"It's been fun," junior defensive end Justin Foxx said Tuesday. "It's a chance to have football without school, so you have more time to focus on football ... but some free time as well. It's been a pretty good experience to hang out with teammates and get some bonding."
This is a new experience for the Blue Devil players. None have ever played in a bowl game or gone through pre-bowl practice before.
"This is a great opportunity for us," junior cornerback Ross Cockrell said. "It's great to be there, but we're there for a reason and that's to win the game."
Several players mentioned the difference a victory would make.
"7-6 sounds a lot better than 6-7," Cockrell said. "It would give us a lot of momentum going into next season."
"It's a chance to go down in history," senior wide receiver Desmond Scott said. "The coaches want us to go down there and have fun, but in the minds of the athletes, it's about business. To be able to go down in the storybooks as the team that went down and won, can't be explained."
While Duke has never played in Bank of America Stadium, Scott has.
"I played there as an eight-year-old during halftime of a Panthers game," the Durham native said. "It was loud and very big. The field seemed huge. I can't wait to get back there and enjoy this with my teammates."
"I always dreamed of playing in my hometown stadium," Foxx said. "I was pleased with Charlotte being our destination. I'm going to need a lot of tickets, but I don't think I'll get them all. I could use 20 or 30 [tickets]. I'm probably only going to get 10 or 12 - maybe."
Players get up to six tickets for family and fields. But sometimes players from far away trade their tickets to those like Foxx who are playing closer to home.
Cockrell expects similar problems.
"It's very exciting to play in front of a home crowd," he said. "A lot of people who have watched me since middle school are excited to see me come back and play in college. I have some uncles and cousins coming down. It should be fun.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe is excited about playing in Charlotte because it's such prime recruiting territory for the Blue Devils.
"I love that we're able to play close to home for our fans," he said. "I love it for recruiting. I've been in and out of Charlotte a lot in the last two weeks and we've been talked about a lot. And, remember, that Charlotte metro area bleeds into northern South Carolina."
The bowl itself is during a dead period for recruiting, so Cutcliffe won't be able to host prospects at his practices or during the game itself.
The bowl trip includes a number of perks for the players, including a trip to the Charlotte Motor Speedway and a team shopping spree at Belk in Charlotte.
The bowl touts the team shopping spree as a chance for the players to pick their own bowl gifts - rather than settle for the standard bowl gift.
But one Blue Devil has different plans for the shopping spree.
"I'm ready for that," Desmond Scott said. "I'm not shopping for myself or anyone in my family. I know a few people who are working hard in life and deserve to have a good Christmas. That's what I'm trying to do. I don't need anything. My family doesn't need anything. So I'm going to give back to those who deserve it and need it much more than I do."
Cutcliffe said several players have asked about using their spending spree to help others. He said he's not surprised by Scott's generosity.
"Desmond does a lot of community service," he said. "He does a lot with children. He plans on going into education. I'm sure he'll be a very successful teacher or principal."
DUKE'S BOWL HISTORY
Cutcliffe wanted to make sure his players understand the significance of their upcoming bowl game with Cincinnati.
"I want them to feel a sense of history," the Duke coach said. "Because the history does indicate tough times in recent times, but it also represents the best of the best."
Cutcliffe's point is illustrated by Duke's bowl history. The Blue Devils have a 3-5 bowl record, but haven't won a bowl since the 1961 Cotton Bowl. In fact, Duke has been in just three bowls in the last 50 years - the 1989 All-American Bowl; the 1995 Hall of Fame Bowl and the 2012 Belk Bowl.
It has been tough recently, but in its heyday, Duke won bowl games over Alabama (the 1945 Sugar Bowl), Nebraska (the 1955 Orange Bowl) and Arkansas (the 1961 Cotton Bowl). Duke also played twice in the Rose Bowl, losing a last-second heartbreaker to Southern Cal in 1939 and hosting the 1942 Rose Bowl in what is now Wallace Wade Stadium.
"I think this is a generation you have to educate about those things," Cutcliffe said. "The way we approach it, it becomes important to them."
USING THE BOWL PRACTICE
Duke will have 14 days of practice - practice time that non-bowl teams don't get.
Cutcliffe sees the time as almost an extra spring practice.
The first order of business is to prepare for Cincinnati, but along with that chore, the Duke coaches can use the time to work with young players and to tweak the current team.
In fact, Cutcliffe announced several position changes this week. That includes moving sophomore Nick Sink, who started seven games this season at defensive tackle, to tight end. He's also moving freshman Shaquille Powell from running back to safety and freshman Nick Hill from wide receiver to safety. Linebacker Britton Grier is moving to defensive end.
Cutcliffe said that a couple of the moves are merely experimental - such as Powell to safety - but that the Sink to tight end switch is permanent.
"We have some real athletic guys at tight end, but I like to have a guy who is 6-5, 285 pounds with great hands," Cutcliffe said.
The Duke coach said he was also using the extra bowl practice to give some of his redshirt players work with the regulars. He said he's rotated such players as quarterback Thomas Sirk, offensive linemen Tanner Stone and Casey Blaser and defenders such as Keilin Rayner and A.J. Wolf into the practice rotation. None will play in the bowl game, but the extra work will give them a head start on spring practice when they'll be competing for starting jobs.
"We have 14 extra practices and a game," Cutcliffe said. "That's the equivalent to a spring practice. Teams that are in bowls every year ... Just add that up for a player at a school like Virginia Tech that goes to a bowl every year. By the time he's a senior, he's had about 45 more practices than a player on a team that doesn't go to a bowl.
"That's how big a deal it is."
While bowl practice is a new experience for every current Blue Devil player, it's not for Cutcliffe. He participated in 17 bowl games as an assistant at Tennessee and compiled a 4-1 bowl record as head coach at Ole Miss.
But he cited his first bowl experience at Ole Miss, where he took over the program in late November and prepared the team for an Independence Bowl meeting with Texas Tech, as his most significant experience.
"I didn't know the players' names," he said. "I told them to put tape on the helmet and I called them by whatever names were on the helmet. If the equipment people were playing a joke on me, then I was calling them by wrong name.
"We went out and played great. I learned more about bowl preparation from that game."
Cutcliffe has shared his bowl wisdom with this Duke team.
"We've talked a lot about how to approach bowl games - the fundamentals that are involved in wining bowl games ... not only mentally, but emotionally and physically," he said. "Every aspect of it is different.
"We don't go out there very long. When you get into bowl practice, the worst thing you can do is practice to be practicing and practicing a mistake. I can't stand practicing at a speed that's a mistake. I watch people do throw and catch drills and they do it at a speed that is not near game speed - well, you're practicing a mistake. That's the biggest danger you have in bowl practice.
"So we'll shorten practice and we'll increase intensity."
THE OLE MISS CONNECTION
While Duke and Cincinnati have never met in football before, the Belk Bowl is at the center of an odd collection of coaching coincidences.
For instance, take that 1998 Independence Bowl that Cutcliffe was talking about. He took over that Ole Miss team when Tommy Tuberville, the coach in Oxford that season, left to take the Auburn job. Now Tuberville is the new head coach at Cincinnati - after leaving Texas Tech, the school Cutcliffe beat in that '98 bowl game.
Tuberville is inheriting a Cincinnati team that was coached all season by Butch Jones, who left earlier this month to take the head job at Tennessee, where Cutcliffe worked most of his professional life.
"Is it the Twilight Zone?" Cutcliffe asked when the coincidences were pointed out to him.
THE RECORD BOOK
The last time Duke was in a bowl game, bowl stats didn't count toward season or career totals. That changed in 2003, when the NCAA decided that bowl games would be treated as an extension of the season statistically.
That means several Duke players have a chance to use the bowl game to reach significant statistical milestones:
-- Conner Vernon, who is already the Duke and ACC career receiving leader, needs 45 more receiving yards to reach 1,000 yards for the season. With Jamison Crowder already at 1,030 yards, it would give Duke two 1,000-yard receivers in the season for the first time.
-- With 270 passing yards, quarterback Sean Renfree can pass UNC's T.J. Yates as the No. 8 career passer in ACC history. With 245 passing yards, he can top 3,000 yards in a season for the second time - joining Ben Bennett as the only Duke players to reach that milestone twice.
-- Jela Duncan already ranks as the seventh most effective freshman rusher in Duke history. He could finish as high as high as second with 83 rushing yards in the bowl game.
-- Freshman placekicker Ross Martin already ranks second in Duke history for field goals in a season with 18. With three more field goals in the bowl, he could tie the Duke school record of 21, set by Will Snyderwine in 2010. With six total points, Martin can tie the school record of points in a season - a record Clarkston Hines holds with 104.