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Can Duke Sustain Football Success?

David Cutcliffe has built a program worthy of respect
David Cutcliffe has built a program worthy of respect
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Duke is enjoying an incredible football season.

Last Saturday's 48-30 victory over Miami was the team's eighth win and there's every chance that the Devils can add No. 9 … and maybe No. 10 in the coming weeks. If Duke wins one of its last two, the Devils will clinch a share of the Coastal Division title. If Duke wins both games, the Devils will win the Coastal outright and meet Florida State in the ACC championship game.

Like I said, a fantastic football season.

But is it real or is it a fluke - a confluence of a weak schedule, unusual good health and a few lucky bounces?

The last time Duke had a season anywhere near this good was 1994, when Fred Goldsmith opened his Duke coaching career with seven straight victories, climbed to as high as No. 14 in the national rankings and finished 8-3 with a spot in the Hall of Fame Bowl (the current Outback Bowl).

The year after that great season, Duke slumped to 3-8 and a year after that, Duke was winless.

The mega-story of Duke football is of a long, slow decline from the heights of the mid-1960s. When Bill Murray retired after winning the ACC title on the field in 1965 (it was later stolen from him after some bizarre ACC reactions to South Carolina's cheating), Duke was without challenge the best football program in the ACC - a run of sustained success dating back to the arrival of Wallace Wade in the early 1930s.

The decline started under Tom Harp. Former Duke star Mike McGee - who won the Outland Trophy in 1959 - did his best to stem the tide in the 1970s, but lack of support from an administration intent on turning Duke into a Southern Ivy limited what he could do.

Red Wilson, helped by offensive coordinator Steve Spurrier, generated back-to-back winning seasons in the early 1980s, but when Spurrier left for the pros, athletic director Tom Butters fired Wilson - just hours after beating UNC in Chapel Hill.

The result - four straight losing seasons under Steve Sloan.

Spurrier returned at the end of the decade to rescue the situation. His back-to-back 7-3-1 and 8-4 seasons (including an ACC championship in 1989) put Duke football back on the right track, but when Spurrier bolted for Florida, Butters made the tragic choice to replace him with the colorless assistant Barry Wilson and four more losing seasons followed.

Just a comment about Butters. He was a great athletic director and deserves Hall of Fame status for taking the risk to hire little-known Mike Krzyzewski in 1980, but he consistently botched his football hires and fires. That trend continued under Joe Alleva, who probably fired Goldsmith a year too early … and (with no probably about it) was wrong to hire his buddy, the unqualified Carl Franks.

That ushered in the darkest era of Duke football. Between 1999, when Franks took over, and 2007, when Ted Roof was fired, Duke averaged 1.4 wins a year.

Duke was the worst BCS football program in that era.

One never knows whether the program would have recovered under failed UCLA coach Karl Dorrell - the man Alleva wanted to hire to replace Roof - but thankfully, former Blue Devil players Leo Hart and C.H. Newsome, who were the powers on the search committee, blocked that appointment and steered Alleva toward David Cutcliffe … and the salvation of the Duke football program.

It's taken Cutcliffe a long time to pull Duke football out of the ashes, but today - in November of 2013 - Duke football is relevant again.

A FIRM FOUNDATION

Cutcliffe got a lot of help in his efforts. For the first time since the mid-1960s, the Duke administration provided the football program with solid support. A collection of wealthy alums have poured money into the program, allowing Duke to stay on the cutting edge of the facility race (you should hear N.C. State, Maryland and Wake fans talk with envy of Duke's indoor practice facility).

But Cutcliffe still had a lot to overcome. It's hard to recruit top players to a program with such a long history of disappointment and failure. Modern kids couldn't remember when Duke was a power in football … heck, most of their fathers couldn't remember either. And it didn't help that the atmosphere at Wallace Wade was nothing like the hysteria at places such as Death Valley in Clemson or Doak Campbell in Tallahassee. Even Carter-Finley in Raleigh has been a significantly better place to play.

Cut persevered, finding a few prep stars with faith (Parade All-American Sean Renfree, for instance) and more undervalued prospects - two star recruits such as Connor Vernon, Ross Cockrell and Anthony Boone.

He slowly and patiently upgraded the talent at Duke. Those who cover the program on a daily basis could see that he believed that his talent had arrived in the spring of 2012. Cutcliffe was so excited as he talked about the plethora of talented youngsters ready to burst on the scene that he practically predicted a breakthrough season in 2012.

And it was - at least partially. Duke won six games for the first time since 1994 and was still in the Coastal Division race in November. The Devils played in a bowl for the first time in this century.

But, you know what? Duke was actually better in 2012 than the final 6-7 record.

Usually when a team has a breakthrough - as Duke did in 1994 - everything goes right. The schedule, the injuries, the lucky bounces all line up.

But it's hard to imagine a more unlucky season for the Blue Devils than 2012. The injury level was unbelievable - the Devils lost LB Kelby Brown, WR Blair Holliday, TE Braxton Deaver and DT Jamal Bruce before the first game. By the end of the season, Cutcliffe was recruiting managers and kids out of the stands to play in the secondary … okay, that's an exaggeration … but not by much.

The schedule didn't help. Duke had to play three teams that ended up in the top 10. The Devils got to 6-2, then had to face Florida State and Clemson in back to back games. That went a long way toward killing that team's momentum.

Even then, the crippled Devils were alive in the Coastal race when they traveled to Atlanta and took on Georgia Tech. With UNC and Miami ineligible, a victory for Duke would have given the Devils a real chance to play in Charlotte. It was a tough, hard-fought game. Duke was hanging in and needed a stop and a drive to take the lead late. On a fourth down play, a Duke defensive lineman tipped a pass … that fluttered sideways and was caught by an offensive lineman who rumbled for the key first down of the game.

So injuries, schedule and just plain bad luck conspired to make 2012 much less successful than it should have been.

That's why I was so optimistic heading into 2013.

I knew that Duke had underachieved in 2012. I knew that Cut was continuing to expand his talent base. I knew that the schedule was much softer - no Stanford, no Florida State and no Clemson. I knew - well, I didn't know, but I thought - that Duke couldn't have the same kind of bad injury luck as the year before.

I wasn't surprised that Duke got little respect at the ACC Football Kickoff in Greensboro last summer. I expected the Devils to be picked near the bottom of the Coastal Division. But I was disappointed and angry when Duke was picked dead last - behind a Virginia team (with less veterans returning) that Duke had handled four of five times in the Cutcliffe era.

But even I never expected Duke to seize control of the Coastal Division by beating division heavyweights Virginia Tech and Miami. I knew Duke was better in 2013 than 2012, but because the 2012 team was actually so much better than its final record, I didn't realize how big a jump the 2013 Devils were poised to make.

And, guess what? No matter what happens in the final few weeks this season, Duke is going to be even better in 2014.

As Cutcliffe said Saturday night after beating Miami, Duke is not going away.

THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE

Duke is going to lose some quality senior talent after this season.

Ross Cockrell has been as good a defensive back as Duke has seen since the days of Rich Searl and Ernie Jackson. More than that, he's been a terrific mentor - almost an assistant coach - to the young defensive backs in this year's freshman class.

Kenny Anunike is Duke's best defensive lineman and another great leader. The story of his perseverance after missing two full seasons after major knee surgeries, is inspiring. Duke also loses fifth-year seniors Justin Foxx and Sydney Sarmiento off the defensive line.

The offensive line also takes a hit with the graduation of tackle Perry Simmons, guard David Harding and backup center John Coleman.

Allow me to take a deeper look at the offensive line because I believe that one area demonstrates how Cutcliffe has patiently built his program and why he will be able to sustain it.

When Cutcliffe arrived in Durham in December of 2007, he inherited one of the worst offensive lines in major college football. He brought with him a young offensive line coach named Matt Luke.

Luke, who had coached under Cutcliffe at Ole Miss, was a personable and energetic recruiter. He went into Florida early and landed the likes of Brian Moore and David Harding. He found a prize close to home in Raleigh's Perry Simmons. He went into Big Ten country and landed Laken Tomlinson, then beat several ACC schools for Tacoby Cofield. Before leaving for Ole Miss, Like helped put together one of the best offensive line classes in the ACC - headed by Lucas Patrick, Matt Skura and Cody Robinson.

But Luke did leave to return to his alma matter, leaving a gap in the Duke staff.

That could have been a significant blow. Many believe that Goldsmith's decline after 1994 was due to the loss of coordinators Mike Heimerdinger and Craig Bohl. I have a Wake Forest friend who insists that the decline of Jim Grobe's program after its ACC championship in 2006 is due to the departure of some key assistants. I was wondering one day why Steve Sloan did such a good job at Vanderbilt and Texas Tech, but was so mediocre at Duke? A friend pointed out that at his first two head jobs (but not at Duke), Sloan had the help of a top assistant named Bill Parcells. Oh.

So assistants are important.

Luckily for Duke, Cutcliffe was able to reach back into his past and land a quality replacement for Luke. John Latina, who also worked for Cut at Ole Miss, is regarded as one of the best offensive line teachers in the business. He's taken the foundation laid by Luke and he's polished it.

He's continued to recruit well, although with the quality experience on hand, most of his youngsters are waiting their turn to shine.

But the results are undeniable - anybody who watched Duke's offensive front bully Miami - and hold its own against Virginia Tech's fierce defensive front - knows that Duke's offensive line is one of the best in the ACC. Heck FSU is giving up more sacks per pass attempt than Duke.

Cutcliffe and Latina will have to replace two offensive line fixtures heading into next season. Both are four year starters - Simmons has played more snaps than any player on the Duke team.

However, a strong anchor returns up front. Laken Tomlinson, who had offers from Ohio State, Michigan State, Illinois and most of the Big Ten coming out of Lane Tech in Chicago, will be back to start his fourth straight season. Cofield will be back to start for the third straight year. Center Matt Skura, the only newcomer on this year's line, will be back to start a second year.

That leaves two places to fill. One will almost certainly go to Patrick, who has gotten 219 snaps this season. He missed most of his redshirt freshman year with an injury (he was pushing for a starting job when he got hurt in preseason), but he's not going to be any kind of dropoff when he starts as a redshirt junior next season, whether that's at guard or tackle.

Robinson (116 snaps this season) could be in line for the other starting spot. Or it might be Tanner Stone. Before he was hurt in preseason, Stone was earning raves from the coaches. Like Harding and Tomlinson, he was listed as a second-team player during his redshirt year - a sign of the high regard the staff has for him. He'll be an inexperienced redshirt sophomore, but he has worlds of potential.

The point is, that Duke's coaches will no longer be filling gaps with true freshmen (remember Bryan Morgan in 2007?) or inadequate redshirts. Cutcliffe has redshirted every single offensive line recruit in his tenure. His offensive line if functioning the way a big time program functions, replacing standouts with top talent that has learned the job in a backup role.

There is no reason that Duke's offensive front won't be as good or better next year than the one that manhandled Miami last Saturday.

THE SKILL PLAYERS

Next year's line will have a lot of talent to block for.

I'm not sure anybody in the ACC has a better trio of running backs than Jela Duncan, Josh Powell and Shaquille Powell. There's another good one coming in redshirt Joseph Ajeigbe and yet another prospect in four-star running back recruit Shaun Wilson.

Of course, Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette return at quarterback. Hopefully, next year, we'll get to see Thomas Sirk, who was running second-team last spring before he was hurt. Make no mistake - if Sirk is healthy, he'll get a chance to play, even with two fifth-year seniors ahead of him.

And, unlike this season when injuries to Boone and Sirk left Duke with one viable quarterback, there will be plenty of depth next year. Parker Boehme, another strong runner/passer will be ready to play. So will the versatile Quay Chambers, who may inherit Connette's "Phantom" role.

Jamison Crowder will be back to anchor the receiver corps. He's caught 70-plus passes in each of the last two seasons. He's very likely to be as first-team All-ACC pick this season. Cut would love to find another breakout star - Johnell Barnes? Ryan Smith? Anthony Nash? - but he has proven receivers in Max McCaffrey and Issac Blakeney. Duke has proven tight ends in Braxton Deaver and David Reeves and promising young ones in Dan Beilinson and Eric Schneider (redshirting this year).

There's no reason to think the offense won't be better next year.

SPECIAL TEAMS ARE SPECIAL

I pose you this question.

Does anybody else in the ACC have a better quartet of special team performers than placekicker Ross Martin, punter Will Monday, punt returner Jamison Crowder and kickoff returner Devon Edwards?

All four will be back next year.

THE DEFENSE

Heading into this season, I wondered about the future of the secondary after the graduation of Cockrell, but the last few weeks have been a revelation.

In the first place, Ohio State transfer Jeremy Cash has been every bit as good as we hoped. He's an All-ACC caliber player this year and perhaps a future All-American. Injuries have slowed sophomore Dwayne Norman, but he's a quality young player. So is redshirt freshman Corbin McCarthy.

Another redshirt freshman - Devon Edwards - has exploded into stardom the last two weeks.

But the real revelation has been the trio of true freshmen who have played such a huge role in Duke's defensive resurgence. I remember Cockrell taking his lumps as a redshirt freshman - these guys (Byron Fields, Breon Borders and Deondre Singleton) are BETTER as true freshmen than Cockrell was as a redshirt freshman.

And behind them are five more defensive back recruits who are redshirting. Several are going to be studs - Evrett Edwards, Chris Holmes and Quay Mann, especially.

Duke is going to be set in the defensive backfield for years.

I'm not as sure about the long-term prospects at linebacker, but with Kelby Brown and David Helton returning as seniors next season, the position is in good hands. When Brown is healthy, he's one of the best linebackers in the ACC. Helton had to play before he was ready, but he's matured into a first-rate ACC linebacker. Hopefully, the same process will help Kyler Brown and Deion Willians reach that level of play.

The defensive front is probably the biggest question mark going into next season with three veterans to replace. Veteran ends Dez Johnson, Jonathan Woodruff and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo do return, along with starting tackle Jamal Bruce, who is finally getting healthy after last year's crippling injury. Jamal Wallace is another veteran who would help a lot if he can recover from a serious knee injury.

But the real key at the position are the youngsters who are seeing limited action this season. That's not a bad sign - they're waiting (and learning) behind a bunch of veterans. That's the way it's supposed to work in a good program. We'll just have to see if guys such as Carlos Wray, A.J. Wolf, Michael Mann, Britton Grier (redshirting this year) and Allen Jackson can grow into prime time performers.

If they do, there is every reason to expect a better defense next season.

THE SCHEDULE

Duke's 2014 schedule looks a lot more like this year's schedule than the killer slate of 2012.

The Devils will play Elon, Tulane and Kansas at home and Troy on the road outside the ACC. The conference slate is the same (with reversed home and away), except that Duke trades a home game with N.C. State for a road game at Syracuse.

The best thing is that there is no Florida State, no Clemson and no unwinnable non-conference games on the schedule.

There are some tough games - but Georgia Tech is the only traditional team on the schedule that Duke hasn't beaten in the last two years. Syracuse, Kansas, Tulane and Elon are new to the schedule this year, but none is overpowering.

NEXT YEAR … AND BEYOND

Of course, there's no guarantee that things will fall into place for Duke next season. It's possible that injuries or bad chemistry could prevent Duke's growing talent from producing a better record.

Cutcliffe recently suggested as much, talking about how much this year's players liked each other and how well they've worked together. He admitted that there was a little tension at running back early this season as four talented runners vied for playing time. The players corrected the problem themselves, but what would happen to next year's season if Duncan and Snead - who both have the talent to be all-star backs - started resenting sharing the load with the other. What if Boone and Connette became rivals instead of friends - they could divide the team.

So nothing is certain, but the prospects are good.

Early this week, David Harding was talking about how the veterans who lived through the 3-8 years have cherished this year's success - and about how they've been willing to work and sacrifice to keep it going this season. Probably the poster boy for this team's unselfishness is senior Juwan Thompson, who led the team in rushing as a sophomore in 2011. But his rushing totals have dropped the last two years as more talented runners (mostly Duncan and Snead) have gotten more carries. Instead of complaining, Thompson made himself into a special teams star - the best coverage man on the team. And at midseason, when injuries had whittled Duke's linebacker depth to nothing, he volunteered to switch to linebacker (and made a crucial third-down stop in the Virginia Tech game).

Will that kind of selflessness endure for a new generation of players who have not known failure?

That's the next challenge for Cutcliffe and his staff. He's continuing to improve the talent base - this year's recruiting class will be the highest rated he's landed at Duke and the early signs are than next year's class will be even better. As more talented players pour into the program will the current crop of young stars work as hard and sacrifice as much as the current veterans have?

It's interesting to chart the path of Cutcliffe's rebuilding program. He raised Duke football a level upon his arrival - after successive seasons of 2-1-0-1 wins, his first four teams won 4-5-3-3. That's not much, but it was a step up to a new plateau.

I would argue that Cutcliffe has vaulted Duke to a new plateau in the last two years.

It's still not the top - Florida State and Clemson are still significantly better. But at its current level, Duke can play with anybody else in the ACC.

It remains to be seen whether Cutcliffe can push Duke football up that final step and reach the plateau where teams compete for national championships. I'm confident that he can sustain the program's current level of success for years to come - some years a bit better; some a bit worse.

But can he use his current success to recruit the kids who can take him to the top of the college basketball world?

That's a question I can't even guess at.

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