DURHAM, N.C. – Duke Blue Devils head football coach David Cutcliffe has worked to leave no area overlooked in preparing his team for its season-opening game against the Tulane Green Wave on Thursday.
The direction Cutcliffe has set is the one his players have followed without question.
It’s a high trust level that upperclassmen and incoming freshmen alike possess of him because the results speak for themselves.
The Blue Devils have achieved some of their most significant milestones in recent years, including winning an Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Coastal Division championship, and making trips to bowl games in three consecutive seasons.
According to redshirt senior left guard Lucas Patrick, an ACC preseason third-team selection, attention to detail is what the Blue Devils have focused on from the first day of camp.
“It all starts with Coach Cutcliffe and how he runs our program,” Patrick said.
“Everything from the way our lockers are supposed to look, to how we present ourselves in the classroom and out in the community. Everything is always organized and always has a purpose.”
In preparing to start camp in early August, Cutcliffe didn’t mince words when he stated his team was “under construction”.
Knowing that his team would need to possess enough strength and endurance to face the Green Wave late at night under warm and muggy conditions in New Orleans, the Blue Devils practiced and simulated game situations under similar conditions throughout camp.
Cutcliffe said that he needed to have as many healthy bodies available to make the trip in order to face a Green Wave squad that wants to end Duke’s two-game win streak over them in recent outings.
“We’re about as ready as we can be,” Cutcliffe said on Sunday.
“We’re playing an experienced team. A team that’s got a returning quarterback, ten starters back on offense, and most of their starters back on defense, depending upon how you want to count it.”
While Cutcliffe and his staff worked to prepare redshirt junior quarterback Thomas Sirk to lead the offense as the starter, with redshirt sophomore Parker Boehme as his backup, other challenges arose.
Injuries in the backfield forced him to insert players into different positions, like shifting third-string quarterback Nicodem Pierre to running back.
Such personnel moves, among others, were not made as a reaction, though it probably appeared that way.
No, there had to be a calculated plan in place to implement, if and when needed.
The proverbial ‘next man up’ contingency is not unique, and one that Cutcliffe and his teams, year in and year out, have now learned to work well under.
“We started our program with a foundation of discipline and conditioning,” Patrick said.
“That all goes back to details. All these details are comin’ in and comin’ in, and finally we’re seein’ all these records and bowl games, and that’s exciting. We really haven’t changed. We’ve been the same; we’ve just reaped the benefits.”
Then there was the road trip taken with two weeks to go before the first game of the season.
What coach does that?
Cutcliffe did, and it of course, served a purpose.
Following morning practice on Aug. 20th, the Blue Devils boarded a bus for Washington D.C. as part of a field trip of sorts to attend an NFL preseason game, and to subsequently visit the Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorials.
Recently drafted and signed former Duke players Laken Tomlinson (Detroit), Jamison Crowder (Washington), and Tacoby Cofield (Washington) were on the rosters of the competing teams.
There was a reason for the Duke players and fans to cheer that night.
Add in the face time Cutcliffe got on the sideline with his recent graduates, as well as giving a television interview during the game, and the exposure Duke football received that night was more than any ad buy could ever generate.
“This is something we were aware of right when the schedule came out,” Cutcliffe said following the trip.
“First motivation (to make the trip), we love Laken, Jamison, and Tacoby. We’ve got three teammates that are there. We care about ‘em, and it’s real, and our players were thrilled in that regard. Second motivation was we open on the road. You’re takin’ players that have never traveled, we have redshirt freshman and true freshmen, and we went up there with an itinerary set that would be our Friday night meal on Thursday afternoon. We had everybody executing travel. Third thing was the bonding – it was a good time to take a break. We practiced in the morning and let our bodies heal a little bit. The next thing that I thought was huge – in college football, one of the most difficult things is, we play a bowl game and we never see a game live until we play again. (That night) our players were seeing live kickoff coverage and returns. They see the effects penalties have on drives. There’s a difference from watching it on TV and feeling the game. They were deeply involved in the game itself, and they all commented on that.”
The next day, the team heard from former Duke grads as part of a career pep talk before touring two of the nation’s significant historical sites and taking a team picture there.
It capped off the academic portion of the trip, one that many players had never made before, and helped to further bond together a newly developing team.
“How cool is that – and we did all that in about 24 hours,” Cutcliffe noted.
“It was very complex what we had done (with it).”
The Blue Devils haven’t started the season on the road since 2005 and never during Cutcliffe’s tenure, entering his eighth year now.
During that time, Duke is 5-2 in season openers and has won its last three in a row.
No doubt, it’s Cutcliffe’s intention to maintain that winning consistency, but knowing full well that it won’t be easy to do it away from home.
Will all the premeditated moves, on and off the field, continue to reap success for the Blue Devils entering the 2015 season?
That answer will surface late Thursday night.
Cutcliffe has set the direction, and now it’s time for this year’s team to follow and execute according to the plan.
It will mark the beginning of a new season’s worth of expected and unexpected decision-making and adjustments that those who follow Duke on the gridiron have become accustomed to seeing.
It’s worked so far, and if it doesn’t, you know the head coach will be working hard to correct it as soon as possible.
“This will be a great challenge, which is what you want in openers,” Cutcliffe said.
“This will be an opportunity to find out a lot about our football team down in New Orleans.”