Cutcliffe building Duke for postseason
With a few fortunate bounces of the ball, good health and a terrific season by talented senior quarterback Sean Renfree, Duke football could make a splash of sorts this coming fall. The Blue Devils just might sneak into a bowl game.
From 1939 to 1961, Duke played in two Rose Bowls, two Orange Bowls, a Sugar Bowl and Cotton Bowl. Duke football was relevant.
Since then, however, the Blue Devils have been invited to just two bowl games: the All-American Bowl in 1989 and the Hall of Fame Bowl in 1994. And really, the Devils haven't been close since Fred Goldsmith took his first Duke club to Tampa to face Wisconsin nearly 20 years ago.
Duke has won just four or more games in a season just four times since, with five games its high mark in 2009 under current coach David Cutcliffe. Its overall numbers are so unbecomingly bad it's not even worth laying such an assembly.
What's more important for Duke now is that Cutcliffe's methodical (was there any other way given how far Duke had fallen) building of the program has it on the cusp of the postseason even if consecutive 3-9 seasons might not exactly suggest that. Fact: the level of competitiveness has escalated.
Nine of Duke's losses over the last two seasons were by a touchdown or less, and several others were nip-and-tuck games well into the fourth quarter. A lack of depth, affected in part by injuries, and lacking enough playmakers, especially on defense, did in the Devils too often. But that shortage in personnel is less of a problem as each season under Cutcliffe passes.
Cutcliffe and his staff aren't reeling in five-star recruits or kids they had to pry away from the clutches of Alabama, LSU and Florida State. But they are finding players that fit in at Duke, into its system, beginning with parts to the Devils' capable passing attack.
Renfree has passed for 6,352 yards, 31 touchdowns, and has completed 63.4 percent of his pass attempts. Senior wide receiver Connor Vernon has hauled in 198 passes for 2,675 yards and 12 touchdowns as a Blue Devil, and gives Renfree one of the top and most unheralded receivers in the nation to look to.
"Our passing game, I like it right now," Cutcliffe said. "But we moved Brandon Braxton to safety – one of our starting wide receivers – and he has been tremendous in that role, so I am not going to move him back. And we're a little thin with the dismissal of a receiver. That's an area of concern."
Yet, a passing guru like Cutcliffe, who has been a longtime quarterback mentor to Peyton and Eli Manning, can be concerned one second, but since he also said he likes the passing game right now it's probably a non-issue.
In addition, Duke expects to have a more consistent ground game and its defense should improve, even though it lost a terrific player and leader in Matt Daniels. But the layering of the program with more athleticism than perhaps ever before means a thicker array of players will strengthen the overall defense.
Yet, this is Duke going from where it was when Cutcliffe took over five years ago, a place few people can truly imagine, to approaching a level of competitiveness in the ACC. So concerns on defense remain.
"The defensive front, as long as we've been here, has been a challenge…," Cutcliffe said. "I have some concerns about our defensive line, but I think for the first time we have some serious competition.
"Hopefully, we will stay healthy. But I think if we get all of our people back – (senior defensive end) Kenny Anunik and (sophomore defensive end) Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo – if they get back, they missed all of spring, then I think we'll have a chance to be much better on the defensive line."
With Florida International, North Carolina Central and Memphis visiting Wallace Wade Stadium and a visit to Stanford outside of its ACC slate, if Duke can muster three league wins it will qualify for a bowl. The ACC schedule isn't easy, but games at Wake Forest and possibly Georgia Tech, and at home versus Virginia, North Carolina and Miami are possible victories for the Blue Devils.
Duke is still a couple of years away from being able to plug guys into positions and see them flourish right away. But Cutcliffe's strategy of eating an elephant one bite at a time is on the verge of showing signs of paying off. And there can't be a greater example of this than playing in a bowl game.