By Al Featherston
May 6, 2008
DURHAM First-year Duke coach David Cutcliffe went into spring practice with a veteran team, one that will return at least 50 lettermen and perhaps as many as 17 starters this fall.
Unfortunately, not a single one of those players has ever been on the winning side of an ACC football game.
None of the fifth-year guys saw action against Clemson in November 2004, when Duke last beat an ACC foe. To be fair, none of them played in the ensuing loss to North Carolina to close the 2004 season, so you can blame the current crop of seniors for only 24 of the Blue Devils' streak of 25 straight ACC losses.
"I saw a bunch of guys who were hanging on every word you said," Cutcliffe said of his first meeting with the Blue Devils. "They got excited. They're hungry. One of the things I had to explain was that I didn't come here to change the culture. I came here to assist them to earn a change of culture. So real quickly I put it in their minds that if anything was going to change, it was going to come from them."
Cutcliffe, a winner in six seasons at Ole Miss (44-29 with five winning seasons, a 4-1 bowl record and the 2003 SEC West Division championship), offers a fresh start to the ACC's weakest football program. He has imported an impressive group of assistant coaches, expanded the team's undermanned support staff and instituted a new approach to offseason conditioning.
He was gratified to see how the players he inherited responded to the challenge he presented them.
"They paid a hell of a price," Cutcliffe said. "They have worked really, really hard. It's been pretty phenomenal."
Player after player testified to the impact of the new conditioning program.
"We had great, great success in this offseason program with the conditioning and with spring ball," junior defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase said. "Coach said he wanted everybody to lose a lot of weight, and we lost 400 pounds collectively. ... I've dropped six or seven pounds, and my body fat has gone down tremendously. My whole body feels better. I feel lighter on my feet, and I have better stamina."
Cutcliffe has his players believing that the intense conditioning program will translate into more stamina on the field and, hence, stronger finishes.
"I think we worked harder and definitely smarter," said junior linebacker Vincent Rey, who lost 18 pounds before spring practice. "We want to play faster, and we want to win the game in the fourth quarter. It will help if we're the best-conditioned team in the ACC."
Cutcliffe tested that improved conditioning by running spring practice at a frenetic pace.
"Without doubt, the thing we did was learn to play at an entirely different speed," he said. "We did a ton of full-speed work this spring. To me, a coach doing this for 33 years, it looked like real football. The line of scrimmage is where I wanted to see the most progress. Both sides of the ball at the line of scrimmage started to look like major college football to me at the end of spring practice."
Cutcliffe arrived at Duke with the reputation as an offensive specialist, especially as a quarterback guru. He mentored Super Bowl MVPs Peyton and Eli Manning in college, prepared current Tennessee quarterback Eric Ainge for the NFL and turned unheralded Tee Martin into a national championship QB.
It will be interesting to see what kind of impact Cutcliffe will have on Duke's rising junior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, a player the new coach compared to Martin. Lewis has thrown for 4,564 yards in two seasons at Duke. Just three players in ACC history threw for more yards through their sophomore season. A year ago, Lewis completed 55 percent of his passes and threw 21 TDs and 10 interceptions.
On the other hand, Lewis has led Duke to just one win in 23 career starts.
"He has one of the skills that they all had to have the ability to see, a natural vision," Cutcliffe said. "I was surprised, being no taller than he is. But his anticipation is good. He's got a nice feel for seams and zones. We've got to improve his accuracy for him to be as good as he can possibly be."
That's something Cutcliffe and QB coach/offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will be working to correct in the months leading up to the start of preseason practice in August. But it's just one of many jobs still facing the new staff.
"We've got a lot of concerns," Cutcliffe said at the conclusion of spring practice. "We've got a lot of holes, but we did make progress."
The first-year coach didn't waste much of his 15-day spring practice window installing and fine-tuning his offense. He was more concerned with evaluating talent and teaching his players to work and play at a new tempo. The team's four scrimmages, including the spring game, were remarkably "vanilla," to use Cutcliffe's description. He wasn't surprised or disappointed when the defense absolutely dominated the Blue-White Game.
"I still believe that you win championships with defense and the kicking game," Cutcliffe said. "We're going to take that approach defense and the kicking game first. ... They get first choice of everything."
Kicking breakdowns directly cost Duke two ACC wins in the last two seasons and contributed heavily to three or four more losses. Strong-legged Joe Surgan remained an enigma after a spring that saw him boom a 55-yard field goal in one scrimmage, then mis-hit a shorter kick the next time out a wobbling knuckleball that never got more than eight feet off the ground. Nick Maggio offers a slightly more consistent alternative, but he lacks range.
"Our kicking game has been atrocious here," Cutcliffe said. "To be honest with you, I was hoping that we would be further ahead. The inconsistency is going to get you beat time after time after time. We don't have a punter, a placekicker or a snapper. The only thing I'm settled on is who our holder is, and I think he's great!"
Cutcliffe might be forced to rely on incoming recruit Paul Asack, the younger brother of backup quarterback Zack Asack, as his primary kicker.
The younger Asack isn't the only newcomer who might crack the lineup. Cutcliffe is hoping that several of his recruits can improve the speed of his team.
Defensive back Randez James, who enrolled in January and went through spring drills, could see a lot of time this fall. Trent Mackey, a mobile linebacker from Louisiana; Jordan Byas, a sprint champion from Florida; Tony Foster, a 100-meter sprinter from Burlington, N.C.; and Johnny Williams, a wide receiver from Alabama, also will get long looks in preseason practice.
"We need that spark of speed," Cutcliffe said.
The Duke coach is under no illusions about how far his team has to go to be competitive in the ACC. He likes the progress the Devils made in the spring, but he understands that it must continue.
"There's always another level," he said, "and we have to reach that level to hold up in the ACC."
SPRING 2008 OVERVIEW
DE Patrick Bailey, FS/KR Chris Davis, OG Zach Maurides, OC Matt Rumsey, TE Nick Stefanow, WR Jomar Wright
LB Tim Ball, RB Justin Boyle, RB Ronnie Drummer, CB Rodney Ezzard, DS Casey Hales, CB Evalio Harrell, OC Garrett Mason, DE Ryan Radloff
2008 Returning Starters^
Pos. Name Ht./Wt. Class
QB Thaddeus Lewis 6-2/190 Jr.
RB Re'quan Boyette 5-10/210 Sr.
WR Eron Riley 6-3/200 Sr.
RG Rob Schirmann 6-5/285 Sr.
RT Fred Roland 6-8/310 Sr.
NG Ayanga Okpokowuruk 6-4/255 Jr.
DT Vince Oghobaase 6-6/310 Jr.
DE Wesley Oglesby 6-6/250 So.
LB Vincent Rey 6-0/255 Jr.
LB Michael Tauiliili 5-11/235 Sr.
LB Marcus Jones 6-3/220 Sr.
SS Adrian Aye-Darko 6-2/210 Sr.
CB Glenn Williams 5-10/185 Sr.
CB Leon Wright 5-9/165 Jr.
Special Teams (2)
PK Nick Maggio 6-4/190 So.
P Kevin Jones 6-3/185 *So.
- -has utilized redshirt season
^ -six/more 2007 regular-season starts
Other Tested Returnees
QB Zack Asack, WR Sheldon Bell, WR Raphael Chestnut, LT Cameron Goldberg (suspended starter may return), FB Clifford Harris, OG Jarrod Holt, WR Austin Kelly, TE Brandon King, OT Bryan Morgan, TE Tielor Robinson, PK Joe Surgan
DE Greg Akinbiyi, LB Adam Banks, S Catron Gainey, CB/KR Jabari Marshall, DT Clifford Respress, LB Charles Robinson, NG Kinney Rucker, LB Alfred Williams
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1998 2-6 (6) 4-7 None
1999 3-5 (5) 3-8 None
2000 0-8 (9) 0-11 None
2001 0-8 (9) 0-11 None
2002 0-8 (9) 2-10 None
2003 2-6 (8) 4-8 None
2004 1-7 (10) 2-9 None
2005 0-8 (12) 1-10 None
2006 0-8 (6C) 0-12 None
2007 0-8 (6C) 1-11 None
ACC: 8-72 (.100)
Overall: 17-97 (.149)
Date Opponent 2007 Record
Aug. 30 James Madison 8-4 (6-2)
Sept. 6 Northwestern 6-6 (3-5)
Sept. 13 Navy 8-5
Sept. 20 OPEN
Sept. 27 Virginia 9-4 (6-2)
Oct. 4 at Georgia Tech 7-6 (4-4)
Oct. 11 OPEN
Oct. 18 Miami 5-7 (2-6)
Oct. 25 at Vanderbilt 5-7 (2-6)
Nov. 1 at Wake Forest 9-4 (5-3)
Nov. 8 N.C. State 5-7 (3-5)
Nov. 15 at Clemson 9-4 (5-3)
Nov. 22 at Virginia Tech 11-3 (7-1)
Nov. 29 North Carolina 4-8 (3-5)
NOTE: Most game times still TBA.
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