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Coach Cutcliffe Talks About Duke Football’s Progress

And some lingering issues

NCAA Football: ACC Media Days
Jul 18, 2018; Charlotte, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach David Cutcliffe speaks with the media during ACC football media day at The Westin. 
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

David Cutcliffe met with the media Wednesday morning and quoted a hot, new coach.

“Coach Aristotle had it right. We become what we repeatedly do.”

Okay, 2,300 years ago isn’t all that new.

Perhaps you’re more familiar “the devil is in the details” or “do the little things right and the big things will take care of themselves.”

Okay, that will end the aphorism portion of today’s read. But the point is clear. The way back to football success for Duke is developing good habits, focusing on the little things.

Duke cornerback Leonard Johnson told the media earlier in the week that the practice focus was on finishing.

I asked Cutcliffe to elaborate on what that meant and how Duke coaches finishing.

Cutcliffe said that every practice drill had five components, alignment, assignment, effort, execution and finish.

“I can’t tell you how many times through the years I’ve seen a ball ‘caught’ but not caught. If a DB will finish, absolutely finish every coverage, especially the long balls, you can get the balls out before it’s called complete by an official.You have to practice that. How many tackles have we seen gone unfinished, how many blocks have we seen gone unfinished? That receiver, that catch is not made until he has it possession of the ball and hands it to an official. So, every little detail in a practice lends itself to what you just said. You’re trying to win the game. Finishing the winner of the game means you’ve finished well the entire ball game. Everything you’re asked to do, you’ve got to finish the job.”

Certainly that attention to detail needs to lead to fewer turnovers.

Cutcliffe says he is “not bringing up last year with them. I am focusing on these guy’s habits on the practice field. There’s a way to carry it, there’s a way to finish, finish, every catch, even if it’s versus air, every exchange a quarterback and a running back make. I’m seeing better habits. But I’m not naive. You see something in practice and it seems like they’ve forgotten everything you’ve taught them, then you haven’t taught them, you’ve told them. There’s a difference between teach and tell.”

Duke does have one scrimmage to go on. Cutcliffe said he and his dog stayed up until 4 A.M. Sunday looking at Saturday’s scrimmage.

Good things?

“We really competed at a high level on both sides. There was a lot of give-and-take. Defensively, they created some big plays with tackles for losses. Offensively, I thought we ran the ball really effectively. I think we have an opportunity to have a really good run game. Gunnar [Holmberg] played really well for the most part at quarterback. We had three dropped passes or his completion percentage would have been well over 70 percent. Our kicking game was really good.”

Issues? Well there were those drops. And three fumbles. “Just being sloppy. We’re not going to win if we do that. Flip that over, defensively we had no takeaways. Even when the ball hit the ground, we didn’t come up with the football and that’s something that bothers me. I thought our defensive front got a little tired and when it did, we gave up too many rushing yards. “

Cutcliffe added that the depth chart is beginning to firm up but that there were still opportunities for players to make their case for being on the field.

Some roster notes.

Duke has moved Ron Carr to defensive line. He’s a 6-5, 275-pound redshirt sophomore. Cutcliffe said that the injury to defensive tackle Gary Smith made it a “good time to experiment” but added that Duke is working Carr at both tackle and end.

“I’m pretty pleased with what I’ve seen there. I think he’s going to stay there for the time being.”

Carr had been an offensive tackle, One of the reasons Duke feels comfortable moving him is the maturation of redshirt sophomore John Gelotte, who is starting at right tackle.

Cutcliffe called Gelotte “a beast” and is calling him “Big, Bad John,” after the early 1960s hit by Jimmy Dean.

Yes, the sausage guy.

And for the record, Gelotte seems to like the comparison.

And of course, Gunnar Holmberg came up because, well, Holmberg’s a quarterback and it’s kind of an important position.

“I want 100 percent effectiveness on decision making,” Cutcliffe said. “I want 100 percent ball security. I want a buy-in like we’ve never seen. He’s working at it. He’s pleasing us with what he’s doing.”

One of the more interesting newcomers is lacrosse star Nakeie Montgomery. He approached the staff about joining the team and the staff was enthusiastic. He’s listed as a running back but could be in the mix to return kickoffs.

I asked Cutcliffe if Montgomery had a chance to see the field.

”I think he does. I’ve been really pleased with him. He’s a hard worker and I think he’s happy to be back on the football field. He even told me that. ‘This is fun.’ He was a really good high-school football player and he’s had a good camp.”

Duke has another scrimmage this Saturday but it’s closed to the media. But there’s little doubt that Duke will be focusing on the message of Coach Aristotle.