October 6, 2003 DURHAM The Aaron Fryer situation at Duke shows a football coach who, in his desperation to keep his job, might not have made the best possible decision for one of his players. The 5-11, 205-pound Fryer was the centerpiece of fifth-year coach Carl Franks' 2003 recruiting class. He's a true freshman from Tampa, Fla., whom loyal Sports Journal readers know as (because we wrote this last month) the Blue Devils' future star tailback. Fryer was considered among the top 50 players in the talent-rich state of Florida, and that is no small accomplishment. He ran for 2,023 yards as a senior at Tampa Jesuit. According to the Duke football coaches and others within the athletic department, the graduation losses of senior tailbacks Chris Douglas and Alex Wade were going to be smoothed very nicely indeed in 2004 by the advance in playing time of sophomore Chris Dargan and the introduction of Fryer. But then Franks went and introduced Fryer a year early. Make that half a year early. Fryer was on pace to be redshirted through four games this season. In the fifth game, a 56-7 loss to Florida State, Fryer got his first three carries of the season, gaining seven yards on those trio of fourth-quarter totes. In the Durham Herald-Sun, the only newspaper that has covered the Blue Devils on a day-to-day basis this season, that playing time was described as Fryer's first of the season. After the game Franks also indicated as much, explaining his decision to debut Fryer in the fifth game by saying his plan all along had been to play Fryer in 2003 to prepare him for a bigger role in 2004. The official Duke website had a slightly different take on Fryer's playing status in the days after the FSU game, crediting Fryer in its 2003 statistics as having played in two games, although he had only three carries for seven yards on the season. The Duke site lists participation for every game but the opener, and Fryer's name appeared only on the participation list of the FSU game. Maybe he played in the opener against Virginia; maybe not. Perhaps it was just an inadvertent error. In any event, Fryer apparently was eligible for a redshirt season entering the FSU game, and now he is not, and the question is: Why? Wade has been slowed this season by a hamstring pull, but he played through it in recent weeks. Douglas has been healthy and among the ACC's rushing leaders all season. Dargan also has been slowed by an injury, but for the most part Duke has had three available tailbacks for every game, and that definitely was the case for the FSU game. Again, the question: Why would Fryer come out of an apparent redshirt season this late into the schedule, without an obvious need on the field? If Franks went to Fryer and talked his freshman into giving up his redshirt year, that would be unconscionable but also unlikely, considering Franks has never shown that kind of selfish side. Even in the more likely event that Fryer approached Franks in the days leading up to the FSU game and asked to be taken from his redshirt season, Franks should have told his player no, unless he was prepared to give Fryer ample carries on a game-by-game basis. Three carries in the fourth quarter of a 56-7 loss to Florida State doesn't cut it. The only way to justify this decision is if Fryer is ready right now to be a high-impact player, someone who could help Duke win a game or two over the season's final two months. Then again, if Fryer was that kind of player, he should have been playing already. Best-case scenario: Fryer gets 10 or more carries a game from here on out, Duke wins a handful of games to keep Franks in office, and together both are ready for a bright 2004 season. Worst-case scenario: Fryer gets sporadic playing time as the team's third or fourth tailback, Franks gets fired after the season, and the new coach has only three years of eligibility to looks forward to with Fryer. The biggest loser in that scenario would be Fryer. Schneider Offers Long-Term Hope Another youth movement by Franks, one that came in the first game of the season, made far more sense in all areas. Going with redshirt freshman Mike Schneider clearly was the right thing to do, both for this season and the future. Junior Adam Smith might be more productive than Schneider at this point, but he might not, and without a sure answer on that question, the right thing to do is to play either the younger quarterback or the quarterback with the higher ceiling. In this case, Schneider better fits both of those descriptions. If Schneider isn't Duke's quarterback of the future, it's not because of Smith, it's because of Curt Dukes. Remember him? He's the Stoney Point, N.C., native who transferred last year from Nebraska and will be eligible as a sophomore in 2004. At the very least, Duke's next spring practice ought to be interesting, what with Dukes and Schneider battling at quarterback, and Fryer and Dargan going at it at tailback. Hopefully for Duke fans, similar talent will emerge at receiver. Junior Khary Sharpe is the best of the bunch, but he would be hard-pressed to start for any other team in the ACC. Senior Reggie Love has never played up to his high school hype, and he probably would have made a bigger impact at tight end or even linebacker.
Introducing The Deepest Devils Meanwhile, the arrival of October means a time for all but the most patient Duke football fans to turn their attention to basketball. Coach Mike Krzyzewski scheduled a Midnight Madness somewhat late, raising the possibility that he was trying to undercut some of the buzz being generated down the road by the new coach at UNC, Roy Something-or-other, who long ago announced the date for Midnight With Roy. Whatever his motivation, Krzyzewski also has reason to be excited about the 2003-04 season. For one thing, freshman Luol Deng will be unveiled at small forward. Deng might be the best freshman in the country this season. For another, all those freshmen of a year ago will become sophomores, raising the possibility of radical improvement in the games of point guard Sean Dockery and big men Shavlik Randolph, Shelden Williams and Michael Thompson. If sophomore shooting guard J.J. Redick is noticeably better, he will be one of the top players in the country. And if all that happens and sophomore small forward Lee Melchionni is ready to contribute 10-15 minutes per game, this will be one of Krzyzewski's deepest teams in recent memory. That's a lot of ifs, but it's very difficult to bet against the Blue Devils these days.