end R.J. Oben and defensive tackle DeWayne Carter, received playing time with the second team defense during the scrimmage.

Redshirt freshmen like left tackle Casey Holman, linebackers Rocky Shelton and Shaka Heyward, wide receivers Dennis Smith and Jarret Garner, offensive guard Maurice McIntyre from Jacksonville’s Northside High School and tight end Zamari Ellis from Henderson Southern Vance High School are working with the second team.

“They are earning these opportunities,” Cutcliffe said. “If you are a veteran player and someone is playing past you, you have a choice, right? You’d better churn. I knew we had competition at these positions.”

Get Sports Pass for ACC football

Follow Joe Giglio, Steve Wiseman, Jonathan Alexander, Chip Alexander and Luke DeCock. Sign up for The N&O's digital sports-only subscription for only $30 per year.

A productive scrimmage

Duke started Monk and Holman at the two tackle positions on the first-team offense on Saturday. Cutcliffe said placement on either first or second team is “fluid” along the line but he complimented the first-team line for its consistently solid play in practices since the scrimmage.

At 6-3 and 305 pounds, Monk has made a positive impression quickly since arriving on campus seven months ago from Clayton.

“He’s had the benefit of being on our team since January,” Cutcliffe said. “He has competed hard for that position and he’s being competed hard with right now by Robert Kraeling.”

Coleman and Calhoun both had a productive scrimmage. Calhoun made a nice catch on a sideline route, hauling in a pass from starting quarterback Quentin Harris.

Coleman rushed 13 times for 63 yards.

In addition, two other freshmen have changed positions since arriving on campus and have impressed in their new roles.

Jordan Waters from Fairmont High School transitioned from safety to running back so well that Cutcliffe said he’ll be staying on offense. He gained 54 yards on nine carries in the scrimmage.

On Tuesday, Cutcliffe said John Gelotte is now working with tight ends after being recruited as an offensive tackle.

“He is so athletic to be as big a man as he is,” Cutcliffe said of the 6-5, 290-pound Gelotte. “I don’t know if he’s going to stay there but he brings something to this 2019 team that’s a little different.”

And that’s the point of all these freshmen earning playing time. Cutcliffe’s team has played in six bowl games in the past seven seasons. The Blue Devils won their only Coastal Division title in 2013 when they went 10-4.

The 2014 Blue Devils went 9-4 but Duke hasn’t won more than eight games in any of the last five seasons. That includes going 8-5 last season.

A decade ago, an eight-win season would have been considered a major success. Now it is the norm. But Duke’s program needs to grow beyond that and Cutcliffe wants the best players on the field in his quest for even more success.

It doesn’t matter how much experience they have or don’t have. It’s about talent and production to help Duke win this season.

“The bus, so to speak, waits for no one,” Cutcliffe said. “Those young guys have got to get it cranked up and get it going.”

Related stories from Rock Hill Herald

An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.