DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — The Duke University football team is back on the field after taking over a week off due to a COVID-19 pause.
Even with the altered practice set-up and pauses, time spent on the field running through plays and just being around teammates and coaches is welcome.
That is especially true to someone like Duke running back Mataeo Durant who lived through last spring when COVID-19 canceled all activities.
“As a group, we were just ready to get back at it, doing something that we’ve loved for so long. We were just hoping it wasn’t another episode from last year where we weren’t able to get the preparation to having a very successful season,” said Durant. “Going back out there this week, there was a lot of enthusiasm and excitement just to get back to work.”
This spring is about more than just getting in shape, running through plays and, on offense anyway, making sure to take care of the football.
Durant getting used to a new position coach. This off-season, Calvin Magee was brought on to coach the running backs. Former running backs coach Re’quan Boyette was elevated to co-offensive coordinator and shifts to coaching the wide receivers.
How are the changes going over?
“I just feel like it’s so beneficial for the team. Coach Boyette is a great coach. Any position he’s in, I know he has the best interests of the whole team,” said Durant. “Right now we’re still in the early stages of learning things like he wants us to do, techniques that he’s had over the years. So far, we really love the way he coaches. He’s so enthusiastic every morning. We find it so easy to gravitate towards him and follow his lead.”
On the flip side Duke has a new, old face in the mix. When the Atlanta Falcons hired his linebackers coach Lanier Goethie, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe elevated graduate assistant and quality control coach Sam McGrath to fill the void. McGrath has been with the team since 2015 and his attention to detail is just what Cutcliffe likes to see in his coaches.
“He’s picked up right where we left off continuing to get better,” said redshirt junior linebacker Shaka Heyward. “We’re doing things better than we were, just getting better every day. He’s harped on not going backwards.”
Durant knows this season he will be asked to be a bigger part of the offense than last year. The best ability in a running back is his availability, which means he has to get his body ready for the hits that come with carrying the ball and if need be, the team.
“A trait you have to have is durability, so I want to be durable. So I am doing the correct things every day to make sure that I have my body right to be able to take those hits,” said Durant. “To be able to take those hits from those 250, 240-pound linebackers and be able to play the entire game, if needed.”
Durant will also be providing peace of mind for whoever the new signal caller is.
“The easiest thing that we can do is just let them know that we have confidence in them and just simply do our job as running backs,” said Durant. “Just be as best we can when we get to carry the ball so it doesn’t have to be just him going out there and throwing the ball every time — just let them know that he has a great run game to stand on, also.”
Duke is going to need a stout defense to have a chance. Heyward was tops on the list for tackles with 80 last season but only 8.5 registered for a loss. He knows he has to step his game up and is confident he and his teammates are ready for the challenge.
No one wants to go through what they did last year.
“Last year, that left a terrible taste in our mouth,” said Heyward. “We could have had a really great season last year. This year we need a lot more leadership and accountability.”
We will get the chance to see just how far the team has come from their 2-9 mark last year on March 27 during the Blue Devils Spring Showcase.