DURHAM — As the Blue Devils prepared to take the field for the first time in August, head coach David Cutcliffe was already thinking a few months ahead.
“I tell our team, and I said this at media day, I’m still looking at everything we do to be a better football team in November,” Cutcliffe said. “Not that we don’t want to be great in September or August, but we need to be better in November.”
It was a markedly different tone than had existed on opening days of past seasons, when all the talk centered around whether Duke would (finally) end its bowl drought. Last year’s dramatic win against North Carolina emphatically ended the dry spell that dated back to 1994. But that was the final highlight of the season, that Oct. 20th win.
The Blue Devils have painful memories of how their season of new heights ended so poorly. Duke lost its last five games, including the Belk Bowl to Cincinnati, giving up 14 points in the final 80 seconds. Duke finished 6-7, just short of its first winning season in 17 years.
“We weren’t satisfied with the end result of last season,” senior guard Dave Harding said. “Yeah, it had some serious ups that we hadn’t seen in a long time. We want to see continuity through the whole season, from Game 1 to Game 13 or 14.”
New starting quarterback Anthony Boone echoed that sentiment.
“Consistency,” he said when asked what was important this year. “To go back and show people that we can consistently win games year by year. It wasn’t a fluke year where things just happened to line up the right way. We can go out every Saturday every year and compete with the best teams.”
To continue last year’s success, Duke will need a few young players to emerge. Boone will have to replace NFL-bound Sean Renfree, the most accurate quarterback in Duke history. The wide receivers have to replace NFL-bound Conner Vernon, the ACC’s all-time leader in catches and receiving yards, and Desmond Scott (sophomore Max McCaffrey and junior Issac Blakeney have been tabbed to take over those spots, respectively). Redshirt sophomore Matt Skura will take over at center.
And those are just the offensive changes.
While the defense returns its starting front six, there is just one starter from last season – all-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell – in Duke’s five-man secondary. Redshirt senior Garrett Patterson will man the other corner position, and three underclassman – redshirt freshman Corbin McCarthy, redshirt sophomore Jeremy Cash and sophomore Dwayne Norman – have been slotted to start at safety in the 4-2-5 scheme.
“We like where we’re starting. From my perspective, for this team, August is going to be really critical,” Cutcliffe said. “I have told them that all along. I’ve told them that since January. We’ve got some veterans. We’re going to have to blend some young talent. It’s going to take us a couple of weeks to really get a feel for who is in our two- and three-deep and where they line up.”
Better depth should help the team in November, a month that has been troublesome, to say the least, for Duke in Cutcliffe’s previous five years. In the final month of the regular season, the Blue Devils are 1-19 under Cutcliffe, with the lone win coming in 2010 against Virginia.
Needless to say, for Duke to become consistent winners – and shake the national perception that it’s the weakest team in the Coastal Division – that trend will have to change.
“We haven’t earned anything if we haven’t earned November respect,” Cutcliffe said. “My deal is, if you don’t like the way it tastes, don’t drink it anymore. If you don’t like how it feels and don’t like the results, change what you do. Those things are reality.
“It’s no different than a salesman,” he said. “…He can get to 15 clients in one day, but if he can’t close, what is he at the end of the day? He’s a poor man. He’s broke.”
The work to be prosperous in November has already begun.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley