DURHAM In his five years at Duke, David Cutcliffe has become synonymous with Duke football. That’s unavoidable when a coach takes on the challenge of turning a program around and succeeds.
He’s not alone. The same can be said of the seniors who will play their last home game – but not their last game – against Miami on Saturday. The 13 scholarship players in this senior class played early and they played often in their careers, and the role they played in getting Duke back to a bowl game for the first time since 1994 cannot be underestimated.
They have been around so long, and spent so much time on the field, it’s hard to imagine what Duke football will be like without them.
“We knew it was going to happen soon, and I prayed for this group that this was the team that broke the ice,” Cutcliffe said. “And once the ice is broken, we don’t intend to go back. We preach hard on leaving a place better than we found it. I can promise you these seniors have done that when it comes to Duke.”
For four years, Duke has been a little like a pro team, bringing back the same players season after season: Sean Renfree, Conner Vernon, Desmond Scott and Bryan Moore to name just a few. Many started from Day 1. These seniors are the standard-bearers of the new standard at Duke, and replacing them might be as difficult as it was to get to this point.
They’ve changed a program and they’ve set records, no one more than Vernon, the all-time ACC leader in catches and receiving yards. That’s why it was so important for Duke to break the bowl drought with this class. They bought into what Cutcliffe was selling when he took over five years ago. They made a leap of faith to play at Duke, a commitment to turning a program around. They did it.
“I thought we had an especially good team this year because we had an older group of players,” Renfree said. “I wouldn’t say that I was ever worried or anxious or anything. I knew we had a good team.”
With both the Tar Heels and the Hurricanes ineligible for bowls, a win against Miami might vault Duke to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. For decades in the ACC, a berth in what used to be the Peach Bowl was the mark of true success. It’s a big-time bowl and far more than a 6-5 team can usually expect heading into the last game of the season. In this case, it would be a fitting reward.
“They became synonymous with our tenure, but the thing to recognize is that group of guys is synonymous with good football,” Cutcliffe said. “When could you say that last? You’re naming people like Conner, guys that set records. Desmond Scott, one of three guys in the history of the league to go over 1,000 yards rushing, receiving and kickoff returning.”
“When you start thinking of football excellence, that’s what you call changing a culture. That’s what these seniors have done. Darn right, it’s going to hurt to lose them. We’re not losing a large number, but we’re losing some good people and that will be a special challenge.”
Wherever Duke ends up, whether it’s Atlanta or Orlando or Charlotte, it will be a deserved reward for a senior class that, with no evidence or proof, believed Duke football could get to this point, and then did everything in its power to get there.