Devils Build Camaraderie in Ethiopia
By Matthew Osborne
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin. Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page
Duke is hoping that veteran experience and an offseason service trip to Ethiopia can lead to improved offensive line play this fall.
Under the direction of long-time quarterback guru and current head coach David Cutcliffe, the Duke Football program has garnered a positive reputation for producing efficient passing offenses over the last four seasons.
Since 2009, the Blue Devils have finished no worse than 28th nationally in passing offense, including a top 10 finish in 2009.
With veteran players such as QB Sean Renfree and WR Conner Vernon combining with talented young receivers Jamison Crowder and Blair Holliday, there is absolutely no reason to think that the Blue Devils will not continue to find success through the air this season.
Elite offenses generally require more than one efficient means of moving the football, however, and the Blue Devils are tirelessly working to augment their offense by implementing a revamped ground game this fall.
The man charged with the task of helping to rejuvenate a struggling rushing attack is new offensive line coach John Latina.
Latina, who was a member of Cutcliffe’s staff at Ole Miss from 1999-2004, joins the Blue Devils after a two year stint as the offensive coordinator at Akron.
Immediately upon being hired by his former boss, Latina knew that change would be essential if the Blue Devils were to improve on the offensive line. Latina was well aware of the fact that Duke had recruited well along the offensive line in recent years, but he wanted to place an immediate emphasis on camaraderie and brotherhood amongst his men in the trenches.
“My first meeting with the offensive line was me telling them that I wanted them to be the closest group on the team,” the coaching veteran recalled. “I want to see them together, and I particularly want to see them outside of the athletic facilities together. Five different individuals have to act together as one.”
Inspired by his new coach’s introductory speech, Duke starting guard Dave Harding approached Latina with an idea of how the offensive line could bond as a unit.
“Dave Harding, one of our starting guards, had been going over to Ethiopia and doing service trips with his family for multiple years,” Latina commented. “After my talk with the offensive line, Dave came to me the next day and presented me with, ‘how would you feel if we offered the offensive line to go over and do this’, and I was very for it.”
The “this” which Harding was referring to was a nearly two week service trip to Ethiopia to build much-needed wells for local communities.
With his coach’s approval, Harding presented his idea to his fellow linemen, who were very receptive of the trip. In the end, ten of Duke’s offensive linemen decided to participate in the trip to the African continent.
During their almost two weeks in Ethiopia, the Blue Devil players spent time installing two freshwater wells and taking trips to local orphanages, while also finding some time to explore the Ethiopian landscape.
While Latina was not able to participate in the trip due to the birth of his first grandchild, his players have all expressed that they have benefitted from their unifying expedition.
“When you talk to them all individually, they all have different things that they took from the trip, but the one common denominator was that it was a special thing that they did in their lives,” Latina remarked. “There is so much that they got out of it. Obviously, when you have a group that goes over and does something like that, I think that bonds them and gets them even closer as a unit.”
The unit with which Latina will be working this fall is one that will be filled with experience and leadership. Four starters are set to return from last year’s unit, with redshirt sophomore Takoby Cofield being the lone new addition at left tackle.
Brian Moore started just three games at center in 2011 due to an arm injury, but Latina will be counting on Moore for guidance and leadership during his senior season in Durham. Although Moore missed spring practice while recovering from his arm injury, his new coach was still extremely pleased with his focus and willingness to learn during the spring.
“Brian missed spring practice with his injury, but he was very attentive when he was out during the spring,” Latina said of his projected starting center. “Brian was very, very in tune to what was going on, and I’m really excited to get him on the grass during fall camp and see where he is and see where we can help him try to get better. He’s a veteran guy, and I like veteran players.”
The other veteran players in Duke’s starting lineup on the offensive line are juniors Dave Harding and Perry Simmons, who have combined to start 45 games in their first two seasons in Durham.
While Moore, Harding and Simmons will provide the Blue Devils with significant game experience up front, many people associated with the Duke program seem to have a greater deal of excitement towards their younger generation of linemen. In particular, many Blue Devil supporters are excited to see what sophomores Laken Tomlinson and Takoby Cofield can accomplish in 2012.
Tomlinson and Cofield were both highly-coveted prospects coming out of high school. Cofield was ranked as the No. 40 offensive tackle in the class of 2010 by Rivals.com, while Tomlinson chose Duke over offers from Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan State, amongst others.
“Well, I really like both of those guys,” Latina commented on his two projected sophomore starters. “Laken started as a redshirt freshman last year, and having all of those reps under his belt to start his second year, that alone should make him better. But those two guys are challenged on a daily basis like most of those guys, and they have to get better in all phases. Sometimes when you get young guys, they look at themselves being young and they use that as a crutch, and you have to take that away.”
As a unit, the Duke offensive line is hoping to drastically improve upon the 94.1 yards per game which the Blue Devils manufactured on the ground last season.
With Duke’s commitment to throwing the football, however, the Blue Devils are trying to remain focused on becoming more efficient at running the football, and are not as worried about their overall rushing statistics.
“I think too many times people look at statistics and make their assessments based off of those statistics,” Latina explained. “I watched Duke at times last year, and I thought they ran the ball very efficiently. The thing you have to understand is that we can throw a lot of bubble screens that can protect the running game. Statistically, we count those as run game plays, because those are plays that protect the running game.”
While Latina says that he will not place as much emphasis on statistical data, he also realizes that the Blue Devils must get better play up front in order to contend in the ACC.
“Obviously we’ve got to get better at running the football, and there are a lot of things that go into that, but it starts with the offensive line,” said Latina. “We have to get better at run blocking and we have to get more physical, and that was a point of emphasis in spring practice.”
Duke has been able to generate decent offensive success in the Cutcliffe era despite the near complete absence of a running game. The addition of a viable running attack could lead to Duke’s first bowl game appearance since 1995.
While the numbers might seem to indicate that Duke will once again struggle to run the football this season, Latina loves the talent and the experience of his starting five up front. If all goes according to plan, the two week trip in Ethiopia will serve as a unifying experience which will lead to better results on the gridiron this fall.
If experience and togetherness count for something in the trenches, this could be a Duke offensive line poised for a breakout season.