Duke coach David Cutcliffe, as much as anyone, knows you have to let go.
Injuries happen, coaches always say. Next man up. All that.
But losing a player like safety DeVon Edwards, as the Blue Devils did Saturday at Notre Dame, can be a crusher. Edwards is a fifth-year player, a graduate, a captain. He has meant so much to the Duke program, to Cutcliffe.
Cutcliffe and the others on the Duke sideline could sense quickly that Edwards had suffered a serious knee injury on an early kickoff return. It was one of those injuries where you just knew. Later, it was learned Edwards tore his left ACL and MCL, that his football career at Duke has ended.
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But at the time of the injury, so much of the game remained. How can a coach keep his mind on the game, on his duties, after such a devastating injury?
It’s hard, Cutcliffe said. But it’s also something he said he learned more than 20 years ago, as offensive coordinator at Tennessee.
“During a game, you have a responsibility for everyone there,” he said. “The years tell you. You respond. You do your job and do it well.”
In 1994, the Vols opened the season against UCLA in the Rose Bowl with senior Jerry Colquitt as the starting quarterback with Heath Shuler gone to the NFL.
“A fifth-year senior who had a fantastic preseason camp,” Cutcliffe said of Colquitt. “Nine plays into the game he tore his knee up.”
The Vols had junior Todd Helton to replace Colquitt. On the sideline also were two true freshman quarterbacks – Branndon Stewart, a high-school All-America out of Texas, and 18-year-old Peyton Manning.
Cutcliffe, who was in the coaches’ box, said he was mad, distracted, after Colquitt’s injury. He said another offensive assistant coach, Kippy Brown, finally got him out of his funk by saying, as Cutcliffe recalled, “Get off your butt, you’ve got to call a good game.”
“That relaxed me,” Cutcliffe said. “That was a good lesson to learn.”
Cutcliffe went through a similar situation later in that 1994 season when Helton, later an All-Star first baseman with the Colorado Rockies, went down with a knee injury against Mississippi State. The Vols moved on as Manning beat out Stewart and finished 8-4, with a Gator Bowl win over Virginia Tech.
And so it was again Saturday at Notre Dame when Edwards went out. Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils moved on and shocked the Irish 38-35.
“Your obligation,” Cutcliffe said, “is to your players.”
After the Notre Dame game, Cutcliffe had time to let the sorrow of losing DeVon Edwards fully sink in.
The Blue Devils lost quarterback Thomas Sirk, a returning starter, captain and fifth-year player, to another Achilles tendon injury late in preseason camp. That was a gut punch.
“It was hard on the plane ride home,” Cutcliffe said. “He was sitting right across from me. I still get to the point of tears thinking about it.”
But he also knows he has to let it go.