By AL FEATHERSTON
By an amazing coincidence, Duke’s meeting with Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-a Bowl on New Year’s Eve will be the 1,000th football game in Blue Devil history.
“I think it’s pretty cool – I like coaching the 1,000th game,” head coach David Cutcliffe said Tuesday.
Duke’s arrival at 1,000 games is a function of many historical events. The Blue Devils, which played the first football game south of the Mason-Dixon Line, would have gotten there much sooner had the school not given up football for almost a quarter-century (1895-1919).
On the other hand, Duke entered the 2013 season with 986 games, needing 14 to reach the milestone. No previous Duke football team had ever before played 14 games in a season.
“It’s a game that could have been at a significantly different time,” Cutcliffe said. “And you couldn’t have reached it [this season] without the [ACC] championship game. Who would have guessed back in August that the 1,000th game would be played in 2013?"
The Duke coach was interested in how Duke had performed in previous milestone games. Unfortunately, the Blue Devils are just 2-7 in the nine previous milestones – winning No. 300 over Pitt in 1950 and No. 700 at Northwestern in 1988.
CONNETTE TO MISS PRACTICE
Duke quarterback Brandon Connette is not with the team at practice this week. He has returned home to be with his ailing mother.
Cutcliffe said he isn’t sure when – or even if – Connette will join the team.
“I talked to his dad last night,” the Duke coach said. “I just wanted his dad to relax Brandon. It’s the last thing I want him to worry about. We don’t have any timetable. We’re going day-to-day. He’s where he should be.”
Sirk, who has missed every game this season while recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon that he suffered last spring, is not going to play in the bowl game – whether Connette returns or not.
“He’s practicing right now, but I’m not going to play Thomas Sirk in the last ballgame,” Cutcliffe said. “I think it’s one game and he may be eligible to apply for an extra year, and I wouldn’t risk that circumstance.”
That could put Boehme, who has been redshirting this year, into the backup quarterback spot. Or Connette could still fill that role.
“Brandon, he could come in two days before the game and play – if it worked out that way,” Cutcliffe said.
FILLING IN AT ‘SIMMONS’
It’s always been a matter of time before Lucas Patrick became a starter at Duke. The 310-pounder from Brentwood, Tenn., was in the running for a starting offensive line job in the spring before the 2012 season, when he was a redshirt freshman.
But late in the offseason, Patrick suffered a significant ankle injury – one that required surgery and forced him to miss the first eight games of the season.
“It was a tough injury to come back from – it was a long rehab process,” Patrick said. “I think it’s made me a better football player because it’s made me more conscious of my feet and strengthening certain areas that you really need to play offensive line.”
Patrick became Duke’s “sixth man” on the offensive line this year, playing 258 snaps at both guard and both tackle positions. He can also play center.
But when he gets his first career start against Texas A&M, it will be at a brand new position.
“I told him, ‘I’ve renamed the position you’re starting in. It’s not going to be called right tackle any more – it’s Simmons,’” Cutcliffe said. “He’s starting at Simmons. After 50 straight starts at right tackle, that’s appropriate.”
Patrick is replacing All-ACC tackle Perry Simmons, who has started every game for Duke in the last four years – 50 straight. He has played more snaps (3,741) than any player on the Duke roster.
But Simmons suffered a knee injury late in the loss to Florida State in the ACC title game and won’t be able to play in Atlanta.
It’s a huge opportunity to showcase my skills,” Patrick said.
It could also be a preview of next season. Cutcliffe will have to replace two seniors off this year’s offensive line – Simmons and guard David Harding. It’s long been assumed that Patrick would inherit one of those spots.
But which one?
“I think he may be better suited as a guard long term,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m anxious to see what spring practice brings. I’m anxious to get Tanner Stone back, who is unfortunately suffering from the same type of injury.”
Stone’s situation is amazingly similar to what Patrick went through. The young offensive tackle was extremely impressive in preseason, but suffered an injury that has sidelined the redshirt freshman all year.
“Tanner got some physical work in yesterday – he’s running with change of direction,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s not on the practice field with us, but he’s out with the physical therapy people.”
While building next year’s offensive line is a huge concern, the more immediate question is how well Patrick will play at “Simmons” against Texas A&M.
“Lucas is a really talented guy,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s ready for this challenge.”
THE HEISMAN CHALLENGE
For the second straight game, Duke will face a Heisman Trophy quarterback.
The last time out, the Blue Devils had to deal with Florida State’s Jameis Winston, who took home the trophy a week later in New York. When the Devils meet Texas A&M in Atlanta, they will be challenged by sophomore Johnny Manziel, who claimed the award in 2012.
It’s believed to be just the second time in football history that a team has faced Heisman Trophy winners in back-to-back games. LSU did it in 2010, when the Tigers faced Alabama – with 2009 winner Mark Ingram -- and Auburn -- with 2010 winner Cam Newton -- in consecutive games.
“Obviously, it’s hard to get away from Johnny Manziel watching tape,” Cutcliffe said. “As far as extending plays and ad-libbing and making plays, I know in my time he’s the best I’ve ever seen. They’ve only given up nine sacks and the big reason for that is that people can’t hardly touch him, much less tackle him. He’s uncanny in that regard.”
Kelby Brown, Duke’s All-ACC linebacker, is excited by the challenge of trying to stop the player known as “Johnny Football.”
“We had heard some talk about playing A&M and that was an exciting thought to everyone,” Brown said. “Even people around campus were saying, ‘You’ve got to take on Johnny Football.’ We love that challenge.”
Brown was asked to assess the different challenges presented by Winston and Manziel.
“Manziel is a guy, I think he likes to run,” he said. “He wants to throw the ball deep if he’s scrambling. He’s a much more natural runner. You see that in their run game. They run a lot more zone reads and quarterback runs.
“Against Florida State, a lot of it was stopping their really good receivers. Now, against A&M, we’ve got to contain this guy and make him throw the ball.”
That will put a lot of pressure on the secondary.
“[Manziel] keeps the drive alive by staying in the pocket so long that sometimes people are in coverage eight or nine seconds,” freshman safety Devon Edwards said. “We’ve just got to stay in coverage and trust our D-linemen to keep him contained.”
Duke has played 23 games in its history against Heisman winners – winning four of those games. The Devils beat Ohio State’s Howard Cassidy and Navy’s Joe Bellino in their Heisman seasons and twice beat South Carolina’s George Rogers in years before he won the Heisman.
THE REDSHIRT BRIGADE
One of the benefits of playing in a bowl game is that it allows approximately two weeks of extra practice – and that allows coaches to devote time to the development of their redshirt class.
The players who will see action against Texas A&M demonstrate the importance of those players sitting out. Prominent redshirts in the lineup include All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell, All-American kick returner Devon Edwards, All-ACC punter Will Monday, tight end Braxton Deaver and every single member of the offensive and defensive lines.
“There are a lot of guys – offensive, defensive, everywhere … a lot of guys are going to show up in the next couple of years,” Boone said. “They’re going to be thanking the fact that we made a bowl and they’re getting extra practices. During this time, coaches can give them a little extra one-on-one time.”
Cutcliffe also talked about the hidden benefits of the extra bowl practice.
“We’ll get quality work with guys who have redshirted and guys who are backups,” the Duke coach said. “It’s significant. Look at least year, I think it’s one of the things that started [this] season right. Our team came out of the bowl game having prepared well with a good mindset. It made them hungry to continue for more.
“So there is no question that a year ago, it impacted us, The same thing is going to happen now. It’s almost like another spring practice.”