DURHAM, N.C. - As the first practice of his 10th season at Duke approached, head coach David Cutcliffe found himself as excited as ever.
“Maybe more this year than ever,” Cutcliffe said. “There are a lot of reasons to be excited. A year ago, 2016, was the year of the new – we had a new offensive coordinator, a new defensive line coach, a new offensive line coach and a new special teams coordinator.
“This year, I couldn’t wait to go and watch practice. I was focused on football, not on staff or anything else.”
Cutcliffe’s excitement translated into a good – but short – night’s sleep.
“I slept good last night, but I went ahead and got in here about 3:40 [am] and came in here, because I was just ready,” he said. “That’s a good sign.”
The Duke coach was not the only one getting an early start to the day. Due to NCAA rules, the Blue Devils’ preseason practice overlaps with the end of the school’s second summer session.
“We’re in school for two weeks,” Cutcliffe explained. “We have guys with some tough classes who are balancing camp. We have people in class at different times all day long.”
As a result, the first practice was scheduled for early in the morning.
Players got a 4:40 am wakeup call. They ate breakfast at 5:15 and were taped and in meetings by 6:15.
Practice actually started at 7:20 am.
“I’m proud of them,” Cutcliffe said. “Everybody was where they were supposed to be early, which was special.”
He liked what he saw on the field.
“We did a good job of flowing,” he said. “The energy was not good – it was special. The thing I did not see was the execution level we would like to see. I thought we were a little sloppy at times on offense. We can correct that.”
The team started in relative good health. Sophomore defensive end Chidi Okonya, who is nursing a sore foot, was the only player to miss the first practice, although redshirt freshman linebacker Brandon Hill suffered a pulled muscle in the morning workout.
Cutcliffe has a month to go before the Blue Devils open the season September 2 – at home against N.C. Central in the Bull City Gridiron Classic.
Duke won’t practice every day between now and then. In fact, in view of the academic pressure on so many players at this point, there will be no practice Tuesday or Thursday of this week – just meetings those days.
“I’m trying to be fair to these guys and give them the amount of time they need for classes,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ll manage our time well.”
JONES TO BUILD ON FRESHMAN SEASON?
Now, Jones is the returning starter at quarterback and one of the most established players on the team.
“He’s much different than he was a year ago,” Cutcliffe said of Jones. “There is no question who our leader is on offense now. I love linemen to be leaders. But Daniel Jones knows more about what we’re doing and knows more about how to do it. What I want to see is his demands met. You’d better be the man when you’re in that position.”
Jones is trying to fit his new role.
“It comes with a lot of responsibility,” he said. “I don’t think we have one leader. Coach Cut is the leader of this team. Players are trying to lead by committee. Being one of those guys is a responsibility that I take very seriously.”
Jones threw for 2,836 yards last season – the most passing yards ever for a Duke freshman and the ninth-highest passing total overall. He got off to a little bit of a rough start, throwing eight interceptions in his first five games. But he threw just one interception in the team’s final seven games against 10 touchdowns in that span.
With a year’s experience, Jones expects to be even better in 2017.
“I do think it’s slowed down some and I’m able to prepare through experience,” the redshirt sophomore said. “That’s been helpful to me.”
REBUILDING THE KICKING GAME
A year ago, Duke converted just three field goals all season – a big drop from 2015 when senior Ross Martin made 26.
The inability to convert field goals with consistency had a major impact on several Duke losses. Cutcliffe is working to fix the problem.
“We have a lot of work to do there – snapper, holder, placekicker,” he said. “I’m looking at everything. We’re doing a lot of evaluation there. We’re going to take our time doing that until we figure out who is going to do what. We have a lot of candidates out there.”
The candidate list starts with sophomore AJ Reed, who was last year’s starting kicker, making just three of 10 attempts. But he did convert 37 of 38 extra points successfully.
Redshirt sophomore Austin Parker came out of the spring as the team’s No. 1 placekicker. A year ago, Parker was the team’s punter and he put up good numbers through seven games – when he suffered an injury at Louisville and was lost for the season.
“Austin is a gifted athlete,” Cutcliffe said. “We just want to see him stay healthy. If you look at what he did as a punter, before he got hurt, he had an outstanding year going.”
The Duke coach said he wouldn’t mind if Parker ended up handling both jobs – punting and placekicking.
“Absolutely, because if he’s doing that, he’s doing both of them extremely well,” Cutcliffe said. “We have an array of people to evaluate. He was the first one up today. I don’t know if he’s the starter, but he was the first one in rotation.”
Three placekickers have joined the program since spring practice ended. Freshmen Jake Driggers, from Tallahassee, Fla., and Jackson Hubbard of Dallas will get a chance to win the job in preseason. So will William Holmquist, a graduate transfer from Tufts, where he converted eight-of-11 field goals last fall, including four from beyond 40 yards.
Cutcliffe is in no hurry to trim his list of candidates.
DEPTH AND EXPERIENCE
Cutcliffe and his staff have a lot of evaluation to do during preseason camp. There is competition all over the roster.
“The competitiveness on the depth chart is the best we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Cutcliffe said.
Of course, many of the players competing for playing time are young – members of the 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes, which are – on paper – the strongest classes Cutcliffe has landed at Duke.
Will those gifted, young players be ready to contribute?
“To have good young players watching from the sideline because they don’t know what to do is a sin,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ll do what we have to do schematically, and as teachers in a classroom, to have two-to-three deep who can play, and play confidently, at full speed.”
A prime example of the competition between experienced players and a crop of newcomers is on the offensive line, where the preseason depth chart shows four fifth-year seniors vying for starting jobs. Much of their competition will come from four very physically gifted second-year players.
“Competition breeds excellence,” redshirt senior center Austin Davis said. “As long as those young guys show the best they can, it’s going to push us older guys – which I love. I want an offensive line that’s deep. These guys are stepping up. This summer, I’ve seen them make great strides in the weight room. They’ve really bought into the program.”
THE STRIKE SAFETY
Jeremy McDuffie was thought to have potential when he earned significant playing time – including two starts – as a true freshman in 2015. Inconsistent production led to a decrease in field action a season later.
No longer, as McDuffie is taking over one of the most important positions on the Duke defense – Strike safety.
“I think one of the keys on defense is that Jeremy McDuffie has found a home at striker,” Cutcliffe said. “His ability to do so many things gives us some flexibility that we haven’t had.”
Strike safety is the position where Jeremy Cash earned All-America honors in 2015.
McDuffie is smaller (5-11, 175) than Cash but is one of the best athletes on the team. He was a star performer for the Duke track and field team, earning All-ACC honors in the triple jump and the 110-meter hurdles. He ran a leg on the 4x100 relay that posted the fourth-fastest time in school history.
The junior defensive back likes the change from cornerback to safety.
“Moving from corner to Strike allows me to use a lot of different tools I have,” he said. “As far as blitzing, I can use my speed more. Corner limited me to one receiver at a time.”
He played alongside Cash in 2015. Did he learn anything from the All-American?
“I take that aggression from him – that fearlessness,” McDuffie said. “My style will be a little different than his.”
BACK TO A BOWL
Duke went to four straight bowl games between 2012 and 2015, but last year’s 4-8 season wasn’t enough to earn a postseason trip.
That disappointment has left a bitter taste.
“It feels like that season lasted forever and extended beyond last season,” Cutcliffe said. “I think my worst day at Duke was this past December, when the dead period started and you had to come off the road [recruiting]. I got on a plane to come home and I realized I had nothing to do. It hit me so hard. Literally, nothing was on my calendar. I choose not to forget that.”
Cutcliffe was not the only one to feel that way.
“December was painful,” Davis said. “It was painful to watch [bowl games on TV] and see teams that we may have beaten or we could have beaten. Now it’s a fire that motivates all of us.
“We don’t plan on sitting home in December again.”