David Cutcliffe intent on making Duke kicking great again after 2016 stumbles

Duke coach David Cutcliffe, middle, holds his head as the Blue Devils are forced to stop the clock late in the fourth quarter against Wake Forest in September.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe, middle, holds his head as the Blue Devils are forced to stop the clock late in the fourth quarter against Wake Forest in September. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Special teams oftentimes becomes the forgotten area of a football team when fans discuss quarterback play and how strong a defensive line will be.

It hasn’t been overlooked at Duke this offseason and will be an important area to watch for the Blue Devils when practice begins July 31.

Duke’s kicking game is particularly under the spotlight.

One of the team’s strengths during four consecutive bowl appearances from 2012-15, the kicking game collapsed last season when Duke went 4-8.

“We have to shore up the kicking game,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said Friday. “I think we are going to be exceptional returning, covering, athletes, athletes, athletes. But we’ve got to shore up our place-kicking game. We have to make sure we punt the ball well. We’ve got to get a new snapper. A new holder. I don’t think we’ve had as many questions.”

Kicker Ross Martin and punter Will Monday handled their duties with aplomb from 2012-15 and leave their names all over the Duke record book. They’ll be in NFL camps with the New York Jets (Martin) and Kansas City Chiefs (Monday) later this month.

Kicker A.J. Reed replaced Martin last season as a freshman but made just 3 of 10 field goals. No FBS team in the country kicked fewer field goals or had a worse success rate on them than Duke.

Duke had an experienced long-snapper last season in Thomas Hennessy but he’s graduated and moved on to the Indianapolis Colts.

Austin Parker handled the punting duties last season as a redshirt freshman but Duke’s average of 38.8 per punt was 12th best in the 14-team ACC. Duke never finished lower than fourth in the ACC during Monday’s career.

Cutcliffe remains a believer in Parker’s skills. He exited spring practice as the team’s No. 1 punter and No. 1 placekicker. Reed is listed as a reserve kicker. Senior walk-on Will Kline, who handled kickoff duties last season, could do so again this season. He’s also the back-up punter.

Duke brought in a pair of recruited walk-on kickers to compete for the starting job in Jack Driggers of Tallahassee, Fla., and Jackson Hubbard from Dallas, Tex.

Sophomore Ben Wyatt is set to take over as the long snapper if he produces good work in preseason practices.

All of those players should expect to feel Cutcliffe staring them down in practice. Entering his 10th season as Duke’s head coach, Cutcliffe clearly believes that special teams must improve for the Blue Devils to have a winning season.

“I’m going to take that on quickly,” Cutcliffe said. “They are going to see me more than they want to see me, all those specialists. If they can’t perform under my pressure, then there is no way they are going to perform in big ball games like we’re going to have early. There is going to be some pretty heated competition in that regard.”

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC