His Duke career thus far a series of starts and stops, fueled by nagging injury, self-doubt and a need to belong, Aaron Young maybe, possibly, finally has found footing.
A redshirt senior wide receiver, the sturdy, 6-4 Young showed flashes of superior ability since arriving on campus in 2015.
Inconsistency slowed his progress, a hamstring injury sent his 2018 season sideways and Young, doubting if he had a place in Duke’s plans, sought to transfer last January.
Boosted by conversations with coach David Cutcliffe and Trooper Taylor, hired in January to be Duke’s third wide receivers coach in the past three seasons, Young stayed at Duke.
Late Saturday night, in Duke’s 41-18 win at Middle Tennessee State, Young caught six passes for 106 yards with two touchdowns, including a contested catch in the corner of the end zone where he managed to get a foot down in bounds to score.
“Last year was like a very emotional year because of the way things turned out with the injury and all that,” Young said after the game. “But it does feel very good to get back out here and get a win for the team, to play well and get a win on the road.”
The feeling good part of that, mentally even more than physically, is the key to Young going from a talented player in to a productive one.
“Aaron is an interesting young man,” Cutcliffe said Thursday. “He’s a complex thinker. So trying to keep him on the top side of things, always being a person that’s an optimist. I think he’s really worked at this. He’s matured. He has been through injury. He’s had emotional times where he’s not sure what he’s going to do. All of those things. What he and I have talked about is, ‘Aaron, just come out here and focus on your work. You’ve got enough with the amount of work we have to do. If you are carrying some other stuff, it’s going to eat you up.’ I think he’s kind of let go of some things and he’s trying to be a football player.”
Since arriving at Duke in 2015, Young has displayed the skills to be a productive football player.
After redshirting in 2015, he caught a pass in his first college game in September 2016. The following month he displayed such strong pass-catching abilities he snared a 22-yard touchdown pass from Daniel Jones on a wet, windy day when Duke beat Army as Hurricane Matthew hit the Triangle.
In 2017, he caught eight passes over the season’s first two games as Duke beat N.C. Central and Northwestern. But over Duke’s next seven games, he recorded only one catch.
Last year, he caught four passes for 114 yards, including a touchdown, in Duke’s season-opening 34-14 win over Army on Aug. 31.
A few days later, he injured his hamstring and was sidelined the next five weeks.
By Oct. 13, he was in uniform and ready to give it a go in a game at Georgia Tech. He caught three passes for 25 yards but never felt comfortable turning it loose on his leg. He never played the rest of the season.
The offseason brought uncertainty.
Gerad Parker, Duke’s wide receivers coach last season, left for the same job at Penn State. Duke hired Taylor, a veteran coach with previous stops at Tennessee and Auburn, among other schools, to replace Parker on Jan. 20.
On Jan. 29, Young used his Twitter feed to announce he’d entered the NCAA’s Transfer Portal. Set to graduate in May, he could pick a new school and be eligible to play this season as a graduate transfer.
“I will forever be thankful for getting an opportunity to earn a degree and play football at this university,” Young wrote at the time, adding this “is not an easy decision for me.”
But Taylor and the Blue Devils didn’t give up on Young.
“It was simple,” Taylor said, “I just loved him through it. You never love family only in slices. You love them with your whole heart. I told him he would be part of a circle. He was starving for that. He wanted to be part of that atmosphere.”
By Feb. 11, Duke announced Young had removed his name from the transfer portal and would remain with the Blue Devils.
If there was any lingering resentment from either side, it hasn’t bubbled to the surface publicly.
“As far as anything else where he explored a little bit outside the program,” Duke redshirt senior quarterback Quentin Harris said Wednesday, “I think he was just a guy looking to find what’s the best option for himself. We definitely understood that and we were definitely excited to welcome him back when he decided that the best opportunity for him would be to stay here with us. We’re happy to have him here, and he’s doing great things for us. He’s been a great leader for the receivers and has been a solid veteran that we can rely on in big moments.”
Healthy and staying in the right frame of mind, Young earned a starting job with his offseason work and practice habits. They aren’t perfect, mind you, but they’ve improved.
“He’s healthy,” Taylor said. “He knows there are still some standards and things and he’s pushing through tough times. Like still going full speed on plays where the ball might not be coming to him. Those aren’t his favorites. But he’s learning to play the game the right way.”
Young is surrounded by young, talented players in his wide receiver group. Freshmen Jalon Calhoun and Eli Pancol have combined for five touchdowns in Duke’s three games this season. Young only had four over his first three seasons.
“They all are very mature for their age,” Young said. “They are definitely more mature than I was as a freshman. That’s a big part of why they’ve been able to be on the field so early and why they are true freshmen and making big plays already.”
Now Young is physically healthy and in the right mind-set to regularly make those kind of plays, too. The Blue Devils open ACC play on Friday at Virginia Tech. Their final nine games will include eight ACC games plus a home game with Notre Dame.
Duke needs Young to maintain his current state of mind to have the best chance of navigating that schedule and returning to a bowl game.
“Emotions, injuries all that he’s been through has grown him,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s growing as a young man. I know his family is proud of him. You think about it, you are going into your fifth year, you’re from California, the script hasn’t been written just like you’d wanted it to. And now he is finding himself. Now my job is to make sure he maintains that same spirit.”