Duke goes from 'fattest, softest' to ACC Coastal Division champs

Dec. 04, 2013 @ 08:42 PM

Jeff Faris, Re’quan Boyette and their Duke football teammates hustled and grunted through their workouts.

Sure it was off-season conditioning work. But they had some proving to do to the new set of coaches a month into their tenures.

“We were out there digging,” said Boyette, a running back. “We were working. We thought we were showing these new coaches.”

The earnest Blue Devils sweated through different stations during agility drills for about 10 minutes. Next up was running. But they didn’t get the chance “He stopped us,” Boyette said. “He just stopped us.”

Duke coach David Cutcliffe halted the workout. But this was no break for good work. Instead, Cutcliffe told the Blue Devils they were the worst-conditioned team he’d ever seen. For Duke to change its moribund football fortunes, that would have to change dramatically.

“Those guys ended up being great guys,” Cutcliffe says now. “But they were the fattest, softest football team I ever saw in my life.”

Boyette, now Duke’s running backs coach, can only laugh in amazement.

“As crazy as it sounds,” Boyette said, “that’s the best statement that Duke football has ever heard.”

Cutcliffe uttered that statement in January 2008. Now, nearly six years later, Duke’s transformation is nationally known.

The Blue Devils won 10 games in the eight seasons prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival. They’ve won 10 games this season alone and will play in the ACC championship game Saturday (8 p.m., WTVD) against Florida State in Charlotte.

A true freshman on Duke’s first team under Cutcliffe in 2008, Matt Daniels said Cutcliffe sold belief on the recruiting trail.

“You could just tell from the beginning, even from a recruiting standpoint,” said Daniels, a safety who is now with the NFL’s St. Louis Rams. “Me and Coach Cut came in at the same time. He just told me we were going to start winning championships at Duke. Without a doubt, I believed him.”

Not everyone in the Duke locker room did, though. With no winning seasons since 1994 and no outright ACC championships since 1962, losing was so ingrained in Duke’s football culture that one offseason couldn’t completely eradicate it.

“Way back then,” said Duke redshirt senior defensive end Kenny Anunike, a true freshman in 2008, “I might have heard a few guys say, ‘Hey, let’s try to keep this game close.’ Or `Let’s just go out there and survive.’ If you are going to go into a game and try to survive, you might as well not even play. You are already defeated. You might as well not get off the bus. That game’s over.”

That’s the way it was for Duke then, not only in the locker room but around campus and in the Durham community as well. Duke football had no chance of competing in the ACC.

Cutcliffe and his staff set about changing that perception. His first team whipped itself into better shape during that off-season and won four games.

“I ran them and ran them,” Cutcliffe said. “Sometimes I scared myself how much I ran them. But that team accepted that role to change Duke football with discipline and conditioning. The standards started changing.”

The 2009 Blue Devils won five times. Suddenly, while certainly not champions, Duke football became competitive and relevant.

“You would go out to restaurants,” said Faris, a safety on those Duke teams and now a graduate assistant coach. “People said they were excited about Duke football now. It had gotten that bad. He really re-energized the fan base. And with his community service and how approachable Coach Cut is, we had a lot of fans gravitate to him because of all the stuff he does in the community.”

When players like Anthony Boone, Kelby Brown and Jamison Crowder began arriving on campus as new recruits in 2009, 2010 and 2011, Duke football became a better team even if the on-field records didn’t show. The Blue Devils went 3-9 in 2010 and 2011 but few inside the program thought the Duke program was regressing. Faris remembers summer practices the players held on their own with no coaches around. Crowder, a first-team All-ACC wide receiver with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons the last two years, made an impact when he was new to campus.

“Who is that short guy?” Faris remembers thinking. “In 1-on-1s, no one could guard him. That’s one guy that I was like whoa, this guy is special. (Running back) Juwan Thompson as a freshman. This guy is huge. Every year that I was here, more and more people shocked me. Now you look at our team.”

Duke had 11 players named to this season’s All-ACC first, second or third team lists. Four Duke players — Crowder, Brown, Jeremy Cash and Ross Cockrell — were first-team selections.

The Blue Devils (10-2) are ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press poll and, last month, entered the BCS standings for the first time.

“In the beginning stages, he had a whole bunch of people who just didn’t believe we could win big games or any games period,” Daniels said. “You can tell that’s not the case. Coach Cut has those guys believing in themselves and believing in the foundation that he’s laid down.”

Those who were part of that first workout in January 2008 became the genesis for that change.

“It’s funny now just looking back on it,” Boyette said. “That one day is the reason we are playing in the ACC championship game this weekend, I believe.”