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Duke Football Gets Back To It After A 2-9 Season

And David Cutcliffe is optimistic about improvement

Duke v Virginia Tech
BLACKSBURG, VA - SEPTEMBER 27: Head coach David Cutcliffe of the Dukes Blue Devils points to the away crowd as he leaves the field following the victory against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Lane Stadium on September 27, 2019 in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

Sportswriter Thomas Boswell famously declared that time begins on opening day. Boswell was talking about baseball and the beginning of the regular season not college football and the beginning of fall practice. But the principle is the same. It’s a magic time when everyone is undefeated and anything seems possible. Great teams strut across the stage, while good teams hope to move into the ranks of the great. A 5-7 team can become a 7-5 team, maybe better.

And then there are the teams whose goal is to defy the skeptics. Coming off a dismal 2-9 mark last season, Duke football is in full defy-the-skeptics-mode.

David Cutcliffe began his 14th season as Duke head coach this week, his 21st season as a head coach. He’s coming off a two-win season. He has never come off a two-win season, not even in his earliest years at Duke when he was struggling to bring Duke football up from the doldrums.

Duke opens September 3, on the road against Charlotte. In the next four weeks I’ll be looking at various aspects of Duke’s 2021 team but the background will almost always be that 2-9 season, which was preceded by a 1-5 finish to the 2019 season. That’s three wins for Duke in its last 17 games. Can Duke prove the skeptics wrong? Can Duke get better? How?

Much of the earliest conversations have focused on intangibles. Covid-19’s shadow has hovered over every aspect of our lives since the spring of 2020 and there’s no guarantee it’s done with us yet.

Let me be clear. No one at Duke has suggested to me that Covid negatively impacted Duke more than it negatively impacted other teams. But a case can be made. Duke didn’t just limit home attendance, it eliminated it. Not even players’ parents were allowed to attend home games. Spring practice 2020 ended after a couple of practices, fall practice started late and the football players took classes remotely, while living in something approaching a bubble.

Which resulted in some slippage in the areas of culture, cohesion and accountability.

Presumptive starting quarterback Gunnar Holmberg addressed this with the media Friday.

“I think that [covid] was a good amount of it. Not really being here in the spring, being one of the last teams in the ACC to get back, if not the last, I think is hard to go from that straight into training camp when you’re with each other for a month straight and you don’t get out of this building much.”

Cornerback Josh Blackwell also suggested that 2020 was a covid-related outlier.

“The biggest difference from last season to this season is having that spring and summer together. Building that team cohesion, growing together and building the team camaraderie. That, along with having the belief that we are a good football team and we can be a good football team, will make the difference.”

But there’s more. Check out this nugget from Holmberg.

“I think the older guys we have now are better leaders, I would say a little more vocal. Guys who have been here a little bit longer and know how things are supposed to look. Guys that have been to a bowl game-team when Daniel [Jones] was here, including myself have seen what it takes, the sense of urgency it takes. This is the first time I’ve seen that since I’ve been here, which is a really good sign for us.”

There are a number of ways to look at this but I’m going with veterans-taking-ownership-of-their team.

Junior wide receiver Eli Pancol echoed a renewed emphasis on intangibles.

“We’ve already started with a great culture. That’s what coach has been preaching. It’s been showing. I’ve had three first camps and this is the one that has been the most fun. The culture has been so good and everybody’s just wanting to work together. We all have the same goal of winning championships. Our culture is everything.”

Cutcliffe said that Duke “has to have a sense of urgency” and that seems like a baseline for a team on a 3-14 run.

Holmberg acknowledged that Duke isn’t expected to do well this season but says this will be a motivator.

“Guys who are trying to prove a bunch of people wrong, a bunch of guys who are underdogs who know what’s coming this year and are ready to put the work in.”