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Duke Football Has One Clear Focus This Season: Reducing Turnovers

Everyone agrees that turnovers were a huge problem last season.

Duke v Virginia
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 26: Rocky Shelton II #43 of the Duke Blue Devils celebrates an interception with teammates Shaka Heyward #42, Marquis Waters #0, Jeremiah Lewis #39 and DeWayne Carter #90 in the second half during a game against the Virginia Cavaliers on September 26, 2020 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

The Duke football team trailed Boston College 7-6 at halftime of last season’s football game. BC got the ball first after intermission but Duke forced a punt. The Blue Devils took over at their 8-yard line.

A very winnable game.

Two plays netted minus one yard. On third down Chase Brice hit Damond Philyaw-Johnson with a pass in the flat.

It wasn’t a bad idea. Philyaw-Johnson is very fast and if he could slip a tackle, he could run a long way.

But Boston College’s Josh Deberry was all over Philyaw-Johnson. As the two fell to the ground, Deberry wrestled the ball away from the Duke receiver.

It never even touched the ground.

The Eagles took over at the Duke 12 and kicked a field goal four plays later.

They went on to win 28-6.

That play summed up Duke’s 2020 season. Even a complete pass resulted in a turnover.

If there was a way to turn the ball over, Duke found it. They turned it over early, they turned it over late. They turned it over on first down, they turned it over on fourth down. They turned it over in the red zone, with their backs to their own goal line, by interception, by fumble.

A football team doesn’t go 2-9 because it is deficient in one area. But if we assign blame for last season, then turnovers have to absorb a lot of that blame.

There were 127 teams playing FBS football last season. Duke ranked 127th in turnovers, with 39. Georgia Tech and Mississippi State tied for 125th, with 25.

Without putting too fine a point on it, Duke was all by itself in the woeful category. Duke averaged 3.54 turnovers per game.

To provide a comparison, Duke’s 2014 team turned the ball over 15 times in 13 games, an average of 1.15 turnovers per game.

It’s easy to blame this on quarterback Chase Brice, who threw 15 interceptions on 352 passes. But players-other-than-Chase-Brice threw four interceptions and Duke lost 20 fumbles.

So, it’s not all on him.

I’ve had a chance to ask several Duke players the key to turning around the program. Several have mentioned intangibles like rebuilding the culture after last season’s pandemic protocols. Having more fun and so forth.

All well and good. But when I posed the question to star running back Mataeo Durant, he got right to the point.

“Be more consistent and take care of the turnovers, we’ll win more games. If you don’t carry the ball right, you’re going to turn it over. We just have to be locked in and not put the ball in harm’s way when we’re in traffic. Take care of the turnovers and be more disciplined. Once we do that, the wins will come.”

The turnovers didn’t just stifle the offense. Too often a quick turnover sent a tired defense back on the field, with bad field position making things worse.

I asked linebacker Shaka Heyward how a reduction in turnovers could help Duke’s defense.

“Obviously, that would be great. Turnovers are the name of the game.”

Can presumptive starting quarterback Gunnar Holmberg be an upgrade over Brice in this area?

Here are his thoughts.

“Try not to emphasize it so much where it’s kind of in everyone’s heads so much.”

That was the first thing out of Holmberg and I’m sure he has a point. We all know about self-fulfilling prophecies. The best way to guarantee that your five-year old is going to break something in the pottery store is to implore them not to touch anything.

But he did have some additional thoughts.

“Try and be aggressive but not dumb, I think is the key. Take your shots whenever you can, be explosive whenever you can but don’t force something. Whenever you have the ball, hold it tight until you hand it back to the ref. As a quarterback know your down-and-distance, know when you can force something, try to have your brain on the game as much as possible, know where you’re supposed to be, know your surroundings, know what the defense is doing and at the end of the day, if you can do all that, that leads to much better ball security than we had a year ago.”

Calvin Magee is Duke’s new running-back coach and he gives his perspective.

“That’s something we’re going to continue to work on every day, that we have great ball security. We’re really focusing on ball security.”

Cutcliffe says it all starts in practice.

“I’ve never had an issue with that in my career until the last two years,” he said during ACC Media Day last month. “Again, that goes back to habits. It goes back to a head coach. You select the people on the staff, the players everybody involved. You create a practice schedule that creates good habits. But then most importantly, you evaluate it. I’ve gone back and looked at practice tape, just random Tuesday and Wednesday practices. If you’re not doing everything you should do, every drill matters when it comes to ball security. It matters that your team—and I believe these young men, believe me—they have to do a better job of giving them ownership.”

Of course, this was the narrative last season and the turnovers continued.

Duke does not appear to have a significant talent advantage over any of its eight ACC opponents. Duke is going to have to excel in the fundamentals to win these games and holding on to the ball tops the list. Offensive coaches are fond of saying that every possession should end in a kick, an extra point, a field-goal attempt, a punt. Way too many of Duke’s possessions recently have not ended in kicks.

“If you don’t take care of the football, you’re not going to win,” Cutcliffe says and Duke’s 2020 season proved that in the most depressing way. It’s a problem that needs to get fixed if Duke is going to have any chance of success this season.