Duke Blue Devils follow Cutcliffe's path for success

lkeeley@newsobserver.comDecember 1, 2013 

— A life-long organizer, David Cutcliffe has always had a plan.

It began with setting up backyard football and basketball games as a kid in Birmingham, Ala. And now it has progressed to executing practices so efficient that the Blue Devils never waste time moving to another part of the field, instead just automatically reverse direction whenever “Riverside” is called (an homage to his days at Tennessee). So it should come as no surprise that, from the time he started at Duke, Cutcliffe planned the Blue Devils’ road to glory.

Twenty-six months ago, in October 2011, Cutcliffe updated his plans, creating a 90-day, three-year and 15-year plan (“I’m hoping I’m going to live a lot longer,” the 59-year-old joked). He keeps them in a book in a kitchen drawer reserved just for him. One goal for the three-year plan was to play in the ACC Championship game.

Mission accomplished, as No. 20 Duke (10-2, 6-2 in the ACC) will play No. 1 Florida State (12-0, 8-0) Saturday at 8 p.m. in Charlotte for the ACC title and the right to go to the Orange Bowl.

“We're just making that right under the gun from when I did that,” he said.

Cutcliffe’s attention to detail was what first wowed Scottie Montgomery, who played at Duke from 1996-99 and was the only coach from Ted Roof’s staff Cutcliffe retained when he came to Durham. After three years away coaching receivers with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Montgomery returned to the Blue Devils’ staff prior to this year, just in time to see his alma mater rise to new heights.

Montgomery is also notoriously detail-oriented – his receivers quickly learned how to count steps to time their routes more precisely for quarterback Anthony Boone. With Montgomery’s vision, star receiver Jamison Crowder (Monroe) was able to take the next step, moving up to the No. 1 receiver role and setting a new school record for catches in a season (88) and needing just 19 receiving yards to set a new school record in that category as well, breaking a 24-year-old mark set by Clarkston Hines when Steve Spurrier was still patrolling the sidelines.

Another Duke alum, Re’quan Boyette, is the first-year running backs coach, and with his help, the Blue Devils have had their most successful ground game in Cutcliffe’s six years. The quartet of Juwan Thompson, Josh Snead (Smithfield-Selma), Jela Duncan (Mallard Creek) and Shaquille Powell have been primarily responsible for the 2,159 yards Duke has gained on the ground – significantly more than the 1,628 yards last year’s team recorded in 13 games.

Boyette was a captain on Cutcliffe’s first team at Duke, the one he has called the fattest, softest football team he had ever seen. Their initial conditioning drill had to be cut short after 10 minutes – Cutcliffe said he was worried all the assistants he had just hired would leave – but, always the optimist, he looked at monumental challenge as an opportunity.

“I said, ‘Coaches, the goose has laid the golden egg right at our feet. This is amazing,’” he said. “‘Guys, this is incredible, awesome.’ I said, ‘Guys, I knew we were going to help you, but I didn’t know we were going to help you this much.’”

And after six years of building, Cutcliffe has helped Duke all the way to the ACC championship game. When he first told people he came to Durham not just to win – something that hadn’t happened in about 20 years – but to win championships, people laughed. They’ve stopped laughing recently.

“Well, probably not until this week, in some cases, and maybe they still are,” Cutcliffe said about when the doubters were silenced. “These guys deserve more respect than what people have given them, really, overall because we're not just fortunate. We're a good football team.

“We wouldn't be where we were if we weren't good.”

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, who coached against Cutcliffe in the SEC, concurred. It was three or four weeks ago, he said, when Duke first popped up on his radar as a potential championship game opponent.

“It's been a tremendous accomplishment, but if you know David, David always finds a way to get things done. It doesn't surprise me that David was able to do that, but it is a tremendous accomplishment what he's been able to do considering the history and what's been done there before. My hat's off to him. He does a tremendous job.”

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