Redshirt wide receiver Chris Taylor stepped to the podium to speak to the media for the first time.
“Everyone looks so serious,” he commented, drawing a few chuckles from the Wednesday afternoon crowd. When it was suggested that perhaps it was because he was so intimidating, the lean 6-foot-1, 180-pound Taylor said it must be because of his muscles.
Taylor was loose and confident, and that’s the persona the Blue Devils need out of their revamped wide receiving corps this season. Duke’s top two receivers from last year – Jamison Crowder and Issac Blakeney – accounted for 49 percent of the team’s catches, and neither player is still in Durham.
Who fills that void is up for debate, leaving a few questions around the unit for the first time in a few years. But those departures also create opportunities.
“I remember when Jamison first came in, too, the same question was there: Will someone step up and replace Conner (Vernon)? There is a huge question mark there,” senior Max McCaffrey said. “It’s just another one of those type of situations, where we will have guys step up.
“I know our young guys are ready to step up. They’ve been ready. Even last year, they wished they had their shot. They had to wait their turn, and now it is.”
“Sure-handed Max,” as Taylor called him, is the veteran of the group. The 6-2, 200-pound McCaffrey, who was the starting slot receiver last year, caught 37 passes for 385 yards and three touchdowns, making him the surest bet for this upcoming season. He has played inside and outside receiving positions, and he has been practicing lining up at all three of Duke’s receiving spots this offseason. So have a variety of other players, as the Blue Devils search for the right combination.
After McCaffrey, there are a couple of options.
Junior Johnell Barnes has the inside track for a starting spot on the outside, thanks to a combination of speed and route-running ability. According to starting middle linebacker Zavier Carmichael, he is the toughest receiver to cover in summer drills.
“We were doing 7-on-7 this past week, and he kind of broke me off,” Carmichael said with a laugh. “I went the opposite way.”
Taylor is the other receiver slated to start entering camp. He spent last year redshirting, working on the scout team, learning the playbook and adding muscle.
“I’ve gotten bigger, as you can see,” he said with a smile. “I’m really comfortable with the playbook, so I feel like I won’t be getting on the field and freaking out – What am I doing? What am I doing? – I’ll feel comfortable playing football.”
One thing Taylor has had to learn: blocking. He remembered a time when offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery came to see him play his senior year in high school. Taylor felt good about scoring three touchdowns – Montgomery instead seized on the fact that he hadn’t blocked anyone all game.
“They say if you can’t play well without the ball, then you won’t see the field,” Taylor said of Duke’s philosophy.
For all the confidence Taylor has in himself, he is quick to admit he’s not the fastest among the receiving group. That honor goes to Terrence Alls, a redshirt sophomore who impressed in the spring but quickly thereafter was suspended from game competition (but still allowed to practice). He’s listed as a third-string receiver on the depth chart, a placement that likely will change once he’s back in the team’s good graces.
Redshirt freshman Trevon Lee also is in the mix, and there always is hope that redshirt junior Anthony Nash could play well enough to see the field (he, too, is gifted with speed). And freshman T.J. Rahming will push for playing time, as he has impressed his teammates with his elusiveness as a punt returner.
But until the pads go on in early August, all talk is theoretical. Until then, there is no shortage of confidence.
“We’re ready,” McCaffrey said. “We’re ready to go. We’ve been anxious for camp, waiting for the last month. We definitely look ready, moreso than in the other four years that I’ve been here.”