As the 2012 Duke football season fades into the past, it will be remembered primarily for one reason: Duke made a bowl for the first time in 17 seasons. And, while the Blue Devils ultimately lost in particularly gut-wrenching fashion, fumbling the ball on the Cincinnati 5-yard line and giving up 14 points in the last 90 seconds, just playing in the Belk Bowl demonstrated progress for the long-suffering program.
We certainly made enough plays to win, we played well enough to win the ball game, Cutcliffe said after Dukes 48-34 loss to the Bearcats. I told our team theres no question that this was a bowl-worthy team that we had at Duke, not a bowl-eligible team.
Other notable streaks were broken during the year: For the first time in 13 years, the Blue Devils beat Wake Forest, 34-27, in a game that was tied after the third quarter. And Duke beat North Carolina for only the second time in 23 seasons, thanks to a circus catch from Jamison Crowder with 13 seconds left. Individually, wide receiver Conner Vernon set career ACC records for catches (283) and receiving yards (3,749). Cornerback Ross Cockrell and punter Will Monday earned first-team All-ACC honors, marking the first time Duke has put multiple players on the top team since 2003.
Ideally, the 2012 season will serve as a foundation for future seasons. The last time Duke made a bowl, in 1994, 17 losing seasons followed.
Weve done a lot of great things, but the biggest insult we can pay to our seniors is to not move forward and build off of this, Cutcliffe said. And we will do just that.
Duke finished 6-7, meaning the streak of consecutive losing seasons is now at 18.
Duke has to replace quarterback Sean Renfree, a three-year starter and the most accurate passer in school history. Anthony Boone, a redshirt junior, led Duke to two wins last season - against Wake Forest (after entering in the fourth quarter for the injured Renfree) and Virginia (in which he went 18 of 31 for 212 yards and four touchdowns and added 41 rushing yards). Boone will bring an added run dimension to the quarterback position, which is part of Cutcliffes and offensive coordinator Kurt Ropers master plan. The Blue Devils backups always get a bit of game action, too, and next seasons backup is Thomas Sirk, a redshirt freshmen who is also a dual-threat.
Vernon, too, needs to be replaced and Jamison Crowder was a solid option last season, catching 74 passes and tying Vernon for the team lead with 1,074 yards. Next year he will have drawthe opponents top defenders. Candidates to emerge at second receiver are sophomore Max McCaffrey (two catches against Florida State) and redshirt freshman Anthony Nash. Redshirt junior Issac Blakeney and redshirt sophomore David Reeves could fill the slot position, which belonged to Desmond Scott.
The Blue Devils also will need to continue the development of its running game and solve woes in the secondary that plagued the team during its season-ending five-game losing streak.
Signing Day prognosis
Duke has 17 commitments in the Class of 2013, including 10 three-stars. The class ranks 10th in the ACC, according to Rivals, ahead of Boston College and Miami (the Hurricanes, in anticipation of NCAA sanctions, have self-imposed scholarship reductions). Duke has five defensive backs in its class, a particularly weak area of the current team. Chris Holmes, who is listed as an athlete but will likely play safety, recently decommitted from N.C. State and pledged to play at Duke. Holmes is a three-star prospect from Spotsylvania, Va.
Three-star linebacker Dominic Zanca, from Altamonte Springs, Fla., also recently switched to Duke, as he decommited from Tennessee.
Spring practice priorities
In addition to answering obvious questions on offense, the Blue Devils must find a way to shore up an already weak secondary that will lose several players to graduation. Cockrell has announced he will return to Duke for his senior season, but the other cornerback position will be an open competition between several players. In the secondary, the Blue Devils will receive a major boost from Jeremy Cash, a transfer from Ohio State who was forced to sit out the past year. Brandon Braxton, a senior, returns, but the third safety position in Dukes 4-2-5 defense is up for grabs.
Perhaps the biggest priority, though, is adapting the necessary mindset to become a perennial bowl team. Dukes graduating seniors played a key role in setting the tone in spring and summer workouts. A new crop of leaders must emerge.
The team will be young of the Blue Devils 85 scholarship players, only 27 will be juniors and seniors.
We understand that, to be a good program, we have to consistently go to bowl games, said Cockrell, the lone returning captain. And so, the goal for next year is to keep on winning and keep building the program.
Keeley 919-456-8229; Twitter @laurakeeley