Blue Devils driven by rough 2012 finish
For all the joy that came with winning six games and qualifying for the football program’s first bowl game in 18 years last season, Duke’s players and coaches couldn’t escape one ugly fact.
After beating North Carolina 33-30 on Oct. 20 to reach 6-2, the Blue Devils dropped their final five games of the season.
The skid not only kept them without a bowl win since 1961, it also left Duke without a winning season since 1994.
So as the Blue Devils began practice for the new football season on Monday, the idea of a better second half of the season already is on everyone’s minds.
“We’re looking at everything we do to be a better football team in November,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “Not that we don’t want to be great in September and August, but we need to be better in November.”
In Cutcliffe’s five seasons as Duke’s coach, the Blue Devils are 1-20 in November games. The lone win came during the 3-9 campaign in 2010.
The situation, of course, predates Cutcliffe’s arrival in Durham. The Blue Devils won only 10 games — in any month — in the eight seasons before Cutcliffe became their coach.
But with three ACC wins and the Belk Bowl appearance a year ago, Duke certainly has improved from those dark days when it was considered the nation’s worst Division I football program.
The task of overcoming its late-season struggles, though, began with the very first preseason practice.
“I think August is going to be really critical,” Cutcliffe said.
With 32 players on the roster who have started, the Blue Devils appear to have more depth than they ever have under Cutcliffe. That figures to be an asset when the inevitable injuries that hit every football team occur.
“This year’s team has a lot more depth than we did last year,” said starting left guard Dave Harding, a redshirt senior. “We have guys that are starting games that have backed people up. That really hasn’t been the case around here in a long, long time. I think that’s going to play a factor in how we last through the season.”
Cutcliffe said because of the team’s increased number of experienced players, the two-deep chart will be fluid early in camp.
“It’s going to take two or three weeks to develop the two-deep,” Cutcliffe said.
The offensive line returns four starters, including Harding. Even though quarterback Sean Renfree and wide receiver Conner Vernon are gone to the NFL, Duke has two quarterbacks with starting experience in Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette.
At receiver, Jamison Crowder is back after amassing 1,074 receiving yards a year ago and Issac Blakeney has moved to slot receiver after seeing playing time at tight end last season.
Cutcliffe and his staff are comfortable using any of four running backs, including sophomore Jela Duncan who led the team in rushing last season.
On defense, Duke has four linebackers — Kelby Brown, C.J. France, Kyler Brown and David Helton — vying for two starting jobs. All four have started in their careers.
Redshirt seniors Kenny Anunike, Justin Foxx and Sydney Sarmiento anchor the defensive line.
All the Blue Devils experienced the breakout season a year ago when Duke finally returned to the postseason. But that season-ending skid left them with a sour feeling.
“It’s not satisfactory to us,” Duncan said. “We went on a five-game losing streak — nobody wants to go on a five-game losing streak. It just made us more hungry, and it made us go harder and harder in the offseason. We’ve got one goal in mind, and that’s the ACC championship. We have to do it day by day and rep by rep.”
As Cutcliffe said Monday: “If you don’t like how it tastes, don’t drink it anymore.” The idea, he said, is to do things differently now so results are better later.
Harding said going through that tough finish was a good lesson about keeping the work level up.
“Even, say, you go through a two-week stretch of losses or you have an injury, just to come together as a team and finish out the season,” Harding said.
NOTES — Duke started practice with three players out of action due to injury — defensive end Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo, quarterback Thomas Sirk and cornerback Jared Boyd. Dewalt-Ondijo had ankle surgery in May and would be in the rotation at defensive end if he wasn’t injured. Cutcliffe said, at this point, there is no guarantee he will be available for the season-opening game on Aug. 31 against N.C. Central. Another defensive end, Justin Foxx, is limited but Cutcliffe said he is closer to returning to action than Dewalt-Ondijo.