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David Cutcliffe Talks About Football As He Preps For A Season Like No Other

Football coaches, famous for seeking control, suddenly find themselves with very little control indeed

Georgia Tech v Duke
DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA - OCTOBER 12: Head coach David Cutcliffe of the Duke Blue Devils reacts during the first half of their game against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Wallace Wade Stadium on October 12, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Another week gone. One week closer. To what? Not sure.

On one hand, we have Christian Wolfe, a Duke infectious disease specialist telling the world it’s perfectly safe to play college football this season, not easy to be sure but doable.

“But I do believe you can sufficiently mitigate the risk of bringing COVID onto the football field or into the training room at a level that’s no different than living as a student on campus,” Wolfe said earlier this week in an interview with Sports Business Daily.

We get a much different take from Emory University’s Carlos del Rio, who compared college football to the Titanic after it hit that iceberg in a conference call Thursday.

Pretty sure things fell apart pretty quickly after hitting that iceberg.

Two highly-qualified medical experts, both advising college football administrators, both seeing a much different landscape.

What’s a coach to think?

Duke’s David Cutcliffe virtually met with the media Friday afternoon and shared his thoughts on our strange times, from several perspectives.

Cutcliffe was asked to gauge his confidence level in Duke completing an 11-game season.

“I think it’s really difficult to say. . . . At this point the focus is on mitigation and the bubble. I think our players are very aware of what their responsibilities are to each other. In my heart of hearts I think we can play 11 games. I think we’ll get it done. But I can’t speak for anyone else.”

Duke has already had four players opt out, on top of some unexpected spring grad-student transfers, some summer attrition and the normal injuries that are part of football’s DNA.

Everything is on the table according to Cutcliffe. Even the possibility of players going both ways, offense and defense. Safely, of course.

More likely we’ll see lots of positional flexibility, lots of true freshman suit up, everybody on board. If you played a position in high school then you may be playing it in college.

“We’ve talked about it a lot,” Cutcliffe said. “There’s no magic number. But you’ve got to have eight offensive linemen. . . . The number for me has been 47, 48, where you’re two-deep hopefully on both sides of the ball, with your specialists. We’re practicing, really focused on our entire team, because you could get short. . . . It’s a unique challenge and we’re trying to give it a unique perspective. I want all of our young people to believe that they matter anyway. But certainly everybody matters right now, their progress and their development is important to our program.”

Cutcliffe raised a fascinating possibility, one that had not occurred to me.

“When you’re doing the COVID testing, practicing for an opponent and then all of a sudden midweek the opponent you’re going to play has to opt out of that week and you suddenly find yourself on Thursday or Friday having to play someone else.”

I have no idea how that would work. But what else has been normal this year?

Cutcliffe says he’s prepared to accept a fall national champion and a spring national champion, if it comes to that, saying “You have to have a carrot.”

What are his thoughts on the state of the sport.

“It’s been bothering me. I was hoping at the beginning of this thing . . . that we would get a unified approach. I do have a fear of never seeing college football be the same. We can always recover from this. First the players, second the coaches, then third the game itself, our profession. I just hope the leaders that are involved with these very difficult decisions, coaches and players alike can find some common ground to make this work. One of my gravest concerns is one group going one way, another group going another way. What are we going to see in the future, I can’t even fathom. But I don’t see how we can be the same. I certainly don’t want to see any drastic changes to our great game. . . . It’s provided a lot of things for a lot of people. I think our leadership needs to step up.”

A snapshot of one coach’s concerns in this plague year, micro and macro, trying to put together a depth chart while his sport struggles to figure out how to survive.