When opportunity knocked for freshman cornerback Clifton Duck last fall at Appalachian State, he made the most of it on the way to earning freshman All-America honors and being named Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year.
Heading into his sophomore season for the Mountaineers, this former Butler High four-year starter has gone from the guy opponents hoped to exploit to a player who is a focal point on one of the Football Bowl Subdivision’s best defenses.
“You could tell he had a lot of football savvy,” Appalachian State cornerbacks coach Bryan Brown said. “You don’t expect a freshman to come in and have a true impact. I figured when we recruited him, he would contribute at some point. I just didn’t think it would be that soon.”
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After graduating a semester early from Butler and enrolling at Appalachian State in time for spring practice in 2016, Duck received an immediate chance for playing time when standout cover guy Latrell Gibbs (the team leader with seven interceptions in 2015) was declared academically ineligible.
Heading into a season-opening game at Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium, Duck could have been intimidated as a freshman starter replacing a high-profile star. But instead, this 5-foot-10, 175-pound speedster took center stage.
Twice on Tennessee’s opening drive, quarterback Josh Hobbs challenged Duck and twice the newcomer broke up passes in the end zone as the Volunteers settled for a field goal. Duck also made seven tackles.
His performance quickly changed the game plans of opponents.
“Being a freshman last year, it would be easy for a lot of teams to think they could pick on me,” Duck said. “I feel like I am going to get targeted a lot less this year.”
Over the course of the next seven games, Duck intercepted five passes and briefly led the NCAA in that category. He picked off two in a game against Idaho, returning one 44 yards for a touchdown.
By then, opposing teams had learned their lesson and targeted Duck less the rest of the season. Duck finished the year with five interceptions, a league-high 13 passes defended and was fourth on the team with 54 tackles as he earned first-team, All-Sun Belt honors.
Appalachian State shared in Duck’s success, going 11-2 overall, winning a share of its first Sun Belt title and claiming a second straight Camellia Bowl victory.
“Guys that can attack instead of staying back on their heels can process things more quickly,” ASU defensive coordinator Nate Woody said. “Duck is an athletic, skilled player. We could tell early on that he went through the decision-making process quickly. He is always in the right place at the right time.”
In high school, Duke was also accustomed to winning. He was on the Butler team that captured the 2012 4AA state championship.
“I’ve had a chance to coach a number of players who have gone on to the NFL,” said Brown, who praised Duck’s athleticism, competitiveness, work ethic and knowledge of the game. “He has the same qualities.”
On Saturday, Duck and his Mountaineer teammates will face another challenge when they open at Georgia. Unlike last year, he has an expanded leadership role on the this team.
“This year, I feel I have to bring more of the leadership role and more of the experience to help the younger corners play in the style I play in and the level I play in,” Duck said. “This year, we have a lot of great talent and a lot of people who can play.”