Recruiting, coaching has put Duke one victory from ACC Championship game

Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell (6) intercepts a pass late in the fourth quarter during Duke’s 28-21 victory over Wake Forest Saturday Nov. 23, 2013 at BB&T Field in WInston-Salem, N.C.
Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell (6) intercepts a pass late in the fourth quarter during Duke’s 28-21 victory over Wake Forest Saturday Nov. 23, 2013 at BB&T Field in WInston-Salem, N.C. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The Tar Heels on Saturday play Duke at Kenan Stadium. Laura Keeley, my friend and colleague, does an outstanding job covering the Blue Devils for us. So without further delay, some questions and some answers about this rivalry game:

Q. Three times this season Duke has come back from double-digit deficits to win. What has been the key to that resiliency, and how have the Blue Devils been able to rally so often?

A: Well, you’re right to say that they’re resilient. I often tell people that the Blue Devils aren’t the biggest, fastest or strongest, but they might well be the most resilient.

It’s really as simple as them not getting down on themselves and keeping the faith that they can still win. It’s too bad that’s cliche, because it is 100 percent true in this case.

Other factors are important, too. Most notably, the conditioning level of the defense is much improved from last season, and that has allowed them to play exceptionally well in the fourth quarter. Duke’s defense has allowed just 34 fourth-quarter points in 11 games. Their plus-76 point differential in the final quarter is among the best in the nation.

The real turning point in this season came at Virginia, when the Blue Devils were down 22-0. It looked pretty hopeless. But the fact they were able to come back and win 35-22 was a huge mental boost for this team, one they’ve been riding ever since.

If they can accomplish that, why can’t they beat an offensively inept Virginia Tech on the road for their first win over a ranked opponent since 1994? If they can do that, why not beat Miami for two wins over ranked teams for the first time since 1971? If they can do that, why not match the program’s high-water mark with nine victories for the first time since 1941?

You get the idea.

Q. On offense, Duke is running more often – and more effectively, it seems – than at any other point under David Cutcliffe. Five Blue Devils have run for at least 203 yards this season. What’s the best way to explain the resurgence of the Duke running game?

A: The offensive line is much improved from last season. Four starters returned. Like most players on the Duke roster, over time, they have developed into nice players, thanks to the coaching staff.

The running backs are also all back from last season. Jela Duncan is a strong runner who can go up the middle, Josh Snead is the fastest and looks to get outside and Shaq Powell is getting more of an opportunity of late because Juwan Thompson, a senior returning starter at running back, agreed to move to linebacker. A pretty selfless move by a veteran guy.

Q. What’s the best way to explain Duke’s dramatic improvement and ascension to prominence this season? Improved talent? A change in attitude? Duke had a solid year last year, but few people saw this coming this season. How did we get here?

A: Both factors you listed have been important. We got at the cause for the change in attitude above. Before Cutcliffe arrived, no one cared about Duke football. From the first moment he stepped on campus, he sold the players a message that they believed in, they bought into his dream that Duke football could be relevant. That’s how he recruited guys like Anthony Boone, cornerback Ross Cockrell and wide receiver Jamison Crowder: He sat on their couches and told them how they were going to turn around the program. And he has been right thus far.

Because of his hard work, there is an incredible level of trust between the players and the coaches. Cutcliffe has been a savior for Duke football. So if he says something – like this team has what it takes to win the Coastal Division – the players are going to believe him.

And with every recruiting class, the talent level in Durham rises. Athletically, this freshman class is at a different level. And three true freshman — corners Breon Borders and Bryon Fields and safety Deondre Singleton — either start or play starter’s snaps on the back end.

Fields is a perfect example of why Duke has been successful. From a small school in Charlotte (Providence Day), he had no other BCS offers. But there he was, breaking up a pass in Virginia Tech’s end zone and making similar plays like that all year.

The staff has been great at finding under-the-radar athletes. Cutcliffe has looked for two-way players in high school and multisport athletes (well over half of Duke’s receivers and secondary contributors played high school basketball). He has worried about putting them in positions after they’ve arrived on campus.

Q. UNC has been a difficult team to figure out this season. There was the 1-5 start, and now five straight victories. What about the Tar Heels most concerns Duke, in your opinion?

A: It has been difficult to figure out the Tar Heels. I’ll admit, I wrote them off after the 1-5 start and have been most impressed that Larry Fedora and Co. kept the ship from sinking.

Like Virginia Tech and Miami, on paper, UNC is the superior team. Bigger, faster, stronger. Duke will have to play smart to make up for those disadvantages.

Specifically, it will be interesting to see how Duke covers Eric Ebron. And punter Will Monday has had an up-and-down year. He’ll need to be on top of his game and not allow Ryan Switzer to do his thing.