DURHAM – David Cutcliffe didn’t hang around Charlotte very long after watching his Duke football team fall 45-7 to Florida State in the ACC Championship Game.
Nor did he return to Durham.
The Blue Devil coach hit the recruiting trail – even though his 2014 Class is all but filled out (unless there are unexpected changes, he has one open spot left). Cutcliffe is counting on his team’s 10-win season to lift his recruiting to another level, but that progress is far more likely to show up in the Class of 2015.
The ACC title game demonstrates both how far Duke football has come under Cutcliffe – and how much further it needs to go.
On one hand, it’s a triumph that Duke was even in Charlotte. It wasn’t that long ago that Duke was winning zero or one game a season. Even Cutcliffe had back-to-back three-win seasons in 2010 and 2011. OK, so the top programs in the Coastal Division – Virginia Tech and Miami – might be a bit down at the moment, but the fact that Duke was good enough to take advantage of that opportunity is a significant accomplishment.
The fact that Duke has won the last two meetings with each of its three Big Four rivals is something that Duke hasn’t done since the days of Bill Murray (the Hall of Fame coach, who retired in 1965 … not the comic actor).
On the other hand, Florida State’s dominance in the title game demonstrated just how big the gap remains between Duke and the really top teams in the nation. It’s true that FSU may very be the best team in the country, but for all the progress in Durham, the Devils probably would have fared little better against Alabama, Clemson, Oregon, Baylor, Michigan State – the legitimate national contenders.
That’s a function of talent.
The team that battled FSU in Charlotte is almost entirely made up of two-star and three-star recruits.
Cutcliffe has done a magnificent job of finding undervalued prospects. He suggested that his secret was getting kids in his camps and judging them with his own eyes.
“We can evaluate good players,” he said. “If we can get them to camp, we can evaluate them. They don’t have to have stars by their name. We know about them. We know who they are. What their parents are about. So we made a concerted effort to recruit the state of North Carolina extremely hard, and that’s paid dividends. We’re going to continue to do that.”
That could explain why he’s been successful in finding two-star gems from close to home. True freshman Breon Borders, who picked off Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston twice in the title game (one was just a bad throw by Winston, but the other was an all-star quality break on the ball by Borders), was a two-star recruit from Statesville, N.C., who impressed Cutcliffe in camp.
Charlotte’s Anthony Boone, who lost for the first time in 11 starts at quarterback, was another in-state two-star who showed up so well in Cutcliffe’s camp that the Duke coach ignored the recruiting services. All-ACC picks Ross Cockrell and Perry Simmons were two-star in-state recruits.
That’s all very impressive, but there is only so much a coach can do at the two-star and three-star level. The really great prospects are four and five-star players, and those belong to the top programs. It’s the same in basketball – Mike Krzyzewski just locked up the nation’s top-rated recruiting class for Duke. He competes for national titles with five-star players, not three-stars that he nurtures to greatness.
The Blue Devil football team that lost to Florida State in Charlotte boasted exactly one consensus four-star player – punter Will Monday. Cutcliffe’s incoming class already has three four-stars (and might add a fourth, if Cutcliffe can win an intense recruiting battle for Florida wide receiver Trevon Lee).
That class was largely recruited in the wake of Duke’s “breakthrough” 6-7 season in 2012. On paper, it’s the best in the Cutcliffe era, although it still falls far short of the classes being put together by the likes of FSU, Clemson and Miami.
Can Cutcliffe change that in the coming year?
In 2006, Jim Grobe was able to lead Wake Forest to 11 wins and an ACC championship. In the next two seasons, Grobe’s Deacs won nine and eight games. But Wake Forest was not able to transform its three brilliant seasons into any kind of recruiting breakthrough.
Grobe retired recently after five straight losing seasons.
That’s the path Cutcliffe is trying to avoid. He has the talent on hand to match this season’s level of play for the next year or two. But unless he can use this run of success to break through with some top recruits, it’s going to be difficult for Duke to sustain this year’s level of success – and impossible to compete with nation’s top teams.
2014 Season Looks Solid
It will be interesting to see where Duke is picked in next summer’s ACC preseason poll. The Blue Devils made much of last summer’s last place prediction in the Coastal Division, using it as motivation for the team’s drive to the division championship.
Duke won’t be picked last next summer … but the Devils aren’t likely to be preseason favorites to repeat in the Coastal, despite returning about as solid a core as any team in the division. Indeed, where Coastal powers Miami and Virginia Tech will have to break in new quarterbacks next season, Duke retains almost every important skill player – including both veteran quarterbacks, the team’s top three running backs and All-ACC wide receiver Jamison Crowder. The secondary is bursting with talented young players and both starting linebackers – the top two tacklers in the ACC – will be back.
There are a few holes to fill in the offensive and defensive line, but Cutcliffe appears to have well-prepared youngsters ready to step in. Just as last summer, an informed observer should have been able to look at the Duke depth chart and understand that the Devils would actually be stronger than the 6-7 team from 2012, the same scrutiny would reveal that Duke has a chance to be even better in 2014 than the 10-3 team from 2013.
But that doesn’t mean the Devils should be projected to be have a better record next season or to repeat as Coastal Division champions.
The year’s team was driven by an intense desire to succeed and to prove its critics wrong. It started within days of the team’s disappointing loss to Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.
“Our team came out of the bowl game with a good mindset,” Cutcliffe said. “It made them hungry for more.”
Whatever happens to Duke against Texas &M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the Devils will need to bring the same mindset into the offseason workouts and into next season. Will success blunt the focus of the players … or whet their appetite?