On Saturday, about an hour before kickoff, when only kickers, snappers and punters populate the field, the Blue Devils will exit the locker room, walk down the tunnel, and onto the turf.
They won’t have entrance music, smoke machines, or a receiving line of cheerleaders. The vast majority of the fans in the stadium won’t even notice them taking the field.
It won’t be the entire team, just four of the most important players on it: Cornerback Ross Cockrell, quarterback Anthony Boone, offensive guard Dave Harding, and defensive end Justin Foxx.
Those four players were elected by their teammates to serve as the captains of the 2013 Blue Devils. It’s Cockrell’s second straight year in that role. The other three are all first-timers.
“It’s a huge honor, obviously, being elected by my teammates,” Harding said. “I hope I can live up to their expectations. Everybody’s been really congratulatory and excited for the season.”
The captains didn’t want to divulge too much about how the voting was conducted. Harding wouldn’t even admit to voting for himself. “Um,” he said, grinning, “I don’t think I’m going to comment on that.”
Unlike most positions on a football team, the job of captain doesn’t have a rigid definition. Clearly, some form of leadership is required, but each player had a different view of how they would lead as captain.
“You have to lead by example,” Cockrell said. “You have to be one of those guys who’s out at practice first, that’s in the film room. You have to be vocal. You can’t lead from the back. You’ve got to be one of those guys that brings energy to practice and brings energy to the game. You have to understand and execute the game plan better than anybody else.”
“You need to control tempo at practice,” Foxx said. “Make sure you’ve got everyone going at the right speed. You need to be an on-field coach.”
“We have communication with Coach Cutcliffe and the position coaches,” Harding said. “We act as eyes and ears ... actually, we’re more the mouth of the football team for the coaches. We help to relay information.”
“I would try to be a leader, regardless,” Harding said. “But I guess one thing that changes now is going out before the game during the coin toss.”
The coin toss at midfield just before kickoff is probably the first time most fans notice the team captains, but they started their pregame responsibilities earlier than that. They have a pregame meeting with the referees on the field, before the rest of their teammates leave the locker room.
That means that the captains don’t get to experience the adrenaline rush of coming out onto the field with the team.
“Yeah, I’m going to miss the tunnel,” Foxx said. “That’s the one thing I’m going to miss—getting hyped with the guys, but it’s an honor to be named captain, so I’ve got to let that go.”
Cockrell has already gone through tunnel withdrawal. “Not really,” he said about missing the tunnel. “I didn’t do it all last year either. So I kind of got used to it.”
“I was just thinking about that,” Harding said of the tunnel. “I will miss that. It’s a fun experience, but at the same time, I’m going to enjoy the new responsibilities that being captain entails. It’s a huge honor. I’m blown away by the fact that my team looks at me as a leader. Running out of the tunnel is a small price to pay for that.”
Then, after their teammates join them, it’s time for the toss. The visiting team gets to call it, so the Blue Devil captains will avoid making one decision for the opener: Which of the four gets to say heads or tails.
Still, the team seems to be in general agreement on who will speak up once it’s Duke’s turn to make the call.
“Probably Ross,” Foxx said. “He’s a two-time captain, so you’ve probably got to lean on his experience.”
But, if it were up to him? “I’d go with heads,” Foxx said.
“I’d imagine Old Papa Ross will be able to do that since he’s the old guy on the block,” Harding agreed. “He knows what’s going on, but we may rotate. I really don’t know how that works out. I’ve never been out there when that’s going on. I’m sure coach Cutcliffe will tell us what he wants.”
And if they looked to him when the coin was in the air? “Honestly, it’s not going be something that’s too much on my mind,” Harding said, “Whether we win or lose the toss, the game must go on . But, if given the choice, I might say heads.”
“We haven’t really decided that,” Cockrell said. “I felt like I would do it. Last year, we just kind of rotated. I don’t know how it went. Someone would just say, ‘I’ve got it this time.’ Maybe we’ll do that.”
Cockrell didn’t give a heads/tails spoiler, but if Duke wins a toss, he knows what the call will be: the ever popular “defer to the second half.” While the conservative decision may frustrate fans, Cockrell is happy to let the other team choose to take the ball. “And put the defense on the field first?” he said, “Oh yeah.”