DURHAM — The Duke football team opens spring camp today with a keen understanding of its recent history and an internal challenge to learn from its losing ways.
"There's no sin in losing, if you learn from it," said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who returns for his fifth season. His record in four seasons stands at 15-33 - five more wins for the Blue Devils than in the previous eight seasons.
Still, the coach said during a news conference on Tuesday that there is no reason to hide from the team's losses. In fact, he and his staff watched last season's 3-9 campaign together during the offseason and began the process of evaluating a season in which a play or two separated wins and losses - and three losses were decided by five points or less.
"We're hunting another level of play," Cutcliffe said. "We all know that we've played close games. We've been in a lot of games since we've been here really. Last year, we really did play at another level. And that level is not good enough. We have to make plays that win games. And consistently make plays that win games."
The Blue Devils enter this spring with that mandate clearly circulated by the coaching staff. They start that journey with 17 returning starters, including rising redshirt senior quarterback Sean Renfree. He has thrown for 6,352 career yards.
Also returning is senior wide receiver Conner Vernon, who is positioned to break several all-time ACC records. He has 198 career receptions and is 34 away from tying the league record held by Clemson's Aaron Kelly. He has 2,675 career receiving yards and is 842 yards shy of catching Florida State's Peter Warrick.
Those were a few reasons for Vernon to return after he considered entering his name into the NFL draft.
But the close losses over the past two seasons - with Duke posting back-to-back 3-9 seasons - also factored in Vernon's return. "It's definitely not a three-win team," Vernon said. "That just comes with finishing games. And it's something you can't practice. It just comes with it. We definitely have more talent than three wins. We shot ourselves in the foot last year and the year before that late in games."
As Cutcliffe evaluated last season, loading his iPad with film and taking 75 pages of notes. He observed that Duke often beat itself with errors. He also noted room for schematic changes that will require coaches to make better use of personnel.
Cutcliffe said that an emphasis will be placed on training players to make more game-changing plays in critical moments. Who can make tackles? Who can break tackles? Who can rush the passer? Who can make catches in the red zone?
An inability to consistently perform those basic elements resulted in a losing record.
With injuries paring down the roster for the spring, Cutcliffe issued a challenge to his remaining group.
"Go take somebody's job," he said. "Coming off a 3-9 year, wouldn't y'all think there's some jobs available? I would."