By JOHNNY MOORE
Special to GoDuke.com
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Monday was one of those long days for Duke football coach David Cutcliffe. He spent the better part of all day answering questions at the ACC’s annual Football Kickoff with all sorts of media types tossed at him. He moved from chair to chair in front of 15 different radio broadcasters, stood in front of 15 television cameras and a live streaming webcast answering more questions, spent time being interviewed by ESPN, Fox Sport South and other national television outlets, and before he ended his day he spent an hour discussing Duke football with 50 of his closest print and internet buddies.
But the entire time he made it with a grin on his face. This is Cutcliffe’s sixth visit to the ACC Football kickoff, but he comes to this media inquisition looking at his team quite differently than in the past.
“It started back in January with this football team, when they arrived back on campus for classes and conditioning and we had our first meeting,” explained Cutcliffe. “This is a very hungry football team; hungry to win football games and return to a bowl game, hungry to win the Coastal Division of the ACC. Last year we were in the hunt for the division title in November. That’s where we want to be again this year; playing late in the season for a title.”
When the Alabama graduate took over the Blue Devils for the 2008 season, he was taking over a team that captured just two games in the last three years. Five years later he led the Blue Devils to six wins and a bowl game for the first time in 17 campaigns. They stopped two long losing streaks, one to North Carolina that lasted nine seasons and one to Wake Forest that had rolled on for twelve years. He became the first Duke head coach to be honored as ACC Coach of the Year since Fred Goldsmith in 1994.
“We are relevant now,” he explained to the media. “When we arrived here five years ago we were irrelevant, but now we are relevant as a college football program. We can go into a player’s home and they know about Duke football, they saw us in the bowl game and were impressed. In the past people assumed Duke football wouldn’t be good. They don’t assume that anymore.”
But with that successful season in the rearview mirror, Cutcliffe comes into this season knowing there is a lot of improvement to be made if the Blue Devils want to continue on their upward spiral.
The first and foremost area of concern is the defense. Last year in the final five games of the year, following the win over the Tar Heels, the Devils allowed an average of 49.2 points per game. For the season they gave up an average of 36.0 points per game, dead last in the ACC and 107th in the country. They were able to only hold two teams to under 20 points in a game, 17 each by NC Central and Virginia.
“Our biggest challenge is to grow on defense,” explained Cutcliffe. “We have some guys up front that have really gotten beat up in their career that now possess a great deal of experience they can use to help us win games. Our linebackers are very capable, but we have a lot of work to do in the secondary with only Ross Cockrell as a veteran.”
Cutcliffe spoke about a change in philosophy by the defense.
“It’s a little bit of a scheme change for our defense and a different approach to practice,” said Cutcliffe, now entering his 13th year as a head coach. “It’s about putting ourselves in position to make plays to make things happen. If we can drop the number of plays we gave up of over 25 yards by 40 percent, that will have a huge effect on how many points are scored against us. If we can get more takeaways either through interceptions or fumbles, that will make a difference. Improvements in all areas are a must on the defensive side of the ball.”
On a strong positive note, the offensive side of the football, which was fifth in the league and 31st in the country last year in passing offense with over 283 yards per game and fifth in scoring with 31.5 points per game, returns four of five starting offensive linemen. Even with the loss of award winners Sean Renfree at quarterback and Conner Vernon, the ACC’s all-time leading receiver, the Blue Devils reload with junior wide receiver Jamison Crowder, who was third in the ACC in receiving yards last year with 82.6 yards per game and fifth in receptions with almost six per game, and redshirt junior quarterback Anthony Boone who helped lead the Blue Devils to victories over ACC rivals Wake Forest and Virginia last year.
“He has it,” explained Cutcliffe. “Anthony has the ability to make everyone around him better. You can’t just show up to work if you want to be a true leader, you have to be ready to go to work every day, and Anthony has proven to be that leader every day since our first team meeting in January.”
Once again this season the Blue Devils will have to prove themselves to the world. Even with a bowl trip last year, they came out of the ACC Football Kickoff picked last in the Coastal Division by the members of the media in attendance. The Blue Devils captured just 228 votes, two less than Virginia; a team Cutcliffe has a 4-1 record against since coming to Durham.
“It’s a great reminder for me and my staff that there is a lot of culture work to be done,” said Cutcliffe. “People aren’t as educated as they should be about who we are. I really want our players to understand the expectations for this team. My message to the team is to become a consistent winner. That’s how you get respect.
“No matter what the preseason polls say, we are even with everyone in college football right now,” he added. “We only have 11 scholarship seniors on this team and their goal from day one has been to be the first to go to back-to-back bowl games at Duke.”
For Cutcliffe and his players, that journey begins on August 31 when the Blue Devils open up the 2013 season against N.C. Central.