The goal this offseason has been on finding the "best 22" players to put on the field for the Blue Devils. Inevitably, this forces the Duke coaching staff to make some creative and difficult decisions to realize this goal. One of the most prominent changes this spring has involved Brandon Braxton, a once promising wide receiver who has selflessly made the switch to safety. Braxton's strong play on special teams the past two seasons exemplified some of his potential as a defender and tackler, but the learning curve for Coach Knowles' defense is steep. BDN caught up with Brandon after spring practice last week to get an update on his transition.
BDN: How did the decision to switch positions come about?
I had originally heard through the grapevine that they were switching me to defense. I gave Coach Cut a call and went and met with him, and it wasn’t for sure or anything at that point, and he said that they had been thinking about it. I told him I would be willing to switch if they thought that would improve our team, and I ended up switching and so far I like it a lot.
BDN: How do you feel your skill set fits on the defensive side of the ball?
I like the defensive side of the ball because it allows me to react instead of having a set play, so I definitely like that about defense. I also just like flying around and reading, so that’s probably my favorite part about defense.
BDN: You’ve played quite a bit on special teams over the past two seasons, so you’ve had some experience with tackling, but what have you found to be the hardest adjustment to playing defense so far this spring?
There really hasn’t been any really hard thing to pick up, but just learning the defense and knowing checks and seeing different things. Just being comfortable at safety is definitely a huge change from what I have been doing and what I’m used to. I feel like I’m a freshman all over again, learning a whole new system and getting back in the swing of things of college football. I haven’t played defense since junior year of high school, but so far I’m picking it up really fast and feel like every day I’m progressing.
BDN: Now that you’re on the other side of the ball, who’s the toughest receiver to matchup with in practice?
All of them are really good, honestly. Blair Holliday has been playing great. Jamison [Crowder] has been playing really good. Conner [Vernon], everyone already knows that Conner is a stud. Nick Hill is a new and upcoming redshirt-freshman and he’s been playing really good. All of them, really, there isn’t one that I can pinpoint that’s super difficult, they all have different attributes and different things that they bring to the wide receiver.
BDN: You may feel like a freshman all over again, but you’re actually entering your third year with the program. What’s your assessment of the team this spring, compared to when you first arrived at Duke?
This spring, well I’ve only been through two springs, but there was such a period when losing was acceptable, and I think that that whole air and people that were here when that was happening is gone. My teammates now don’t accept losing as an option. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve seen. We’ve all been working really hard and the coaches have been pushing us, and we’re all up to the challenge.
BDN: The secondary is obviously a key to Coach Knowles’ defense. Can you talk a little about some of the players that have impressed you and helped you make your transition?
All of them – Walt [Canty], Jordon [Byas], Anthony Young-Wiseman, they’re all veterans and they’ve all been here awhile. Ross Cockrell, we’re usually on the same side, and he’s been helping me a lot and he’s progressed immensely at the corner position. He’s turned into one heck of a cornerback. They’ve all done their part in helping me pick it up faster and teaching me tricks of the trade and making sure I do well.
BDN: Thanks a lot, Brandon, and best of luck this spring.
DURHAM - As we discussed yesterday, Duke's new 4-2-5 defensive scheme relies on the dynamic playmakers the Blue Devils have at safety, led by senior All-ACC candidate Matt Daniels. BDN spoke with Daniels at Duke Football's preseason media day about the upcoming season and his Duke career.
The strength of the new Duke defense relies on a group of dynamic athletes at the safety position to slow opposing offenses. Duke’s safeties are led by seniors Matt Daniels and Lee Butler, which means that the Blue Devils will have to reload at the position in 2012. The Duke coaching staff has secured a verbal commitment from Jacksonville safety Dwayne Norman and hopes another athletic Florida safety will join him in the Blue Devils’ class of 2012. Ryan Janvion, a 5’11” 175 pound athlete from Miami, recently took a visit to Durham and came away impressed. A four-year starter for Dade Christian HS, Janvion has played all over the field in his high school career, but is focused on playing strong safety at the college level. A star on the field and in the classroom (4.0 GPA), Ryan has narrowed his college choices down to Duke, Vanderbilt, and Wake Forest. As the prototypical elite student-athlete Duke targets, the Blue Devil coaching staff is hopeful that Ryan will fill one of their few remaining available scholarships in the class of 2012. [private]
BDN: Can you tell us a little bit about your high school career and your strengths on the field?
I’m definitely being recruited most heavily as a strong safety. Colleges feel like I can be the best threat at that position because I can be involved in both the run and the pass game. My high school career has been great, I’ve been a four-year starter at Dade Christian, I started as a freshman. I actually started my 8th grade year during the spring, and that really helped me to get to the point where I am now because I was starting to define where I was going and I got used to playing the game of football early and that gave me an advantage over a lot of people. The game started slowing down for me each and every year and I’m at a point now where I just want to dominate on the field and be an unstoppable force and a game-changer.
BDN: What are some of the things you’re working on as you head into your senior season?
I’m definitely hitting the weights hard, trying to put on as much muscle mass as I can, well not so much that as just getting the strength portion in, continuing to get stronger. Since I know where I will be playing as a college player, I’ve started working on position-specific drills to improve my footwork, making sure my backpedal is right, my plant foot, different things that a safety would use on a gamefield. My hips, making sure my hips are flexible allowing them to turn and stop and do all the things to be able to cover good receivers, that’s what I’ve basically been doing. And also just working on speed because speed kills, you never want to neglect your speed. That’s probably one of, if not the, most important parts of the game, especially playing in the ACC football league.
BDN: Where do you stand with your recruiting process in regards to schools and scholarship offers?
I have a lot of offers, but the thing that made it really easy in my case, so to speak, was the academic standpoint. I definitely am one of those guys who is very serious about my academics, I’m a 4.0 student and I have straight A’s and I’m at the top of my class, so academics is really important to me. I definitely was only really looking at the schools that have the academic part to it as well, so that just kind of narrowed schools down for me just like that. And then I was able to narrow it down to my top 3 schools which were Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, and Duke, and that’s who I just visited this past week, I just got back today.
BDN: That’s a perfect segue into my next question about your visits, but before you talk about that, can you talk about what stood out to you about each of your three finalists?
They have great programs. They offer me a great opportunity to play early as well. Wake has been a special one, they were my first offer and they’ve been on me since my sophomore year. I’ve gotten to know my recruiting coordinator very well. I also have a teammate who plays at Wake Forest who was a great help to me my freshman year. His name is Daniel Mack and he was the one who really just carried me through high school football my freshman year. It was really new to me and I was one of the youngest players on the field, so me and him definitely have a great relationship.
BDN: That’s great to have a mentor like that. Can you talk a little about your visits, what you got to see and what stood out to you?
Well my first visit was to Duke. Duke’s campus is beautiful. The coaches actually had left on a retreat so when I saw the campus I didn’t get to see any of the coaches, but they actually came down just to see me the next day. I got to meet Coach Cutcliffe again, and my recruiting coordinator, Coach Lubick, and my position coach, Coach Knowles, my safety coach. Coach Cutcliffe is….wow, he’s amazing. He’s so wise and he knows what he’s doing. He’s a great head coach and he’s definitely going to do big things with that program. I had a great talk to him, I talked to him for over two hours and he really feels like I can be a part of something big at Duke.
BDN: I’m guessing you drove over to Wake Forest after Duke?
The next day I went to Wake. I had a sit down, the same talk with Coach Grobe. They’re both…I honestly really can’t pick a head coach between Coach Grobe and Coach Cutcliffe, they’re both tremendous guys, they’re very wise, they know what they’re doing and they know how to win. That’s definitely going to be a tough decision on my part. I’d have to look at the whole spectrum. Wake also has given me a great opportunity to play early. Two of their main guys at safety are graduating this year coming up, so that gives me an opportunity to step up and play early. Their campus is definitely beautiful. They were the first campus that I ever saw, I got to go up there and visit my sophomore year when I went to a camp, so this was my second time going and I was able to bring my dad and stuff. That was a really good visit to.
BDN: That’s a long drive from Winston-Salem to Nashville, so I’m hoping you flew. What did you think of Vanderbilt?
Yeah definitely, we flew. I didn’t expect to see what I saw at Vanderbilt. Their campus is really just in the middle of Nashville and it’s not closed off in any way. There’s main streets running right through their campus, and not just one, multiple streets. It was cool they were taking me on the golf cart and I was like “man, there’s no gates or anything like that.” The buildings are nice, I met the coaches, I have a great relationship with my recruiting coordinator over there as well, Coach McGriff. I met the head coach and he showed me his background and stuff like that and he’s looking to do big things at Vanderbilt, and we’ll see how that goes.
BDN: You’ve obviously narrowed things down to three great schools, so how do you plan to narrow things down and make a decision from here?
Well I’m looking to make a decision soon, like before school starts. I already took my unofficial visits to my top 3 schools so now it’s basically just coming here and first of all getting some rest, because I’m exhausted, so I can think straight and then I’ll take it over with my parents and my family and see what school is the best for me. Every time I went up there on my visits they would go through all this stuff and they would remind me that this is one of the most important decisions in your life. It’s not just the next four years, it’s actually the next forty years, because it’s what you’re going to do after school that matters so you want to get a good education and not regret your choice. You have to be selfish in this decision. You can’t think about disappointing somebody or trying to impress somebody. You have to look out for yourself in this decision because at the end of the day it’s about you. It’s about where you want to go to college. That’s where I’m at right now.
BDN: I know you’re exhausted and I really appreciate you taking a few minutes to speak with us. Thanks a lot, Ryan, and best of luck to you.
When you're the head coach of an ACC football program, it can be hard to get away. Duke Head Coach David Cutcliffe knows the feeling, as he and his family have been on vacation this past week, while his phone has continued to ring with prospects wanting to commit to the Blue Devils. On Saturday, Coach Cutcliffe received the good news from Michael Westray, a 6'2" 185 pound safety prospect from Westlake HS in Waldorf, Maryland. Duke fans should be familiar with the Westlake program, as it is also the alma mater of freshman Duke LB Jon Woodruff. After playing primarily defensive line at Westlake, Woodruff is making the transition to linebacker at the college level. The newest Blue Devil, Westray, will make a similar move, as he slides over to safety after playing mostly cornerback in high school. Westray earned offers this summer from Duke and North Carolina State after impressive performances on the camp circuit, where he was clocked with a 4.4 second 40-yard dash. Prior to his commitment, Westray had also received interest from Maryland, Penn State, Pittsburgh, and Wake Forest. The Duke coaching staff is excited to see Westray develop at safety, and believe they have stolen two very good prospects out of Maryland this year in Westray and DE Allen Jackson. Blue Devil fans can get a look at Westray's junior highlights here.
BDN caught up with the newest Blue Devil over the holiday weekend.
BDN: How did you arrive at your decision to commit to Duke?
Duke has always been there from day one, as part of my recruiting process as a player, as a student-athlete. They were one of the first schools to show me attention and they’ve been showing it consistently. My recruiting coordinator, Coach Zac Roper, has been very close to me, my head coach, and my family as a whole. That’s been a big part of my commitment. I’ve been to the campus twice, once for the camp and one on an unofficial visit. I enjoyed myself both times, I enjoyed the coaching staff and I enjoyed the whole vibe I got there. Another thing is one of my teammates from last year commited to Duke as well, Jonathan Woodruff.
BDN: How did you inform the Duke coaching staff about your decision and what did they say to you?
I was in the office of my high school head coach, and we called Coach Cutcliffe. He called Coach Cutcliffe directly and I said, “Coach, I want to be a Blue Devil.” He was excited, he was on vacation actually, and he said “well my vacation is going to be a whole lot better now, my dinner is going to taste a lot better tonight,” and stuff like that.
BDN: You’ve played all over the field in high school. Where do the coaches see you fitting in at Duke and what do you hope to bring to the program?
They put me at safety and I really hope to be an impact player for the team, get after this ACC championship.
BDN: Now that you’ve made your decision, what are your plans for the rest of your summer?
I’m just focusing on my football team, my high school football team, preparing, lifting weights, things like that.