It might not have been a white Christmas for Duke redshirt freshman DeVon Edwards, but the Blue Devils’ defensive back wouldn’t have it any other way.
Edwards returns home to Georgia this holiday season, making the 350-plus mile journey back to his home state to face off against Texas A&M on New Year’s Eve in the Chick-fil-A Bowl at the Georgia Dome.
For Edwards, the 2013 season turned into the type of year a player dreams about, as the second-year player made himself a household name in ACC territory, terrorizing opposing quarterbacks with his swift feet and steady hands, while freezing the opposition on kick returns.
Over the final six games of the Blue Devils’ season, Edwards totaled 46 tackles, three interceptions and scored 24 points, helping Duke reach its first ACC Championship game in school history.
Edwards said his transformation came in part due to an increase in playing time and because the speed of the college game slowed down with more experience, allowing him to adjust his playing style.
“Basically, a lot of people got opportunities late in the season and it was up to us to take advantage of it,” Edwards said. “(The game) makes more sense to me this year than it did last year. Last year I was just concerned about one position and what I was supposed to do. This year, I focused more on what everyone else around me was doing. It helps you play better because you know where everyone else is supposed to be.”
Edwards’ late-season exploits earned him the nickname “Mr. November” as he clinched wins over rivals North Carolina State and North Carolina with his defensive and special teams performances. Against the N.C. State Wolfpack on Nov. 9, Edwards picked off a pair of passes in the waning minutes, scoring on both turnovers, helping the Blue Devils to a 38-20 win.
Three weeks later against North Carolina in Duke’s final regular season game, a kick return for a touchdown and a game-sealing interception allowed the Blue Devils to keep the rivalry’s Victory Bell for the second consecutive year.
“It felt pretty good (having big games against them, but) our goal was to go to the ACC Championship and we knew we had to take it one game at a time,” Edwards said. “Every game was like a playoff game for us. Every game we had at the end of the year was a big game, so that was our mentality finishing out the season.”
Edwards and his teammates’ efforts helped the Blue Devils reach their ultimate goal – the ACC Championship game against No. 1 Florida State. The Blue Devils entered the title contest as huge underdogs against the national title hopeful Seminoles, but Edwards said he was happy to have a chance to play against the nation’s best, even as Duke fell 45-7 in the conference championship game.
“It was very exciting for us,” Edwards said. “Our team winning and going to the ACC Championship and winning the Coastal Division - that’s been the biggest reward for everyone. For me, I was happy that I got to play against a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and a team that has a chance to win a national championship. It just seemed like a great opportunity. I was happy to be able to play against the best this season.
“Our goal was to try to upset them, but we played the best we could,” he said. “We had a few mistakes that we look back on that really hurt us, (but) we take it as learning experience and (we'll) get ready for next year.”
Edwards had five tackles and returned one kick for three yards, one of his lowest production games during Duke’s final six-game run.
“They’ve been the best team I’ve played against so far,” Edwards said. “They have speed. They have power. They have good athletes. They’re just a great all-around team. Looking at them compared to everyone else on our schedule, they’ve blown everyone on our schedule out. We tried to hold them at the beginning, but to beat a team like that, you have to hold them all four quarters, and that’s where we made some mistakes late in the ballgame.”
Building a winner
Despite not winning Duke’s first outright conference title since 1962, the Blue Devils split with Virginia in 1989 under head coach Steve Spurrier, Edwards is proud to be a part of the first Duke class in school history to go to back-to-back bowl games.
“It feels pretty good,” he said. “(I’ve) joined the process, and listening to the struggle (my) teammates said they had before we even got here. We’ve done our best to make (our success) continue for years to come.”
Before coach David Cutcliffe arrived at Duke in 2008, the Blue Devils had won just six games from 2003-2007. The Blue Devils eclipsed that mark just three years into Cutcliffe’s tenure before winning a school- record 10 games this season.
“We’ve trusted the process and the vision that Coach Cutcliffe has had,” Edwards said. “He knew it was going to be tough, but everybody believes in him and the process and we trust him. So even when things don’t go our way, we don’t change our mentality; we keep working.
“Now we’re starting to see it pay off,” he said. “For the future, nobody plans on letting up or letting that vision go. Now, we’ve made a mark, so we need to start turning it and changing the program around for year after year, not just a couple of good seasons.”
With just the Aggies left in front of them in 2013, Edwards is hopeful that the Blue Devils will fare better against their second Heisman-winning opponent in as many games.
Duke will face Texas A&M and quarterback Johnny Manziel, who finished 2013 with an 8-4 overall record while throwing for 3,732 yards and 33 touchdowns, and rushing for 686 yards and eight scores.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, probably,” Edwards said. “It’s just something I’ll be able to tell my kids when I get older about all the great players I played against when I played college football. It’s just another opportunity to excel against a great quarterback. If you’re playing the best, then you’re doing good things and you shouldn’t have anything to worry about in the future.”
Edwards said that finishing will be critical to the Blue Devils’ bowl game hopes.
“Stay disciplined and stay in coverage,” he said. “We have to finish. Finish every play, every rep and every quarter. We have to trust each other to do their job.”
Edwards, who graduated from Alcovy High School and played under current Tigers’ head coach Kirk Hoffman, said his high school background helped prepare him for the trials he’s faced at Duke. The mental strength that the Tigers instilled in him is present every time he takes the field.
“Being an underdog doesn’t mean anything because everybody puts their pads on the same way you do,” Edwards said. “Just go out and do your best. In high school, we were the underdogs most of the time, and now in college, we’re looked at as the underdog most of the time.”
But no matter what happens New Year’s Eve, Edwards will get to check at least one goal off of his lengthy checklist – his homecoming.
“It’s very relieving for me (to come home),” Edwards said “I am very happy to come home. I’ve never played in the (Georgia) Dome before. I’ve always wanted to play in the Dome. I’m just glad to be able to go back home and spend some time with my family before and after the game.”
Game time is set for 8 p.m. on Dec. 31 at the Georgia Dome. The game can be seen nationally on ESPN.