Reflection amid resurgence

Duke football players, coaches gear up for rare bowl appearance
Dec. 26, 2012 @ 06:32 PM

Former Duke football players gathered at the Westin Hotel a few blocks from Bank of America Stadium on Wednesday.

Current Duke coach David Cutcliffe was more than glad to meet them and share his team’s moment.

These moments, you see, haven’t happened often for Duke football.

Tonight, for the first time since Jan. 2, 1995 and only the third time in the last half-century, Duke will participate in a postseason football bowl game when the Blue Devils face Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl (6:30 p.m., ESPN).

“We’ve come a long way,” Cutcliffe said Wednesday. “This is the third bowl game in 50 years, so it’s not like it’s a recent downturn.”

Cutcliffe took on this task in December 2007 when he was hired at Duke’s football coach. The team had won 10 games over the previous eight seasons and didn’t even have a full-length practice field at its disposal.

But Cutcliffe’s goal was to get Duke back to the postseason. He recruited players to Duke talking about that very possibility, as remote as it seemed to them at the time.

“You could see that a lot of work needed to be done,” said Duke defensive end Kenny Anunike, who signed with the Blue Devils in February 2008.

That work got done – slowly, in fits and spurts – over the past five seasons. Duke won nine games over Cutcliffe’s first two seasons and appeared ready to take the big step toward bowl eligibility.

Still, Cutcliffe had to keep selling his program to anyone who would listen as he tried to bring larger crowds to outdated, mostly uncomfortable Wallace Wade Stadium.

“Everybody says change the culture, we really had to change the culture and it wasn’t just our team,” Cutcliffe said. “We had to change expectations from our fans, almost teaching fans how to follow major college football.”

Back-to-back 3-9 seasons in 2010 and 2011, when the Blue Devils managed only one ACC win in each of the two seasons, represented a step back on the field.

But last spring, Cutcliffe said, he and his coaching staff looked at the roster and harbored serious hope of a breakthrough.

“As we started spring practice and came out of it, I don’t think there was a player or coach who didn’t expect we’d be somewhere in the postseason,” Cutcliffe said. “We knew we had a good football team. We had all the ingredients.”

Duke had experienced, accomplished skill players on offense in quarterback Sean Renfree, wide receiver Conner Vernon and running back-turned-wide receiver Desmond Scott. All three seniors had started in the previous three seasons.

On defense, the Blue Devils had an emerging star in cornerback Ross Cockrell, who after two up-and-down seasons as a starter became a first-team, all-ACC selection this season as a junior. Cockrell played alongside seniors Walt Canty, Jordon Byas and Lee Butler in the secondary.

Heavy attention in recruiting brought more talent and depth to Duke’s defensive line.

Still, getting to six wins and bowl eligibility would not be easy.

The team was stunned on July 4 when sophomore wide receiver Blair Holliday, the team’s offensive most valuable player in spring practice, suffered a traumatic brain injury in a personal watercraft accident on Lake Tillery. Holliday remained near death at UNC Hospitals for weeks before beginning a remarkable recovery that has him hopeful of returning to school soon.

Duke sophomore wide receiver Jamison Crowder was piloting the other personal watercraft that collided with the one Holliday was controlling. Crowder’s grief at injuring his friend was deep, but he eventually worked through the emotional toll to have a breakout season on the field with 70 catches for 1,025 yards and eight touchdowns.

A mountain of other injuries, mainly but not limited to the defense, had Cutcliffe and his staff mixing and matching parts to hold together game plans all season.

By winning six times in the first eight games of the season, including a dramatic last-minute, 33-30 win over rival North Carolina on Oct. 20, Duke had won more games than in any season since 1994.

The goal of being bowl eligible had been reached.

“The thing that we didn’t know that made it more satisfying is that we’d go through one of the more challenging years of any team I’ve been on or any time I’ve followed,” Cutcliffe said. “I think it’s a great tribute to the character of this team.”

The former Duke players who understand what Cutcliffe and this team has accomplished traveled to Charlotte to be part of today’s historic bowl game. Only eight other Duke teams before this one have played in bowl games.

Tonight, in the 100th season of Duke football, the Blue Devils appear in a bowl game for the ninth time.

The current Duke players and coaches have been in Charlotte participating in Belk Bowl festivities since Saturday. The former players joined the party on Wednesday.

This year’s Blue Devils plan to give them a good show.

“Guys are getting more locked in,” Canty said. “We’ve got the bowl events behind us. It’s time to focus on football.”