Thomas Sirk and DeVon Edwards have done what no Duke football players have achieved since the Kennedy administration.
They’ve been a part of three consecutive winning seasons. They’ve won a bowl game.
While Duke’s 2015 season had its highs and lows – who can forget that zany Miami kickoff return with the eight laterals – the Blue Devils finished with an 8-5 record after their 44-41 overtime victory over Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium.
It was Duke’s first bowl win since beating Arkansas 7-6 in the 1961 Cotton Bowl. That was something that has been missing in David Cutcliffe’s steady rebuild of the program since taking over as coach in 2008.
“That motivated our team, reaching that steppingstone,” quarterback Sirk said Thursday. “We love having that trophy. We love having the rings from the bowl game.”
The question now: What’s next for Duke? Building a program is one thing. Then it’s about maintaining success while striving for a higher level.
“Our mindset at Duke now is to continue to get better each and every year,” said Edwards, a fifth-year defensive back who graduated in May.
The Blue Devils have been 10-4, 9-4 and then 8-5 the past three seasons. They will go into the 2016 season with uncertainty about Sirk’s availability as the starting quarterback after another Achilles tendon rupture, and will face a more challenging schedule.
“We’re not going to be complacent and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’ve done the last three seasons,’” Sirk said. “We’re pushing for the most wins in school history.”
The 2013 team won 10 games and the Coastal Division title, and the Blue Devils have followed that up with good recruiting classes.
“I think with coach Cutcliffe and his recruiting, the type of players we have gotten are capable of competing at the national championship level,” Sirk said
Sirk, who shared MVP honors with running back Shaun Wilson in the Pinstripe Bowl, first suffered an injury to his right Achilles tendon in 2013 and missed that season. This year, he ruptured the left Achilles tendon on Feb. 9, putting him in rehab mode again.
“I’ve continued to progress every week, every day really,” Sirk said. “We’ll see where I’m at when the fall camp starts.”
Cutcliffe has confidence in Parker Boehme, a redshirt junior who played in 10 games last season, and has other options in Quentin Harris or Daniel Jones, both redshirt freshmen. But Sirk was one of four quarterbacks in the Football Bowl Subdivision that passed for more than 2,600 yards and rushed for more than 800 last season.
“A true dual threat,” Cutcliffe said. “The other number that you can’t measure … is his leadership, his work ethic, his genuineness, his ability to care about his team much more than he does himself.”
Sirk said the injuries would not limit him or alter his playing style. He said he’ll step up in the pocket, scramble when he needs to.
“I don’t think it’s going to change who I am,” he said. “I pride myself on being a hard-nosed football player.”
Then again, Sirk may not have to run as much. Cutcliffe mentioned “The Stable” – running backs group that includes Wilson, Joe Ajeigbe and Jela Duncan – and its versatility, and said the offensive line could be the most physical he has had at Duke.
“I’m anxious to see how that group matures,” Cutcliffe said. “That will go a long way into us developing a little bit more of a power game.”
The Blue Devils have a new offensive coordinator in Zac Roper, who replaced Scottie Montgomery, now East Carolina’s head coach. But Sirk said Roper, the Blue Devils’ associate head coach, has been at Duke with Cutcliffe since 2008 and that there should not be any major systemic changes.
The Blue Devils no longer have safety Jeremy Cash, a big hitter and playmaker in the secondary, but there’s experience at all four positions.
After opening with home games against N.C. Central and Wake Forest, the Blue Devils have early road tests at Northwestern and Notre Dame. They later play at Louisville and Georgia Tech, and close the season on the road against Pittsburgh and Miami.
Cutcliffe noted the newcomers among the coaches in the Coastal – Mark Richt (Miami), Bronco Mendenhall (Virginia) and Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech) – and the headaches that presents.
“I’ve had late nights in the summer, trying to watch film from all over the place,” he said.