As Duke fans we have all heard the mockery and felt the frustration that was infamous with being a Duke football fan. I remember sitting in the blistering heat, torrential downpours, and numbing cold (yep, that is North Carolina weather for you) of Wallace Wade Stadium during many defeats thinking if that day was the day that Duke would win, and in the pre-Cutcliffe days it almost never ended like I had hoped.
Now with Duke not being the laughing stock of the ACC and completely forgotten about on the national scene, I find myself reminiscing on the days of old, where I was grasping onto hope for a win. I look back and remember how many times during a field goal (including extra points) where I would wonder if the kick would go in and usually it would be a coin flip. Whether it was field goals, punts, or kickoffs, there was always that feeling that something bad was about to happen. With the more recent success of Duke football, I can’t help but attribute some of that to the changes that the special team for Duke has seen since the arrival of head coach David Cutcliffe.
When David Cutcliffe came to Duke, the first thing I remember hearing was how bad the overall conditioning of the team was. Cutcliffe implemented a strength and conditioning program that remedied this and we could immediately tell the difference when Duke would become more competitive in the second half of games. Another nugget I remember from Cutcliffe’s first season is having more team speed and recruiting guys who could run. These three things: speed, strength, and conditioning are necessary for a successful special teams. In this era of Duke football we are seeing guys flying down the field and making plays on special teams at a more consistent rate.
Now let’s get to the faces of the special teams unit, the kickers and punters. Duke has fielded many players in recent history at those positions. In 2005, Joe Surgan came to Duke as the number one rated kicker in the country and then left with a disappointing 12-27 on field goals over the next four years. These were the really frustrating years for special teams, but it was not entirely Surgan’s fault. It seemed as though every possible way you could imagine a field goal being missed was inevitable. There were botched snaps, bad holds, and blocked kicks to help amplify the issue of the bad kicking.
Surgan ultimately became strictly a kickoff and long field goal specialist toward the end of his career at Duke, which he seemed to excel at. The kicking game really began to improve in 2009 when walk-on Will Snyderwine joined the team. He went 17-20 on field goals and a perfect 24-24 on extra points that year and things were looking up for Duke’s kicking game. The next year he improved to 21-24 on field goals and a continued a perfect extra point streak of 32-32. In 2011, Snyderwine saw himself on the Groza Award watch list and things were looking good. However, Snyderwine struggled that season going a mere 8-17 on field goals, but he did end his career with a perfect 84-84 on extra points.
Then came the emergence of present kicker Ross Martin. Martin came to Duke as the top rated kicker in his class and in his freshman year where he went 20-23 on field goals and 46-47 on extra points. This year he is also on the Groza Award watch list and hopefully he will perform just as well if not better than last year.
Being a Duke football fan, one of the most common jokes that I heard from others is, “well at least Duke is good at punting.” Then I would walk away thinking about the many times I have seen punts that were not very good or when something went array with the punt. But just because Duke did a lot of punting in the down years does not necessarily mean they were good at it. It is hard to think about how important punting is in football, but really, if you think about it, punting could be one of the more important plays in football. It is the last play on offense and the first play on defense, so there is a lot of responsibility on the shoulders (or leg) of a punter. While it is difficult to gauge how well a player punts the ball based on numbers alone, there is a notable difference in the punting game for Duke nowadays. The last two punters for Duke have actually had pretty respectable numbers.
In 2011, Alex King became the full time punter for the Blue Devils and averaged 42.08 yards per punt, which is the most a Duke punter had seen in quite some time. King then transferred to Texas, leaving redshirt freshman Will Monday at the helm. Monday had a spectacular first year punting the ball for Duke, where he averaged 44.6 yards per punt, which was among the top 20 in the nation. He also earned All-ACC first team honors as a freshman.
For 2013, Monday has been placed on the Guy Award watch list so he has very high expectations this year and hopefully he will be able to build upon a stellar first year.
As Duke looks to build on their first bowl appearance since 1994, I believe that the special teams for Duke will actually be a strength for the team. It will be a breath of fresh air to be not have to hold my breath for every field goal, punt and kickoff for the foreseeable future. Gone are the days of fans closing their eyes for special teams plays and gone are the days for an inconsistent kicking game. Will the special teams for Duke help them win games this year? I absolutely believe so. We get to see this rags to riches story that is the special teams for Duke begin their 2013 campaign on August 31st, when Duke suits up for their first game against North Carolina Central in the Bull City Gridiron Classic.
Editors Note: Since 2003, Duke has lost 7 games by 3 or fewer points. In four of those games, Duke missed a field goal or extra point as time expired. In 2006, Duke lost a game to UNC when the Heels blocked the extra point that would have tied the game with under three minutes to go. UNC ran out the rest of the clock.