Photo: Johnathan Lloyd
By Tom Shanahan
DURHAM, N.C. – Duke’s Jonathan Lloyd originally thought it was a worst-case scenario as he was rolled on a hospital bed into surgery to repair an injured ankle.
He had been eager to taste college football as a true freshman in the fall of 2014. To get a head start on his first season, he had graduated early from nearby Southern Alamance High to enroll for Duke's 2014 spring semester.
But then he aggravated a high school ankle injury during summer workouts shortly before fall camp opened. That made a redshirt season on the sidelines a certainty.
A best-case scenario – the one he is facing now as a more mature mentally and physically fifth-year senior – was far from his mind in 2014. A freshman thinks five seasons is a lifetime. A fifth-year senior knows a college career is a blink of the eye.
“It’s helped me develop as a player,” Lloyd said of the redshirt season on Wednesday during spring drills. “The year I redshirted, I watched a lot more tape to learn the ins and outs of the game. It helped me with mental toughness. I’ve progressed every season since then. This fall should be my best yet.”
Duke’s offense is counting such a best-case scenario translating to catches, yards and touchdowns this season. Lloyd, a 6-foot, 190-pounder, is one of three returning starting wide receivers along with T.J. Rahming and Chris Taylor and in all seven lettermen, but the Blue Devils are seeking more points on the board from the corps.
Lloyd caught 39 balls, second on the team to Rahming, but only one touchdown pass. Rahming caught 65 for two TDs and Taylor 25 for one score. Four touchdowns aren’t enough to take the pressure off the running game, especially when Duke boasts a quarterback with NFL potential, Daniel Jones. Returning starting tight ends Daniel Helm (two), Davis Koppenhaver (three) and Noah Gray (two) combined for seven TD receptions to bolster Jones' total, but the point remains more wide receiver production can help the running game and open more of the field for tight ends.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe said there has been an emphasis on catching the ball in traffic and in situations, including the red zone.
“We’re evaluating and keeping a running total of contested catches and the ability to separate,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re going to study this thing and see who we’ve got to get the football to score points.”
Lloyd said the group understands the challenge.
“We’ve got to be able to take our shots down field,” Lloyd said. “We’re giving guys opportunities to make a play and gain confidence. Once you make a play you can feel it and build on it.”
Lloyd has the athleticism to expect more from him, but his college career has also been about learning new positions.
He was recruited as an “athlete” after making his mark as a dual-threat quarterback in high school. His senior year he threw for 3,068 yards and 26 touchdowns and ran for 755 yards and 11 more scores.
But his “athlete” label had more to do with being a quarterback that may be switched to another position. Duke baseball coach Chris Pollard also recruited him.
After missing the 2014 football season as an injured redshirt, he played in 22 baseball games as an outfielder and designated hitter in the 2015 the season, batting .243. He saw limited playing time in the 2016 baseball season and hasn’t played since then.
As a football redshirt freshman in 2015, he played in 11 games as a backup cornerback.
In the 2016 season, he was switched back to offense. He caught 34 balls for 301 yards and three touchdowns and earned Academic All-ACC honors. His 37 catches in 2017 topped 2016, but a bigger jump is needed in 2018.
“Johnathan Lloyd has had one of the best starts of anyone here this spring,” Cutcliffe said. “Sometimes with redshirting it is amazing what you can see. He has had a great offseason. He is so much quicker and more explosive. I’ve seen Johnathan working out a lot with two or three guys. The sweat is rolling. He’s taken the challenge himself to how good he can be.”
PATRICK LEITTEN HAS SURGERY
Cutclifee said Wednesday redshirt freshman offensive lineman Patrick Leitten is undergoing surgery for a torn ACL knee injury. He is considered out indefinitely for an injury that will likely sideline him for all of the 2018 season.
Leitten, a 6-7, 265-pound offensive tackle from Brentwood, Tenn., spent last year as a redshirt.