The coaching carousel within the Liberty football team over the past five seasons has resulted in three different voices guiding the offensive line. Each coach, through his own unique method, has preached a similar sermon to the group: Toughness, above all else, is what is expected out of the offensive line. No matter the circumstances or surroundings, never relent, and finish each play with power and tenacity.
It is a message that has stuck wholeheartedly with redshirt senior right guard Dontae Duff. It didn’t matter if the Flames were down to five healthy offensive linemen in the 2016 season finale at Coastal Carolina or lining up in 2018 against one of the nation’s best rushing defenses in Virginia, Duff ensured each snap resulted in him winning his battle at the point of attack.
It didn’t come as a surprise that when Sam Gregg took over as the offensive line coach this past winter, one of the first things he noticed about Duff was his toughness. So when Gregg’s time came to recite the familiar hymn of toughness, he knew the entire group was going to follow Duff’s example.
“He is the epitome of that,” Gregg said.
Duff has spent the past three-plus seasons laying a foundation of toughness for the Liberty offensive line.
He has started every game since his redshirt freshman campaign in 2016 and is working to instill the same level of toughness and work ethic in a young crop of offensive linemen waiting in the wings to take over following his graduation.
“I’d say the most important part is toughness,” Duff said Monday. “Dennis Wagner was probably one of the toughest coaches I’ve ever had, but he coached with love, and that was something he hammered. Coach [Aaron] Stamn used to always say you want to be somebody somebody else can count on, and Coach Gregg tells us every day we’ve got to come ready to work. Men go to work, and I think toughness is the most important part of being an offensive lineman.
“Each game, it’s a new opponent each week, and it’s dogfight, it’s a street fight every week, so you’ve got to be tough and be able to adjust. All three of those guys — Coach Wagner, Coach Stamn and Coach Gregg — have put that in my mind and hammered that in my mind.”
Duff has been a physical presence for Liberty at right guard since he was moved permanently to the position at the beginning of the 2017 season, with his 6-foot-1, 330-pound frame helping him win several battles inside against opposing nose guards and defensive tackles.
He was named to the Phil Steele Publications postseason all-independent second team and the Virginia Sports Information Directors (VaSID) all-state second team last season in the Flames’ first campaign at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
“Dontae has been everything for this offense since he’s gotten here,” said running back Frankie Hickson, who joined the football program the same season as Duff. “We kind of joke a lot, but he’s been a role model for me personally. He comes to work every day and you’re going to get the same Dontae every day, and that’s 110 percent. He’s a hard worker, and you’re just going to get the best out of him every time. He’s meant everything for this offense and the offensive line.”
Guard Jonathan Burgess was a team captain for the 2014 and 2015 seasons, the latter serving as Duff’s true freshman season. Duff did not play that year, but dressed and traveled for every game to get accustomed to life on the road as a college athlete.
Those weekends spent with the team allowed him to observe Burgess’ work ethic and leadership. The latter trait was what rubbed off the most on Duff, who soaked in Burgess’ ability to be an extension of position coach Dennis Wagner on the field and be the one the entire offensive line listened to during the highs and the lows of the season.
Duff has spent the past two-plus seasons perfecting his ability to be a conduit for the coaching staff. He has started 25 straight games at right guard.
“I looked at that as a great way to lead the team,” Duff said. “Whatever Coach Gregg or Coach [Hugh] Freeze wants to be pointed out to the team, it’s my obligation to get it at least to the offensive line and the offense.”
Gregg has spoken highly of Duff since arriving at Liberty and said in training camp how much of a blessing it was to have a player of Duff’s caliber being an extension of the coaching staff on the field. Gregg even pointed out one situation in which Duff reiterated a point the coaching staff previously made, and the entire offensive line stopped what it was doing and listened intently to the Mesquite, Texas, native.
Duff’s leadership has allowed Gregg to focus more on coaching and development.
The veteran coach, with 17 years of experience, knows the line is in good hands with Duff in command.
“It’s worth its weight in gold to have somebody like that who if there is an issue he’ll come and tell me,” Gregg said. “If there’s something that I’m not seeing, maybe he sees it from a different point of view, and I listen to him because the kids listen to him and the kids trust him, and I trust him. I think what he brings from a leadership [standpoint], he wants to push Liberty in the right direction, and I think he does an awesome job.”
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.