Clifton Duck had no time to ease into action.
Taking the field for his first defensive snap of the 2012 state 4AA championship game, Duck saw Fayetteville Britt High switch out of a running play.
Duck, then a 5-foot-7 freshman cornerback at Butler High, had to defend 6-2, 200-pound standout Jalen McDaniel on a deep route.
“Luckily, I stopped him,” Duck said. “They tried me.”
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Duck passed that high-pressure test, even recording an interception in Butler’s blowout victory. Four years later, he’s back to being a targeted freshman.
Duck, who enrolled at Appalachian State a semester early, is listed as a likely starter heading into the Mountaineers’ season-opening game at No. 9 Tennessee Thursday night. The only true freshman with that distinction, he understands what that could mean when the Volunteers’ offense lines up in 102,455-seat Neyland Stadium with an SEC Network audience watching.
“If I was on the opposite team and I saw a true freshman out there, I’d go at him,” Duck said. “It’s the same thing from my freshman year (of high school), when I was out there with a bunch of great defensive players.
“Out here, I’m with a bunch of great defensive players, and I think that really takes a lot off of me. Everybody else on this defense is an upperclassman or has been playing already. All I have to do is do what I’ve gotta do, focus on my responsibilities and do my job.”
Duck started for four years at Butler, one of the top high school programs in North Carolina. Now a 5-10, 175-pound cornerback, he was one of Appalachian State’s two January enrollees.
When Duck steps onto the field Thursday, he should be surrounded by several veterans.
Senior cornerback Mondo Williams, senior free safety Alex Gray and junior strong safety A.J. Howard are listed as the other probable secondary starters for a defense that ranked 11th nationally in 2015 by allowing 314.5 yards per game.
Led by 6-3 quarterback Joshua Dobbs and 240-pound running back Jalen Hurd, Tennessee returns the top two players from a run-oriented offense that averaged 198.6 passing yards per game.
The offseason loss of academically ineligible cornerback Latrell Gibbs, who intercepted seven passes in 2015, added to some uncertainty in Appalachian’s defensive backfield. Williams, a junior college transfer, or Tae Hayes, the only true freshman to start last year, normally operated on the other side of the field.
Hayes is listed on the depth chart as an option behind Williams, and Duck is competing at the same spot as Brandon Pinckney, who had emerged as a likely 2015 starter before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in fall camp.
Duck has impressed Appalachian’s coaches with his play-making ability, which he showed in one instance by making an interception and returning it for a score during a late-game practice drill in which the first-team offense was attempting to drive for a go-ahead field goal or touchdown.
“He was a kid who came in early, and had he not done that, there’s no way he’d be ready right now,” Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield said. “He went through a spring, put on some weight and worked on some technique — the things we critiqued him on this spring, because he wasn’t ready this spring.
“He worked all summer, and coming into fall camp, what really set him apart was that every time we had a live situation, he made plays. He was where he was supposed to be, and he could go up and high-point a ball. He had great timing and recognized routes.”
Attending a Class 4A high school in football-rich Charlotte forced Duck to defend college-level prospects, namely receivers such as Austin Proehl (from Providence to North Carolina) and Vernon Grier (from Mallard Creek to N.C. State). The Volunteers’ top returning receiver is 6-3 junior Josh Malone, who had 31 catches for 405 yards last season, and another starter likely will be 6-4 sophomore Preston Williams or 6-3 sophomore Jauan Jennings.
Their advantages in size and experience would certainly pose a challenge to Duck in his first college appearance. He handled one four years ago with a state title on the line, but the stakes are different in an SEC venue against a top-10 opponent.
“It’ll definitely be a welcome-to-college-football moment,” Duck said. “It’s a reality check to go from watching these games, from watching these players on our team to playing alongside them. It’ll be a great experience.”
The Winston-Salem Journal is a news partner of the Observer. For more Appalachian State coverage go to http://www.journalnow.com/sports/asu/