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Duke football: Coach David Cutcliffe has a plan for repeating as ACC Coastal Division champs

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Jon Gardiner -
David Cutcliffe is 31-44 in his six seasons as coach at Duke. He was ACC coach of the year last season after he led the Blue Devils to a 10-4 record and a berth in the ACC championship game.

GREENSBORO David Cutcliffe was asked a blunt question during his time with the print media Monday: What are the keys to Duke’s repeating as ACC Coastal Division champions?

He didn’t dance around the question.

“There’s two or three,” he said. “Obviously, I’m going to give you some tangibles, I’m not going to say health and all that. We’ve got to run the football better. We didn’t poorly, but this team needs to run the ball better for us to have a chance to repeat the same type of performance.

“We have to get off the field better on third down on defense. That’s significant. And force more punts. Force more turnovers, we need more tackles for losses. If you have more tackles for losses and sacks, that creates third downs that are friendly.”

Improving the offense’s third-down conversion rate and taking better care of the football at critical times were Cutcliffe’s other points, but let’s look at his main two, which he hit several times, more closely.

Last season, Duke ranked fifth in the ACC in rushing, averaging 178 yards per game. That average dips slightly when looking only at conference games, to 167.1 – still good for sixth in the league. Not a poor performance, but one Cutcliffe wants to improve. Doing so will require tweaking the running game.

In 2013, Duke had a four-back rotation, with Josh Snead, Jela Duncan, Juwan Thompson and Shaq Powell (listed in order from most yards gained to least). Duncan and Thompson are gone. Powell and Snead, Nos. 1-2 on the depth chart, will operate more in a two-back system, at least initially. Depth could develop at some point.

“I’m excited about (redshirt freshman) Joe Ajeigbe, and I’m excited about (freshman) Shaun Wilson,” Cutcliffe said. “Both of them will definitely play a role. How that all fits into the picture depends upon August.”

Also gone from last year’s running game is Brandon Connette, Duke’s do-everything quarterback who excelled in short-yardage situations. Connette, who transferred to Fresno State to be closer to his ailing mother, rushed for 14 touchdowns last season, and he had the third-most rushing attempts on the team (101).

There are two probable replacements for Connette: redshirt sophomore Thomas Sirk and redshirt freshman Parker Boehme (a third quarterback, freshman Nico Pierre, is expected to redshirt). Sirk is ahead of Boehme on the depth chart.

“Brandon’s toughness and physicality was exceptional, always will be. But Thomas has a higher ceiling,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s faster. He’s probably got more big-play potential.”

Now about the defense. Last season, Duke ranked ninth in the league in opponent third-down conversion percentage – 37.26 percent (Virginia Tech was first, limiting opponents to a 30.11 success rate). When looking at conference games, the Blue Devils’ number jumps to 39.86 – 11th in the 14-team ACC.

Still, there’s confidence that this season can be better among the players. Kelby Brown, who will anchor the middle of the defense from his mike linebacker position, welcomes the challenge.

“Third-and-1 is probably my favorite play in football,” he said. “I think that I can stop every 3rd-and-1 that I’ve ever faced. It’s just a defensive change. It’s a mindset change.”

Duke was 10-4 (6-2 in ACC) last season, losing to eventual national champ Florida State in the ACC title game and by four points to Johnny Manziel’s Texas A&M team in the Chik-fil-A Bowl.

As Duke has improved on the field over the past two years, moving from fixing major weaknesses to fine-tuning imperfections, expectations have risen. The Blue Devils were picked to finish second in the division by the media (597 points) – the 33 first-place votes Duke received were more than any other Coastal team, including preseason favorite Miami (26, 614 points). Working on the keys Cutcliffe identified will unlock even greater accomplishments.

“We do those things, we’ll have a better football team,” he said. “It’s really not rocket science.”

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley
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