DURHAM – David Cutcliffe’s first recruit at Duke was a four-star prospect – quarterback Sean Renfree of Scottsdale, Ariz.
In his next five recruiting classes, Cutcliffe added two more consensus four-star prospects – Durham running back Desmond Scott in 2009 and Georgia punter Will Monday in 2011. Duke hasn’t sniffed a five-star recruit since Ted Roof landed Vince Oghobaase in 2005.
Duke’s best recruits are almost always three-star prospects – or two-stars who significantly overachieve. Enough did that to help Duke qualify for a bowl game in 2012.
Cutcliffe was hoping that 2012’s success would elevate his recruiting base – a bump that ought to show up in this year’s class.
“It was immediately noticeable on one of my early trips,” Cutcliffe said, recounting a five-day recruiting trip that took him to the West Coast and back last January. “Everywhere I went, I got to the comment, ‘Wow, you guys are good!’ as if it were the first time they had ever seen us play – and it probably was. When you are on bowl week on ESPN, we were absolutely the only college football game on the air at a time when college football is deep in people’s minds. Players saw it.
“That awareness always gets you started.”
Is there any evidence that Duke has benefited from its 2012 success?
If you believe ESPN’s ratings, the class Cutcliffe is putting together for 2014 is at least marginally better than that his previous classes at Duke.
It already includes two four-star prospects – dual threat quarterback Nicodem Pierre of Miami, Fla., and linebacker Zavier Carmichael of Mobile, Ala. Pierre is rated as ESPN’s No. 7 dual threat quarterback and No. 268 overall prospect.
The other 12 players committed to Duke at this point are all rated three-star prospects by ESPN. That compares favorably with Cutcliffe’s last four classes:
2013: 18 of 20 three-star
2012: 13 of 20 three-star
2011: 13 of 20 three-star; one four-star
2010: 8 of 20 three-star
Of course, it’s early, and Duke still has a chance to improve its class – the Devils are involved with at least two more four-star prospects. On the other hand, the Devils’ committed players are not signed and the prospective class could be weakened by defections.
But at this point, it looks like Cutcliffe will put together his best recruiting class at Duke.
It won’t be the kind of class a Florida State or Clemson would brag about, but it is a step in the right direction for the long-struggling program, and it’s evidence that 2012’s success is paying off.
Defense Letting Down Devils
It would be easy to blame the disappointing downturn in Duke’s football fortunes to the team’s injuries at quarterback.
Not too many ACC-level teams are going to be able to compete at a high level with a third-string quarterback.
But while Brandon Connette has had a few rough spots as he’s tried to fill in for injured starter Anthony Boone and backup Thomas Sirk, he’s certainly not the main reason Duke was 2-2 after four games.
Instead, Duke is dealing with another defensive collapse that has seen the Devils give up 96 points, 1,067 yards and 10 touchdown passes in back-to-back home games – losses to Coastal Division rivals Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh.
Cutcliffe was baffled by a particularly awful first-half performance against a good-but-not-great Pittsburgh offense. The Blue Devils gave up an astounding 38 points and 468 yards total offense in the first 30 minutes against the Panthers. Freshman running back James Conner ran over, through and around Duke’s veteran defensive front to gain 144 yards on the ground in the first half. Quarterback Tom Savage threw for 298 yards, including back-to-back touchdown passes of 67 and 69 yards.
It was easily the worst defensive half of football in the Cutcliffe era.
“Just when you think you’ve got football figured out …,” Cutcliffe said, his voice trailing off in bafflement. “It was a pretty bizarre football game.”
Duke made it to a bowl last year with a strong offensive football team. But the Devils actually played some solid defense early in the season, when Duke collected its six wins. Later in the year, better competition and an accumulation of injuries (especially in the secondary) left the Duke defense in a shambles. The last five opponents averaged 49 points a game.
But Cutcliffe thought his defense was in better shape this season. He has one of the deepest and most experienced defensive lines in the ACC, he has star linebacker Kelby Brown (leading the ACC in tackles after three games) back and he thought that would help take the pressure off a relatively inexperienced secondary.
The plan seemed to be working against two soft opponents to open the season – Duke’s defense gave up just one touchdown against NCCU and Memphis combined.
When Georgia Tech shredded Duke for 344 rushing yards and 38 points, it was a warning sign that all was not well. Still, Paul Johnson’s wishbone does that to a lot of teams.
Paul Chryst’s Pitt offense isn’t that kind of threat. Yet Duke made the 2013 Panthers look like the last Pittsburgh team to visit Duke – but even Johnny Majors’ 1976 national champions with Tony Dorsett and Matt Cavanaugh didn’t do that kind of damage.
The Blue Devils were at a loss as to what has gone so badly wrong on defense.
“They came out swinging and we came out a little bit slow,” veteran defensive end Kenny Anunike said. “We got more physical in the second half.”
Indeed, the Duke defense limited Pitt to 130 second-half yards and just 14 offensive points. Conner, who ran so roughshod over the Duke defenders in the first 30 minutes, managed just 29 yards on 10 carries in the second half.
That is the kind of defense that Cutcliffe expected from his team this season. He couldn’t explain why it didn’t show up until after halftime.
“The thing I want is consistency – that’s a mystery to me,” the Duke coach said. “You saw our defense in the second half stymied them pretty well. I need to study the film. There’s something there – not rah-rah energy, but something physical. We’re going to study and evaluate it. What’s going to happen?”
That’s the question that Duke must answer.
Connette certainly gave Duke a chance to beat Pitt. He can use more consistency himself and his four interceptions hurt – especially the last one, returned for a pick-six that gave Pitt the winning points in the 58-55 game. But the junior from California also threw for four touchdowns, ran for two more and compiled 424 yards on total offense – the ninth highest single-game total in Duke history.
Duke can win with Connette at quarterback – but not when the defense struggles as it did in the first half against Pitt. Cutcliffe and his staff have to find the problem and fix it – fast – or the promise of this season is going to slip away.
“We’ve got people who can make plays on both sides of the ball,” Cutcliffe said. “I liked this team in January. I still like this team.”