Bowl will be dome sweet home for Duke’s metro Atlanta players

Will Monday says the biggest thrill of his life – okay, his non-football life – came earlier this fall when he saw Duke basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski walk across campus. That was it. No exchange of words, no formal introductions, just Coach K strolling down the sidewalk, a fleeting glimpse, like Mark Twain in that brief home movie shot in 1909.

“I grew up a huge Duke basketball fan,” said Monday, who went to high school at Flowery Branch but was born outside Charlotte. “My older brother’s a UNC fan, and I’m Duke, and that’s the way it still is. At one point when I was a kid I actually looked it up to see if Duke had a football team.

“What I found, he said, “is that they’d had some pretty dark times.”

Indeed. Possibly darker than that raven set to verse by University of Virginia dropout Edgar Allan Poe. Since 1980, while the Duke men’s basketball has won four national titles, the football team endured seven coaching changes and 28 losing seasons including four that were winless. Or as Athletics Director Kevin White told the New York Times last month, “We were absolutely the most irrelevant program.”

Though perhaps nevermore. The 10-3 Blue Devils play 20th-ranked Texas A&M New Years Eve in the Chic-fil-A Bowl, Duke’s first-ever appearance in back-to-back bowls. The 10 victories is most in program history, and the last time Duke won a ninth football game was two weeks and one day before Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Duke lists eight metro Atlanta area players on its roster: the punter Monday, a sophomore, senior running back Juwan Thompson (Woodward Academy), freshman safety DeVon Edwards (Alcovy), sophomore cornerback Jared Boyd (Stephenson), freshman cornerback Deondre Singleton (Archer), freshman safety Grant Hall (Buford), junior nose guard Jamal Bruce (Callaway) and freshman defensive tackle Mike Ramsay (Walker School).

“I think that every day, all of us think about the historical nature of what we’re doing,” said Monday, whose 79-yard punt in last year’s Belk Bowl – Duke’s first bowl appearance since 1994 – was the third longest by a Duke punter.

“I call it a check-list season,” Thompson added. “We’ve been checking off goals all year.”

Perhaps no one represents this team’s selflessness more profoundly than Thompson who, along with the entire senior class, went through back-to-back 3-9 seasons in 2010 and 2011. As a sophomore in 2011 he led the team in rushing, but as Duke’s gotten better, including its luxuriant crop of running backs, Thompson’s carries have declined. This year he rushed only 53 times for 256 yards (4.8 per carry) and one touchdown while also catching six passes.

Thompson admits he had to reinvent himself, meaning in part he’s thrown himself body and soul into the gritty environment of all four special teams where he’s made 10 tackles.

“It’s tough taking a reduction in playing time,” he said. “But here I am achieving all our team goals, and that’s way more important than my own statistics. I’ve made myself into a more versatile player and the way I look at it, somebody out there is watching me, so I have to make every opportunity count.”

There’s no better example than the 13-10 victory over then 14th-ranked Virginia Tech on Oct. 26, Duke’s first win over a ranked opponent in two decades. Needing more defensive speed to harass Tech quarterback Logan Thomas, Duke Coach David Cutcliffe put Thompson at linebacker, where he played six snaps, had three tackles and made a crucial third- down stop in chasing the scrambling Thomas out of bounds.

“I’d never played linebacker before,” said Thompson. “I had to pick it up on the fly. Well, I tried to pick it up. There were a couple times I had no idea what play they’d called. I just dropped back in coverage and tried to find the ball.”

Thompson said it was “50-50” on appearing at linebacker against Texas A&M, but that was before learning about the suspension of running back Jela Duncan for “violation of university academic policy.” The Blue Devils’ leading ground gainer with 562 yards isn’t eligible to return until spring, 2015.

Thompson’s adaptability hit home with the freshman Edwards, who spent his redshirt season learning cornerback (he was a running back at Alcovy) before switching to safety in camp this year, starting the last seven games. In week five he also became Duke’s primary kickoff returner, averaging 31.1 yards per return to lead the Atlantic Coach Conference. Last week Edwards was named to The Sporting News Freshman All-America team as a kickoff returner.

Throughout decades plenty anti-humor has rained down on Duke football, like how alumni tailgate and then leave at kickoff, and how in 2008 Duke won a lawsuit against Louisville when attorneys emphasized the football program’s incompetence.

One thing Edwards learned this year, there’s humor in winning too.

In the 35-7 victory over Navy on Oct. 12 the 5-9, 185-pounder returned a kick 36 yards before getting bumped out of bounds by kicker Austin Grebe. Never mind that Grebe was larger (6-0, 190) or that in Edwards’ words, “It wasn’t like he did much—I was right on the sideline.”

All the same he was the butt of every conceivable joke from teammates the following week, and so Edwards bided his time. It came a month later against North Carolina State, when another kicker stood between him and the goal line, but this time Edwards thought, “No way I want to hear their mouths again.” He whisked past the kicker for a 100-score giving Duke the lead in its eventual 38-20 victory. Two weeks later against North Carolina he returned another kick 99 yards for a TD and by now the comedians have faded into the twilight.

For each of the locals interviewed, playing a bowl game in the Georgia Dome is an unspeakable thrill. “My mom works at a carpet mill in West Point, and she works weekends,” said the junior Bruce, who’s started every game at nose guard this season. “This is only the second time she’s seen me play.”

Thompson, too, said he can’t think of a better way to spend Christmas, playing his final game just a few miles from his family’s home in Fairburn. But besides serving as a coda to his college football career, he also sees the Chic-fil-a Bowl as a prologue of sorts.

“The first two years here were very hard,” Thompson said. “I knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight, I knew there wasn’t any such thing as instant gratification. But at the end of the day, this is what life is like. Five months from now I’ll be looking for a job, I’ll be starting over. I figure, what I’ve learned at Duke, I should be prepared for anything.”