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Duke coach David Cutcliffe on freshman class, early enrollees: There’s a lot to like

Duke coach David Cutcliffe addresses the media

Duke football coach David Cutcliffe talks about the first day in full pads for the Blue Devils.
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Duke football coach David Cutcliffe talks about the first day in full pads for the Blue Devils.

At his media availability on Tuesday, Duke football coach David Cutcliffe was asked which of his freshmen caught his eye through the first few days of practice.

Entering his 12th season in Durham, Cutcliffe couldn’t narrow it down to just a couple of newbies. In fact he was impressed with the entire bunch.

“All of them to be honest with you,” Cutcliffe said. “I haven’t seen a freshman that I’m disappointed with.”

That might just be coach-speak, but Cutcliffe really seemed enamored with his class of 2019. The 21-man class was ranked No. 8 in the ACC standings, according to 247Sports, tied for second all-time in ACC rankings under Cutcliffe.

Tuesday was the first day in full gear, and Cutcliffe learned early on that a few of his younger guys showed the ability to battle against upperclassmen.

“A freshman has a chance to show us he’s a better fighter to go win the game,” Cutcliffe said. “So it’s kind of been our focus right now, and it’s going to continue. It’s a huge part of being a really good program.”

Cutcliffe, like many coaches in the country, has adapted to the popular trend in college football of having freshmen players enroll early. Midyear enrollees join the team in January, skipping the second semester of their senior year of high school. It has been going on for a while now, but has really taken off in the past few years. Duke had five freshmen enroll in January, a low number compared with some of its counterparts, but it’s paying off.

Jacob Monk, an offensive lineman from Corinth Holders High School (Wendell), enrolled early and is battling to become one of the starters up front, moving to tackle once he arrived at Duke. Another is defensive back Jalen Alexander, a three-star defensive back from Loganville, Ga., who finished with 141 tackles and four interceptions as a senior at Grayson High School.

During the offseason Cutcliffe and his staff grade all players, freshmen included, on a simple system — 1, 2, 3 — with one being the worst, three being the best, just off the eye test.

After looking over the rookies, Cutcliffe said there were plenty of 2s and 3s, which made the coaches “jump for joy.”

“I just think the class is exceptional,” Cutcliffe said.

How many will be on the field to help Duke when it opens against Alabama on Aug. 31 is yet to be determined. That will play out over the next few weeks of camp. But when Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils take on coach Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, it will a contrast of opinions when it comes to midyear freshmen.

Cutcliffe is not a huge fan of players enrolling out of high school in January but knows he has to take kids not to put Duke at a competitive disadvantage.

“We can’t just throw our hands up,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re going to go somewhere else if we don’t take them.”

Going somewhere like Alabama, or Clemson, the two teams that played for the College Football Playoff title last season.

“I’ve gone to people that have been in the playoffs and that got everyone of their signees in practice,” Cutcliffe explained. “Just think about it, you’ve got your whole team from January all the way up until you start, otherwise you’re getting a bunch of freshmen in June, maybe June, some July, and you are expected them to participate and contribute. That’s daylight and dark.”

Cutcliffe wasn’t far off. Clemson, the national champion, had 17 enrollees in January while Alabama had 16. Notre Dame (10) and Oklahoma (9) were the other two semifinalists and also had a good number of freshmen join their teams in January.

“The problem I have with it, and we’ve taken some, I’m not going to be in a noncompetitive disadvantage to hurt us,” Cutcliffe said. “But think about taking some of the best people, best leaders out of a school for a principal in the spring of their senior year. Take yourself back to a high school environment, those people are your leaders at such a critical time. You ever heard of the term senioritis? A lot of them get it and you need those guys you can go to and rally, so that’s why I have a problem with it and spring sports.”

Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.
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