Photo: Ben Humphreys
DURHAM, N.C. – Ben Humphreys, smiling and healthy after an injury-hampered junior season, stood brimming with optimism. On the first day of fall camp, he said something that stands out as more challenging for this year's Duke seniors than Blue Devils have faced in past farewell seasons.
“I want to finish with a good year and leave this place better than I found it,” said Humphreys, who played as a true freshman in 2015.
Humphreys spoke after he stepped into the shade of Pascal Field House following Thursday’s first workout for the upcoming season. The Blue Devils, coming off a 7-6 record with a three-game winning streak capped by beating Northern Illinois in the Quicken Lanes Bowl, open on a Friday, Aug. 31 against Army at Wallace Wade Stadium.
It was much easier for a Duke senior back in 2011 or as a redshirt senior 2012 to utter Humphreys' words. Those players from Duke’s 2008 recruiting class were met by a low bar. The Blue Devils had finished 1-11 in 2007 after previous seasons of 0-12 in 2006 and 1-10 in 2005.
That’s why David Cutcliffe was the new coach in 2008 tasked with building a program.
Humphreys' 2015 recruiting class arrived after the Blue Devils went 9-4 in 2014, achieving their third straight bowl season. Duke was 10-4 in 2013, including an ACC Coastal Division title. The 6-7 record in 2012 marked the program’s first bowl trip since 1994. The expectations are higher, but at the same time optimism shines as consistently as the improved practice facilities and the renovated historic stadium.
In that 2015 class, Humphreys was the bell cow as the only 4-star recruit out of California high school power Santa Ana Mater Dei. As a true freshman, he played in all 13 games with two starts. He's improved each year despite last year's late-season injury.
“I’m as healthy as I can be; 110 percent,” said Humphreys, when asked about missing two games with a leg injury suffered against Army. “I’m excited to play 13, 14, 15, healthy games at 100 percent. I’m looking forward to my senior year.”
Someone replied, “Is that a prediction?”
After all, do the math: Taken the full length that means there are 12 regular season contests, followed by the ACC Championship for a 13th and either a bowl game for a 14th or College Football Playoff games with a 14th in the semifinals and a 15th in the finals.
Duke was picked only fourth in the ACC Coastal, so the CFP is considered a long shot. But the Blue Devils are expected to earn a bowl game and a division title isn’t out of the question.
Humphreys didn’t flinch at the follow-up question. Smiling, he flicked it away like a blocker, saying, “Why not?”
There are no “gotcha” questions Humphreys. He has composure that comes with being book smart and field smart. He is a two-time All-Academic ACC choice with Duke’s academic standards; he has 25 career starts with third-team All-ACC honors as a sophomore.
Humphreys isn't alone in the 2015 recruiting class. He is among six starters from that class.
Three are true seniors: Humphreys, safety Jeremy McDuffie and wide receiver T.J. Rahming. Three more are redshirt juniors: linebacker Joe Giles-Harris, safety Jordan Hayes and last but not least, quarterback Daniel Jones.
Adding to the lineup’s overall experience are five redshirt seniors as returning starters from the Class of 2014: defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord, offensive guard/center Zach Harmon, tight end Daniel Helms, wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd and wide receiver Chris Taylor.
Of the roster's 15 returning offensive and defensive starters, eight are on a defensive unit that ranked third in the ACC last year in scoring at 20.6 points a game and fourth in total yards at 332.6.
Humphreys and Giles-Harris, starting alongside each other for the third straight year, lead a linebacker unit ranked No. 1 in the ACC by Phil Steele Magazine. Giles-Harris was first-team All-ACC last year and also has been All-Academic ACC honoree.
Humphreys added he is encouraged by the emerging depth behind him and Giles-Harris in the Blue Devils’ 4-2-5 scheme.
“We’re as deep as you want to be,” he said. “I love the way the young guys work. As soon as they learn the ins and outs of our defense, which has been simplified over the last two years to allow guys to play, they 1s, 2s and on down can play. It’s exciting what we’re doing.”
Duke is a long way from 2008 and the Class of 2015 is part of the program’s growing place in college football.
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