GREENSBORO – Duke’s preseason optimism has been a bit of a punchline in the past. The Blue Devils insisted each year was the year they would compete in the ACC, only to finish at the bottom of the Coastal Division – again.
Despite 17 straight losing seasons and an offseason which turned disastrous, Duke believes this is the year – for real this time – that it will play in a bowl game for the first time since the 1994 season.
“The truth is these guys deserve to go. I’ve been to a lot of bowl games, been very fortunate in my career,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “This team is a bowl team.”
After finishing 3-9 and losing its last seven games in 2011, Duke’s offseason was tumultuous. Wide receiver Blair Holliday remains in intensive care after suffering critical head injuries in a July 4 jet skiing accident with fellow Duke wide receiver Jamison Crowder.
Holliday’s accident left an already thin position group scrambling to fill the depth chart. Only four wide receivers remain on the roster, and the Blue Devils are flirting with converting running back Desmond Scott, among others, to wide receiver.
In addition to Holliday, Duke lost fellow starters Braxton Deaver (tight end) and Kelby Brown (linebacker) to injuries.
Duke even had an outbreak of swine flu among the team.
All the Blue Devils want to do is move ahead.
“I have faced tragedy and tragic circumstances in my life growing up, and I’ve found that you respectfully approach those circumstances, but you have to move forward,” Cutcliffe said.
While the team’s record has not improved markedly under Cutcliffe, Duke’s players insist the team’s talent level is higher than it has been in decades.
Before Cutcliffe took over in December 2007, Duke didn’t even have a 100-yard field on which to practice.
“The first day I stepped onto campus to the talent now – I don’t think it’s even arguable how much greater it is,” wide receiver Conner Vernon said. “Especially, not just at one position, but multiple positions and their backups. We have a lot more depth on this team than we had in the past.”
In the Blue Devils’ defense, they were only a few breaks away from bowl eligibility in 2011. Duke lost by one score four times last season, falling short with a chance to win on the final possession against Richmond, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech.
Despite a poor running game (115th out of 120 FBS teams), Duke could have changed its fortunes if it were better in the red zone. The Blue Devils finished last in the ACC in red zone defense, and 10th in red zone offense, scoring touchdowns on slightly more than half of their trips inside the 20.
“I think that’s definitely been a problem in the past, is red-zone scoring,” Vernon said. “In the red zone, we have to come out with seven points, not field goals. The difference between 3-9 and a bowl game last year was seven points or less.”
Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, who undertook a similar task, said Cutcliffe has done well to improve the program, but he also pointed to close games as being the turning point.
“Obviously, taking over football teams who haven’t won a lot in a great league, it’s a challenge,” Grobe said. “(Cutcliffe has) had a lot of close games, and that’s going to happen when you’re trying to get going. The difference is when you find a way to get over the hump.”
Duke does have some measure of stability on defense.
For the second consecutive full season, the Blue Devils will stick with one system.
Duke will play a nickel hybrid that the team calls a 4-2-5, though it will do so without graduated safety and 2011 tackles leader Matt Daniels, who helped make the transition successful because of his ability to challenge in the running game just like a linebacker.
“We used to call him ‘Hat D’ because he would come in there and blow you up,” defensive end Kenny Anunike said “He’s a great caliber player, high-energy guy. When he came down that line, he was coming to hit you. I think we have a lot guys now who are trying to answer the call and fill his void.”
Junior Brandon Braxton will take Daniels’ place, but Anunike said the whole defense is trying to compensate for Daniels collectively.
More than anything, Duke’s defense is relieved to have one system it plays, rather than molding itself to each new offense.
“You’re not distracted by all the stuff other offenses are doing, you can apply (the defense) to the offense they throw at us,” Anunike said. “I think the 4-2-5 is a nice balance to be a run stopper and a pass defender.”
Cutcliffe said the Blue Devils had their best offseason since he has been at Duke.
He also said that this class has surpassed any other in terms of offseason records in strength and conditioning.
“I’ve never had a class anywhere that has done what this class has physically,” Cutcliffe said. “There’s an old saying: Plant well come spring, or beg well come fall. … This team has prepared. Let’s go win.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com