By Bryan Strickland,
Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun
April 21, 2003 DURHAM Duke coach Carl Franks knows that no matter what his team did in spring practice, it won't change history. He also knows that if his Blue Devils don't do more come fall, he could be history. The Blue Devils ended the nation's longest losing streak in their season opener in 2002, but they didn't end what stands as the all-time longest losing streak (25) in ACC games. That streak sustained because the Devils couldn't sustain their improved level of play in the closing minutes of close games. Their 2-10 record included five losses by five or fewer points.
So this spring, Franks asked his team to relive the pivotal plays that spelled the difference between winning and losing. The hope is that come this fall, the close games will fall Duke's way.
This needs to be the year that we win the close games, said Franks, whose contract extension in the offseason might not mean much if the Blue Devils don't pick up their 2-32 pace over the past three seasons. It's just a matter of making sure we don't make the same mistakes we made last year. In the middle of the practice, we'll come up and say what the situation is. We'll say, ëWe're going to execute this.' If we don't execute it the first time, we'll go back and do it again, but normally we've been executing it pretty well.
The process is both painful and positive for the players. It isn't pleasant to rehash the last-second loss to UNC in the season finale or the two-touchdown meltdown against Clemson. But it has to be encouraging to realize how easily those games could have been won and how easy it could be to win them with a more experienced team in 2003.
It brings back a lot of the hard times from last year, a lot of the games we didn't finish, defensive tackle Matt Zielinski said. You look back at those games we lost by less than five points, and it almost comes down to one play where if we would have stopped them there, it would have turned the die. It's a kick in the head.
The re-creations obviously can be only so realistic, but the realism is enhanced by the fact that Duke went through spring practice with essentially the same team that faltered in the fall. Linebacker Jamyon Small was the lone senior last season, and a handful of little-used players decided against returning for another year.
The notable exception was defensive end Shawn Johnson, who came out of nowhere in 2002 to lead the ACC in sacks and tackles for loss. Johnson was Duke's lone All-ACC first-team selection, but before spring practice he asked to be released from his scholarship in order to transfer to Division I-AA Fordham for his senior season.
Johnson and Franks apparently didn't see eye to eye. The coach called Johnson's departure inevitable and probably in the best interests of everyone involved. Family members said Johnson was unhappy after being worn down by years of losing.
Johnson was an athletic and academic standout, but he apparently didn't read the fine print regarding Fordham football. The Patriot League allows graduate students to play football, but only those who graduated from Patriot League schools. That left Johnson's plans in limbo.
The Blue Devils plan to bounce back quickly from Johnson's departure. Micah Harris, who had four sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in the defensive end slot opposite Johnson, moved over to Johnson's side in the spring. The job of replacing Harris will fall to David Martin, a little-used defender last season, and converted linebackers Phillip Alexander and Jim Scharrer.
Losing Shawn was unexpected, but we've got a defense right now that's going to rally around that position, Zielinski said. We've put a guy out there that's going to make the same plays.
Defensively, we're really happy about the effort. We go in and watch film after a scrimmage, and we've got four, five, six guys headed to the ball. We might have a missed tackle or two, but we've got so many guys coming after it and coming after the ball-carrier that even if you miss a tackle, they're not going to gain many yards after it.
Outside of a shaky secondary, the defense isn't nearly as big a concern as the offense. Under first-year defensive coordinator Ted Roof, the Blue Devils led the ACC in rushing defense and ranked third in sacks in 2002. Duke was sixth in the league in total defense.
The offense ranked eighth in the league but now has a first-year coordinator of its own. Franks had served in that role since taking the Duke job before the 1999 season, but he handed the reins over to Jim Pry, the quarterbacks coach the previous two seasons. Franks downplayed the significance of the move, but not everyone followed suit.
It's just a lot more comfortable for us, wide receiver Lance Johnson said. It's just a lot easier for us because we've got one guy to relate to it's not two different guys calling plays for us now. With Coach Franks calling the plays, he was so busy that if we saw something open on the field, like a route or something open, we'd have to go tell (wide receivers) Coach (Aubrey) Hill, and he'd go tell Coach Pry, and then Coach Pry would go tell Coach Franks.
But right now, since we're with Coach Pry all the time, there's a one-on-one connection with him. So we can come off the sideline and go right up to Coach Pry and be like, ëCoach, we need to run this route because it's wide-open.' And then we'll come back on the field and he'll call it for us, and it will be there.
Duke certainly appears headed in the right direction, but only time will tell if the progress is coming fast enough for Franks to keep his job. In 2000, the Blue Devils entered the fourth quarter with a shot at winning just three times. In 2001, they again had a legitimate chance three times but were significantly closer in more games. Last year, they won a couple games and should have won at least a couple more. This year, with a nonconference schedule that includes Western Carolina, Rice and Northwestern at home, they fully expect more victories.
This is the year that moral victories just won't do.
We definitely have to win the close ones this year, Johnson said. We're not a young team anymore. We can't have these mistakes and lapses in close games like we did last year, because we have the experience now. It's just time for us to turn it on. We only lost Jamyon and a couple of other guys, and we've basically got our core guys back. So the sky's the limit. We expect bowl games and everything.