Turning a program around
Duke University’s football team played in a bowl game for the first time since 1994 on Thursday, and three former Union County stars helped the Blue Devils get there.
Monroe High alumni Jamison Crowder and Issac Blakeney, along with former Weddington High standout Anthony Boone, were all key to Duke’s success in 2012.
The Blue Devils finished with a 6-7 record and played Cincinnati at the Belk Bowl in Charlotte on Thursday. The Bearcats scored two late touchdowns after back-to-back Duke turnovers to claim a 48-34 victory.
“It was tough, it was like I can’t believe this is happening,” said Crowder — a sophomore receiver. “It’s just stuff that happens during a ball game. You have to deal with it, live with it. It’s just something that happened. It was fun and exciting. It was cool, I just wish we could have come out on top.”
Boone, a redshirt sophomore quarterback, shared similar emotions with Crowder.
“It’s just tough to take a loss after you were basically dominating the field offensively and defensively for four quarters,” said Boone. “It just sucks, it’s not good. One mistake can basically turn the whole game around and that’s how it felt.”
Crowder capped off a spectacular season with six catches for 49 yards against the Bearcats. He finished his sophomore year with 76 receptions for 1,074 yards and eight touchdowns, including a career-high 99-yarder in a loss to Miami.
As a true freshman in 2011, Crowder had just 14 grabs for 163 yards and one touchdown.
“It has been great, it’s meant a lot to me,” Crowder said of his improvement. “Just seeing how quickly, if you work hard, you can develop as a player and a person. I think as far as my performance from last year, I didn’t get as much playing time but I worked hard in the offseason and it showed in games this season.”
Blakeney has played football with Crowder since their days at Monroe, and has noticed the improvement in speedy receiver’s game.
“It’s a good experience to watch him develop because in high school I feel like he was a very raw talent,” said Blakeney of Crowder. “But now I’m watching him get seasoned with guys like Desmond Scott and Conner Vernon. They’re helping him out and teaching him the tricks of the game and you can see him really improving. He will be a lot better by the time we graduate.”
Blakeney, a redshirt sophomore, was the only UC product to put points on the board for the Blue Devils on Thursday.
The 6-foot-6, 230-pound tight end caught a two-point conversion in the third quarter after leaking out of the backfield on a playaction pass.
Blakeney finished the game with three catches for 26 yards, including a 12-yarder. He saw significant playing time for Duke this season and ranked fourth on the team with 32 catches.
Blakeney also ranked fourth on the team with 290 receiving yards and his only touchdown was a 54-yard grab in a win over N.C. Central.
“It was my first year playing and I went through some ups and downs,” Blakeney said. “Hopefully I work better next year and produce a lot more. I think it’s been a good year. We got to a bowl game for a team that hadn’t been there in quite some time.”
Boone didn’t attempt a pass in Duke’s final three games, but put up numbers earlier in the season, finishing with 531 yards on 49-of-95 passes with five touchdowns and two interceptions.
Boone, who was a backup to Duke starting QB Sean Renfree, also had 26 rushes for 82 yards and two scores.
“Sean’s a senior and he had a tremendous year,” said Boone. “He’s trying, like everybody else is trying, to improve his draft stock. The coaches are looking out for Sean. It’s his senior year and I’m perfectly fine with that. He’s put in his days and he’s worked really hard. He’s done all of the right things on and off the field and he deserved to play all he can.”
Boone likes what he’s seen out of Crowder and Blakeney and is looking forward to the future.
“They’re just athletes and they have the ability to make plays with the ball in their hands,” Boone said. “Those are the kind of guys that we have to find more ways to get them the ball. They can get people to miss in space. That’s what we want to try to expose.”