For all but one of Duke’s football players, it had been more than two months between the end of last season and Friday’s first spring practice.
Right tackle Evan Lisle was with Ohio State when the Buckeyes lost to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal on Dec. 31 before he transferred to Duke.
But for the rest of the Blue Devils, bowl season meant time on the sofa in front of the television for a football fix.
“We sat at home and watched all the bowl games this Christmas and it was heartbreaking for us,” Duke center Austin Davis said. “You see a lot of teams and you think we could have been there. It’s one of those what if things. You can’t live in the past but you can use it to fuel you.”
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Duke missed a bowl for the first time since 2011, going 4-8. Because of the team’s high Academic Progress Rate score, one more win would have landed the Blue Devils in a bowl.
Instead, last September, Duke lost to Wake Forest for the first time since 2011 and Northwestern for the second year in a row. The Blue Devils dropped games to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech on consecutive weekends by three points each.
Needing one win in the season’s last two games to make a bowl, Duke lost 56-14 at Pittsburgh and 40-21 at Miami.
That meant Duke’s season was over before the Thanksgiving leftovers had been polished off.
“The last four years we’ve been to a bowl game and this is just not something that’s supposed to happen,” Duke linebacker Joe Giles-Harris said. “We’re changing that. We talk about it every day. It’s a process and part of our process is playing into the postseason and into a bowl game. So that’s our goal. When you don’t make it it disappoints you.”
The first steps toward returning Duke to a bowl game came Friday when practice began around 8:40 a.m. The players weren’t in full pads as that won’t happen until the third practice on Monday.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe and his staff put the Blue Devils through drills Friday that focused primarily on fundamentals -- the kinds of things that could turn some of those narrow losses into wins come this fall.
“I’m not interested in plays, I’m interested in players,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m interested in fundamentals. Techniques. Habits on the field. Their effort. That’s the total focus.”
Three players who could factor into the plans for the season didn’t take part in Friday’s work since they are recovering from injuries. Starting left tackle Gabe Brandner broke his leg at Pittsburgh in December. Starting linebacker Ben Humphreys had shoulder surgery the same month.
And the third sidelined player is quarterback Thomas Sirk, Duke’s starter in 2015 who was the co-Most Valuable Player in the 2015 Pinstripe Bowl win over Indiana. Sirk twice tore his Achilles’ tendon in 2016, which opened the door for Daniel Jones to become Duke’s starting quarterback as a redshirt freshman.
The NCAA granted Sirk another year of eligibility that will allow him to play for Duke in 2017.
Jones is the incumbent starting quarterback and the clear No. 1, Cutcliffe said. Sirk has to get healthy before any plans can be made about how he might be utilized this season.
“At this point I don’t want him feeling stressed or pressured,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve been through this so many times. It’s emotional. He and I had a great meeting (Thursday). The focus is totally on getting him feeling one-hundred percent then we’ll cross any other bridges later.”