DURHAM -- Each spring brings a new life to the college football world. Coaches and fans get the opportunity to see younger players in action as they prepare for the fall season.
At Duke this spring, not only are there a number of newcomers in uniform, but there are several on the coaching staff as well.
Offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery left Duke in January to become the head coach at East Carolina. Veteran offensive line coach John Latina retired in the wake of the Blue Devils’ Pinstripe Bowl victory. And long-time Duke linebackers coach Jim Collins has moved into an administrative role as Director of Football Relations and Special Assistant to the Head Coach.
To fill these three spots, Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe looked in several different areas to find just the right mix.
First he stayed within the family and named Marcus Johnson as offensive line coach.
Johnson’s promotion from quality control to fulltime assistant marked the fourth time Cutcliffe has hired a Duke support staff member as an assistant coach. More than half of Duke’s nine assistants rose through Cutcliffe's farm system from player to coach. Since Re'quan Boyette was the first to be promoted from within the Duke staff in 2013, the Blue Devils are 27-13. The three years prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival, they had two wins combined, one against an FCS school.
"There’s a huge reason we do it,” explained Cutcliffe, headed into his ninth season at Duke. “Our greatest winning edge is our day-to-day operations in practice, how we manage and motivate and mentor players. It’s somewhat of a learned behavior in that regard. We are very committed to the mentorship, not just the coaching, and so I think our people really understand that. And the greatest benefactors from that are our players."
Johnson, an All-SEC offensive lineman for Cutcliffe at Ole Miss, has spent the last five seasons on the Duke staff. He served in the capacity of offensive quality control for the past three campaigns. He was an assistant with the program’s strength and conditioning unit for two seasons before that.
“Without question, Marcus has emerged as one of the brightest young coaches in college football,” Cutcliffe said. “He obviously played at the highest level, and now has taken advantage of the opportunity to shift his passion to teaching, motivating and leading young men. I know our current and future players will love playing for him, and he’ll continue to be a huge asset to our entire staff.”
A native of Coffeeville, Miss., Johnson lettered four seasons (2001-04) at Ole Miss, serving as team co-captain his senior season. He helped the Rebels to 28 wins over four years, the SEC Western Division co-championship in 2003 and a pair of bowl game appearances.
After earning second team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press as a senior, Johnson represented Ole Miss at the 2004 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
A second-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings at the 2005 NFL Draft, Johnson spent four seasons with the Vikings and helped the squad to the NFC North Division championship and a playoff berth in 2008. After spending the 2009 campaign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he closed his playing career with a stint with the Hartford Colonials of the United Football League.
Cutcliffe moved outside the program for his next two hires as he looked for a defensive line coach and a tight ends/special teams coach. For the defensive line spot he selected Ben Albert, who served last year as the defensive line coach at Boston College.
Albert spent three seasons at BC. Last year, the Eagles led the country in total defense — giving up just 254.3 yards per game — as well as third down conversion defense and tackles for loss per game.
“Ben brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in the areas of defensive football and recruiting to our staff,” said Cutcliffe.
“Obviously, we know his work with the Boston College defense all too well from a season ago, when we couldn’t have been more impressed with their preparation and execution. You don’t lead the country in total defense by accident. You have to have a combination of outstanding players and exceptional coaches. I have a great deal of respect for his coaching background, especially when you consider that he’s worked in programs that have won championships and reached bowl games at different levels of college football.”
Along the defensive front, Duke returns one starter in rising redshirt senior tackle A.J. Wolf, who earned the program’s Mike McGee Award as the team’s most outstanding defensive lineman in 2015 after posting 54 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss and three QB pressures. Seven other lettermen return.
“When I watch the tape the first thing I notice about Duke is the way they play with passion and hustle around the ball,” explained Albert, when asked what he thought about the Duke football team as an opposing coach.
Albert also knows that great defensive linemen can come in any size. Last year he coached Harold Landry, an undersized BC defensive lineman who earned the respect of the entire league.
“I can handle and coach through mistakes,” Albert explained. “What I need to see from my guys is the desire and hustle on every play. Our job on the defensive line is to reestablish the line of scrimmage on each play.”
Prior to his three campaigns in Chestnut Hill, Albert served two seasons as the linebackers coach at Temple University. In 2011 he helped the Owls rank third nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 13.9 points per game. Temple posted a 9-4 overall record that year and defeated Wyoming, 37-15, in the New Mexico Bowl, for the program’s first bowl victory in 32 years.
Albert spent the 2010 season on the staff of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, serving as an assistant defensive line coach.
“Under Coach Cutcliffe Duke has been on a rise, a steady incline of success, and you can see the investment in the program,” said Albert, when asked why he took the job with the Blue Devils. “This is a great athletic department and football is important in the South. It was an opportunity for me to be part of a program on a definite incline, plus my mom lives in Greensboro so it gets me closer to her.”
A native of Paterson, N.J., Albert got his start in coaching at his alma mater, Massachusetts, where he coached the defensive line for two seasons, in 1995-96, before helping Richmond to a pair of conference championships during a four-year (1997-2000) stint coaching the Spider defensive line and linebackers.
After one season mentoring the defensive front at Rutgers, Albert returned to Massachusetts for two seasons, 2002 and 2003, to coach the inside linebackers while coordinating the special teams units. During this stretch, he helped the Minutemen to the 2003 Atlantic 10 Conference championship and aided in the recruitment of fellow Paterson native wide receiver Victor Cruz to Massachusetts. Cruz, a two-time all-conference pick at UMass, helped the New York Giants to a 21-17 victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI and was a Pro Bowl selection in 2012.
An all-conference defensive lineman at Massachusetts, Albert graduated in 1995 with a degree in political science and sociology. He later earned a master’s degree in education from Massachusetts in 1997.
For his special teams and tight ends coach Cutcliffe selected Jim Bridge, whose official title will be Assistant Head Coach and Special Teams Coordinator.
“Jim’s a veteran coach who has been part of some really, really good coaching staffs, and that’s not by accident,” explained Cutcliffe. “He’s coached in a bunch of bowl games. He’s recruited at a very high level. We certainly knew Jim from both a coaching and recruiting standpoint when he was at N.C. State. On top of the coaching aspect, I know he’ll fit right into our program because of his value system. He’s a great husband and father. He’s a terrific addition to our staff.”
“The opportunity to work for and with Coach Cutcliffe was why I took this job,” Bridge explained from his office in the Yoh Building on the Duke campus. “I have admired him for years. All he has accomplished as a football coach and I have been so impressed with him as a person.”
Bridge spent the last three seasons as the offensive line coach at Purdue University. He takes over supervision of Duke’s special teams units and tight ends from Zac Roper, who was named the Baxter Family Associate Head Coach and offensive coordinator following Montgomery’s departure. It will be a very interesting assignment for Bridge as Duke must replace a pair of four-time All-ACC specialists in kicker Ross Martin and punter Will Monday. Both primary return men from last fall — DeVon Edwards and Ryan Smith — are back.
“I would love to have those experienced players back, but what we have are very talented players who will gain that experience on the field,” said Bridge.
On the tight ends front, rising redshirt senior Erich Schneider (15 receptions for 123 yards and three TDs in 2015) and Dan Beilinson are two returning lettermen as the Blue Devils look to replace two departed starters in Braxton Deaver (75 receptions for 890 yards and six TDs in 38 career games) and David Reeves (47 receptions for 367 yards seven TDs in 53 career games).
“The tight end in this offense is as involved as any player on the field,” said Bridge. “He can be a blocker on the line or in the backfield, a receiver from his tight end spot or a stand-up split-out receiver. We have smart diligent kids on this team who are dual-threat guys, being able to play with their hand in the dirt blocking or catching passes.”
Prior to his stint at Purdue, Bridge spent six seasons from 2007 to 2012 on the coaching staff at N.C. State, where he helped the Wolfpack to a 40-35 overall record with four bowl game appearances.
As an assistant coach mentoring the tight ends, Bridge served four seasons, 2003 to 2006, on the staff at Boston College as the Eagles compiled an overall ledger of 36-14 with four straight bowl game berths. He also spent time on the staffs at Bowling Green, Virginia, The Citadel, Ohio State and Eastern Michigan.
A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Bridge lettered as a tight end at Wittenberg University before graduating in 1992. He later earned a master’s degree from Bowling Green in sports administration in 1994.
Zac Roper • Baxter Family Associate Head Coach, Offensive Coordinator (Quarterbacks) Jim Knowles • Defensive Coordinator (Linebackers) Ben Albert • Associate Defensive Coordinator (Defensive line) Jim Bridge • Assistant Head Coach (Tight ends, special teams) Derek Jones • Assistant Coach (Cornerbacks), Assistant Special Teams Coordinator Re’quan Boyette • Assistant Coach (Running backs) Jeff Faris • Assistant Coach (Wide receivers) Matt Guerrieri • Assistant Coach (Safeties) Marcus Johnson • Assistant Coach (Offensive line)