DURHAM, N.C. – When David Cutcliffe took command of the Duke football program 18 months ago, linebacker Vincent Rey weighed 255 pounds with 18 percent body fat. He may not have been singled out by name at that early winter workout when Cutcliffe declared his new team fat and slow, but Rey got the message. As he prepares for his final season, the Blue Devils’ defensive leader is a 245-pound block of granite with only 8 percent body fat and speed comparable to a running back.
Rey has added lean tissue and gotten stronger along with the reduction in body fat, and he knows it makes a difference — not just on Saturdays in the fall, but now, in June, when the players are going through grueling summer conditioning workouts in the oppressive Durham humidity.
The Blue Devils are usually divided into three groups for their summer running sessions, with running backs, receivers and defensive backs expected to turn in the fastest times and linemen the slowest times. Last year Rey ran in between the two, in a combo group for linebackers and tight ends — but not any more.
“This year I run with the fastest times, with the smaller guys and skill guys,” he noted after a recent workout. “I run their times now, and I can definitely feel that on the field.”
Rey is not alone in having undergone an extreme physical makeover during the past year-and-a-half. Throughout the roster there are several similar stories of players who have gotten stronger or faster, or both, since Cutcliffe’s arrival. During Cutcliffe’s first four months of 2008, strength and conditioning coach Noel Durfey supervised the loss of 800 pounds of body fat and a gain of 400 pounds of lean tissue across the team. “On the scale, that was about a 400-pound swap, but in reality it was a 1,200-pound change,” Durfey said.
That change not only helped the Blue Devils become a better team last year, but it also set the stage for more improvement in 2009 because nearly every player was at a better starting point when summer drills began a few weeks ago. Every returning player has been on campus since the beginning of summer school and they are working out together every Monday through Friday in a carefully conceived regimen of weight-lifting, agility drills, speed work and conditioning.
Last year Durfey’s program was designed to help a downtrodden team begin to feel some confidence in its physical ability by getting in better shape. This year there is a different focus — increased strength and an added level of discipline to help develop more mental toughness. It becomes most obvious on conditioning days when players are required to run taxing sets of 75-yard dashes or 110-yard sprints with short rest intervals in between each run.
“This summer we’ve got some confidence, so we can push the envelope a little more,” Durfey said. “We couldn’t put them in a lot of situations to be unsuccessful last summer. They needed to feel success. Now we can push it a little bit further and make them more uncomfortable, without overdoing it. We do have to be smart about it — we don’t want to be beat down at the end of July.”
“Our first day this summer we lifted and then went outside and ran 75-yard dashes,” Rey reported. “Last year we started the summer just lifting. We didn’t do the lift and run until week six. So already from the running standpoint we are six weeks ahead of the game from the way I see it.”
Durfey first worked with Cutcliffe as a graduate assistant strength coach at Tennessee in 1996-98, when Cutcliffe was the Vols’ offensive coordinator. Durfey later joined Cutcliffe’s staff at Ole Miss and stayed on after Cutcliffe departed. He was with the Rebels for seven years before Cutcliffe brought him to Durham as one of his first hires.
Most of what he does is designed to produce a fourth-quarter payoff. As the opponent fatigues, Cutcliffe wants the Blue Devils poised to finish strong. That’s one reason why Cutcliffe concludes every official practice session, spring and fall, by turning the players over to Durfey for conditioning work.
“Coach has a saying that fatigue makes cowards of us all. We just can’t get fatigued, physically or mentally. The bottom line is that we have to be in shape,” Durfey said.
“I like where we’re at right now. We’re a stronger, more physical team. The area where we had to get better was the offensive line and they have made the most progress per guy. That’s encouraging to see because they are good kids and they work. If they get better, we get better. We have to have them.”
Center Bryan Morgan and guard Kyle Hill, both of whom started all last year, have shown the most improvement during the offseason. They have added strength and weight (37 pounds between them) while maintaining the ability to run. Cutcliffe repeatedly has stated that all of his players have to be able to run, regardless of position. After 18 months in the system, Rey understands how true that is.
“You can never be too conditioned,” said the veteran linebacker. “We want to run better. Defensively one of our things is to swarm to the ball. We want to get 11 hats to the ball every time. That’s easier said than done, and we definitely have to work everyday in the summer toward that goal.
“The more conditioned you are, the better you’ll be in the fourth quarter, which is what we want,” he continued. “We want to win games in the fourth quarter and we feel the only way to do that is to be extremely well conditioned. I see every day, every workout, every run as a large challenge. And every workout that we conquer, we become more confident in our abilities.”