Football

Duke looks toward next step of football building project

Head coach David Cutcliffe laughs as he speaks to the media before Duke's first football practice of the season at the school campus in Durham, Aug. 5, 2015.
Head coach David Cutcliffe laughs as he speaks to the media before Duke's first football practice of the season at the school campus in Durham, Aug. 5, 2015. cseward@newsobserver.com

Duke has come a long way on the football field. Now the renovations to Wallace Wade Stadium are catching up to the progress in the win-loss column.

The latest phase in the stadium upgrades include a new 3,175-square foot LED video board in the south end zone, the removal of the cumbersome track around the field and the addition of new field-level seats.

“We are a team under construction and we are obviously a facility under construction,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “It has been fun to see both.”

It wasn’t that long ago that “Duke” and “progress” were antonyms.

Duke won 22 games in the 13 seasons from 1995 to 2007 before Cutcliffe was hired in 2008. Cutcliffe’s past three teams have won 25 games, including a 9-4 finish last year.

Par for the old Duke football course, the first upgrade of Wallace Wade Stadium was the addition of women’s bathrooms. Par for the new normal at Duke, by the start of the 2016 season, Wallace Wade will have a swanked out five-story tower with luxury suites and NFL-like amenities.

Still, as far as Duke has come – from arguably the worst program in the country – there are steps to be climbed.

Player turnover

The Blue Devils deserve credit for beating the teams they are supposed to. That can be easier said than done in the ACC and has recently held back both North Carolina and N.C. State.

Since the start of the 2012 season, the Blue Devils are 16-2 against Division I teams that have finished the season with a losing record but are just 6-13 against teams with a .500 mark or better.

Coastal Division contemporaries Virginia Tech (13-13) and Georgia Tech (12-15) have fared significantly better against .500-or-better teams.

Another sign of the Blue Devils’ progress is they are expected to handle some wholesale personnel changes on offense in stride.

Receiver Jamison Crowder, quarterback Anthony Boone, guard Laken Tomlinson and tackle Takoby Cofield were integral parts to Duke’s recent success. They are all gone. Tomlinson and Cofield started 94 games between them on an the offensive line, an underrated part of Cutcliffe’s success.

A new quarterback

But Cutcliffe is confident he has the necessary talent to continue the positive momentum of the program.

Fourth-year junior Thomas Sirk takes over for the effective, yet mistake prone, Boone at quarterback. There’s a bevy of talented options at running back with Shaquille Powell, Shaun Wilson and the return of Jela Duncan from academic suspension.

Cutcliffe will forever be linked to the success of the Manning brothers and mentoring quarterbacks but the Blue Devils have quietly transformed into a capable running team.

In 2009, Cutcliffe’s second season, Duke averaged 2.2 yards per carry and 63.5 rushing yards per game. Last year, Duke averaged 4.8 yards per carry and 181.8 rushing yards per game.

“We think we are best when we can run the football,” Cutcliffe said.

If the Blue Devils can make what Cutcliffe calls a “transition” on offense with a new quarterback and without Crowder or key parts on the offensive line, their best might be good enough to win the division for the second time in three years.

Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio

Duke at a glance

2014: 9-4 (5-3 ACC)

Coach: David Cutcliffe (40-48, eighth year at Duke)

Returning starters: Offense (6), Defense (6), Special teams (2)

Plus

▪  David Cutcliffe has worked miracles with Duke’s special teams. Since the beginning of his tenure, even before the wins came, he turned an annual weakness into a strength.

Senior kicker Ross Martin (19 of 21) made a better percentage of field goal attempts last season than Florida State All-American Roberto Aguayo (27 of 30). Senior Will Monday is going into his fourth year as the starting punter.

▪  Senior safety Jeremy Cash (111 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions) makes the defense work. The Ohio State transfer could play for any team in the country. He makes the hard plays, he makes the easy plays and everything in between.

Minus

▪  Cutcliffe reminded the media this week that he was at Tennessee when Tee Martin replaced Peyton Manning and the Volunteers won the national championship. The Blue Devils will need a similar succession plan to make up for the losses of receiver Jamison Crowder and guard Laken Tomlinson.

▪  Senior defensive tackle Carlos Wray is the only returning starter on the defensive front. The Blue Devils were susceptible against the run last year (94th in the NCAA, 192.9 yards per game) and will be tested early by Georgia Tech, Boston College and Army.

Best-case scenario

An early home win over Georgia Tech puts Duke back in the pole position in the division and the Blue Devils close out the season strong with a 6-2 ACC record and 10-win regular season.

Worst-case scenario

Northwestern trips them up early, they go winless in the ACC in October and go to Virginia on Nov. 21 needing a win for bowl eligibility.

Bottom line

Cutcliffe knows what he’s doing and the Blue Devils will keep on keeping on. That might not be enough to win the division, but it should be enough for a fourth straight bowl trip and another winning campaign.

Newcomer to watch

Chris Taylor, WR

A south Florida kid (Miramar) like Conner Vernon and will play the productive outside receiver spot, like Vernon and Crowder.

Schedule

Sept. 3 at Tulane

Sept. 12 N.C. Central

Sept. 19 Northwestern

Sept. 26 Georgia Tech

Oct. 3 Boston College

Oct. 10 at Army

Oct. 17 OPEN

Oct. 24 at Virginia Tech

Oct. 31 Miami

Nov. 7 at UNC

Nov. 14 Pitt

Nov. 21 at Virginia

Nov. 28 at Wake Forest

Schedule analysis

Unusual to play two road games out of the league but going to Tulane (3-9) and Army (4-8) isn’t exactly like going to LSU and Ohio State.

Four of the last six games are on the road, which might get tricky, but there’s no Florida State and no Clemson, which opens the door for another division title.

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