David Cutcliffe has brought the Duke football program into relevance.
(C+P) — In a matter of three years Duke Football has gone from an after thought to a contender in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) under head coach David Cutcliffe. Following back-to-back seasons of 3-9 records in 2010 and 2011, the Blue Devils have made a bowl game each of the last two seasons, including last year’s Chick-fil-A Bowl appearance versus Texas A&M.
“I still remember 2009 when 45 kids went down with the Swine Flu,” said Cutcliffe during a team press conference in reference to some of Duke football’s darker days. “Boone [Duke red-shirt senior quarterback Anthony Boone] reminded me that none of them were there for that…but some do remember the 3-9 years.”
Those are the years most had come to expect from a school long known for its prowess in sports outside of football, most notably their nationally recognized basketball program. Even when they seemed to have the talent, something would happen to set them back, the aforementioned Swine Flu in 2009 being a prime example. Finally in 2013 it all seemed to come together and the team finished with the school’s best record during the BCS era at 10-4.
Further proving how far the program has come, was the reaction the team received after losing their final two games of the season to eventual National Champion Florida State in the ACC Championship game, and Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Duke fans were not content in the least with their historic season; instead they were upset with the team for failing to finish off the year with a win.
“It’s definitely different,” said sophomore cornerback Bryon Fields. “I don’t know if in the past they ever even had a two-game winning steak, losing streaks were kind of the norm I guess. So for them to be disappointed by a two-game losing streak, yeah it’s a sign of how far we have come.”
The question now shifts to how well the team will handle this newfound success.
“That’s a big deal, a very big deal,” said Cutcliffe. “Like the old farming adage says ‘You must plant well in the spring, or beg come fall’. Hopefully we planted a good seed, I thought we accomplished that [during spring practices].”
While the team gained some respect, being picked to finish second in the Coastal Division in 2014, they enter the season unranked despite winning their division and finishing ranked 23rd in the Associated Press poll in 2013.
“The pre-season polls and votes don’t play for us on Saturdays,” said Boone. “It’s the guys that come out here and work every day. We understand that.”
While it would be easy to use the pre-season polls and rankings as motivation, the team is looking elsewhere for their drive this year.
“We expect to do certain things, we have been to bowl games in back-to-back seasons but we haven’t won yet,” noted Fields. “Those expectations from within are bigger motivation than anything we can get from the outside.”
These are the expectations that Coach Cutcliffe and his staff have been working towards building since his arrival in 2008, and for many Duke players such as the sophomore Fields, bowl games are all they know.
“I like their [the younger players] mentality, they don’t intend to do anything but win,” said Cutcliffe. “I like that positive approach, instead of thinking about when it wasn’t so good.”
This positive attitude will be needed as the team has lost a few key contributors from last season, including Brandon Connette who shared reps with Boone at quarterback in special ‘wildcat’ packages. Connette transferred to Fresno State to be with his mother who is battling cancer.
“We have some guys that are faster than Brandon,” said Cutcliffe. “We have some that throw it better, but they aren’t as polished. He was a fierce competitor and he found a way. That’s the question [with the current quarterbacks] are they as competitive?”
In addition to Connette’s absence the team received unfortunate news the past couple weeks as last year’s starting running back Jela Duncan was deemed academically ineligible, preceded by season-ending ACL injuries to both their starting linebacker Kelby Brown, and tight end Braxton Deaver.
Despite the early setbacks, the program and its players are confident they can handle it all – the injuries and the recent tradition of success.
“This year we have different goals and expectations that help keep us from becoming content,” said Fields. “We definitely are striving to be a whole lot better.”
Coach Cutcliffe agrees, and there is one specific thing motivating them all.
“The thing none of us have dealt with here [at Duke] is learning how it feels to hold a trophy above your head in your last game,” Cutcliffe let on. “Those are long lasting moments, it’s a big deal, a big moment.”
It is a moment they will start working towards on Aug. 30 when their season kicks off versus Elon. While they have plenty of respect to gain, they will no longer sneak up on their opponents and if they hope to build on last year’s success, they will first have to prove they have learned how to play with it.