Game Day coming up. Yes, Duke football will open its 2021 football season Friday night in Charlotte.
It’s a new season and hope springs eternal, as the saying goes. But “new season” can mean a lot of things in this crazy, old world.
Certainly, any team coming off a 2-9 season is ready to turn the page and move on. And opening at Charlotte is a much easier ask than opening at Notre Dame, as Duke did last season, or a neutral-site game against Alabama, as Duke did in 2019.
But it’s also the presumed return of something resembling normalcy for a Duke football team that spent the 2020 season staring at a computer screen instead of interacting with fellow students and professors, a season without home fans, a season that tested the mental toughness of every single person associated with the program.
Duke paid a price.
I’ve been struck this preseason with how often conversations with players and coaches have turned to intangibles. The word “culture” has come up a lot, along with chemistry, energy, discipline, focus, well, you get the drift.
David Cutcliffe acknowledged Monday that there was some slippage in last-season’s pandemic-fueled disappointment.
“When you go through no spring ball in March and then you don’t return until late July, what is the culture? Where are you? And then you have a certain number of injuries. I think all of these guys felt that a year ago. I think that’s the reason they’ve cherished this time they’ve had. They realized in 2020 how much they missed that. There’s no question that was a big part of what suffered with our team and the 2020 season. We didn’t even have to bring it up. It’s been important to them. I think they are themselves important to each other.”
Duke has one more full-contact practice, scheduled for Tuesday. Cutcliffe says his team is healthy and the plan is to go deep into the bench Friday night.
“I expect we’re going to play quite a few people. I’m talking about playing people regardless [of score]. I think this team is deep. I think there are a lot of people that have practiced their way into the opportunity to help to contribute to win. I’m a firm believer that if a guy is ready, you’ve got to play him some.”
Charlotte only played six games last season, as the pandemic make a mockery of their schedule. They lost four of those six games, including a 53-19 shellacking at Duke.
Charlotte coach Will Healy reacted by bringing in numerous transfers, many from Power-Five programs like Texas A&M, Iowa State, Notre Dame and Iowa.
Cutcliffe calls Charlotte “uniquely different. They’re going to be well-coached. Will Healy and his staff are creative and they’ve added—you don’t know anything for sure-but it looks like they’ve added seven to 10 transfers who will be starters. So, you’ve got to adjust as it goes.”
But they aren’t all newcomers. Quarterback Chris Reynolds and wide receiver Victor Tucker are seniors and two of the best players in Conference-USA at their positions. Reynolds is mobile and Duke has to get pressure on him and that pressure will have to come in large part from players who haven’t seen the field much.
How does a Duke team minus Chris Rumph and Victor Dimukeje pressure the quarterback?
“I go to each defensive lineman and have conversations about that,” Cutcliffe admitted. “Pass rush is technique, it’s effort, it’s ability. But a lot of it is a mentality of getting there. You know you have about three seconds to do it, so you work at it every day. I think that schematically, you do some things different. You have different personnel from year to year, and we’ve been able to adjust and change and challenge that. One of the things we’ve got to grade early is not just sacks but what kind of pressure you put a quarterback under.”
The depth chart is pretty tentative at this point. But Michael Reese is listed as first-team defensive end and J’Marick Woods as first-team safety. Cutcliffe cited the two as prime examples of players who worked their way up the depth charts.
“Our team is really excited to get to play,” Cutcliffe maintained. “Until it gets live, opening games will absolutely tell you about the discipline level, what you’ve accomplished as a coach, what your conditioning level is, the ability to be able to sustain focus through 60 minutes. The biggest thing you find out is have you done all the little things.”
None of Duke’s Gulf Coast players have reported any family issues from Hurricane Ida. Cutcliffe noted that the monster storm has been especially tough on running-backs coach Calvin Magee, a native of New Orleans.
Duke is in great shape with vaccinations, Cutcliffe said. “I think our guys early on wanted to be vaccinated.”
Defensive tackle Gary Smith is still day-to-day.