by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

While pondering the likelihood of another sub-.500 and bowl-less football season at Duke, we decided to ask some of our most trusted mid-Atlantic observers a question.

Under what circumstances could the Blue Devils ever forge an extended gridiron turnaround?

Their answers were consistent and sobering for any Duke backers who might dare to dream about the day their team regularly competes for ACC championships and bowl berths. Without exception, those polled suggested that it probably couldn’t be done in Durham. Certainly not in the near future, if ever.

The barriers to Blue Devil football ever making a resurgence are formidable. Not the least of which are rigid academic requirements which preclude entrance of numerous student-athletes who have no problem qualifying at many other ACC schools. Duke takes a handful of special admits on the football side, too, but unless it significantly relaxes gridiron entrance requirements (as has been done over the past fifteen years at Northwestern, since Al Groh’s years at Virginia, and, at least recently since the Jim Harbaugh era, at Stanford), the Blue Devils are going to be perpetually handicapped on the recruiting trail.

Moreover, sources suggest that Duke has become so ingrained as a “basketball school” over the past half-century that not even a string of bowl appearances would likely ease that dynamic. It is also not lost upon many informed observers of ACC sport that Blue Devil hoops coach Mike Krzyzewski, though outwardly supportive of the school’s football program, is in fact not overly troubled by Duke’s long-running gridiron malaise. Unlike other high-profile basketball coaches at “football schools” (such as Rick Barnes at Texas, John Beilein at Michigan, and, closer to home, Leonard Hamilton at Florida State and James Johnson at Virginia Tech), Krzyzewski never has to worry about battling with the biggest athletic donors about the direction of their contributions.

Dynamics in the ACC would also happen to be such that a breakthrough from a perennial also-ran was possible. Which was the case with another historically-outmatched conference member, Wake Forest, midway through the last decade, when a combination of downturns by members of the ACC elite (especially at Florida State and Miami), some recruiting gambles paying off spectacularly, and the ability to not only employ a top-line coach (in the Demon Deaocns’ case, Jim Grobe) but keep him away from interested suitors helped contribute to a brief revival of Wake’s fortunes.

Further, the ACC is a deeper and more formidable football conference these days, with the likes of Florida State, Miami, and Virginia Tech added to the fold over the past two decades. Duke, which struggled to stay afloat in a more modest era of ACC football in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, now finds the conference mountain even harder to climb.

An occasional short-term breakthrough in Durham, however, perhaps one even as extended as Wake Forest’s revival in the past decade, was considered possible by those surveyed. Indeed, Duke briefly hinted at such an emergence in the late ‘80s under Steve Spurrier. But the “ball coach” was on an upward trajectory at that point in his coaching career, and his tenure at Durham was always expected to be brief. Once he steered the Blue Devils into a bowl in 1989, Spurrier was quickly confiscated by alma mater Florida. Any other coach who would forge a breakthrough at Duke would likely be subject to similar courtship from interested suitors, and any stay in Durham would likely be brief.

In that regard, replicating the recent Wake Forest miracle becomes even more unlikely, not only to enlist a Grobe-like presence, but keep him in the fold when higher-profile programs begin knocking at the door.

Still, even short-term surges would be welcomed by the few who truly care about Duke football, as the alumni base would probably settle for a generally-competitive product that most of the time could at least contend for minor bowl berths. No football coach is going to be fired at Duke for failing to get the Blue Devils to the Orange Bowl or into the national championship mix.

Yet recent history proves how difficult it will be for Duke to forge a meaningful turnaround. The Blue Devils haven’t been to a bowl since the 1994 season, when Fred Goldsmith’s first Durham edition, led by productive QB Spence Fischer (left), finished a surprising 8-3 in the regular-season schedule and qualified for the Hall of Fame (now Outback) Bowl in Tampa, where Wisconsin prevailed by a 34-20 count. Along with Spurrier’s 1989 team qualifying for the old All-American Bowl in Birmingham (when Texas Tech whipped the Blue Devils, 49-21), those have been Duke’s only bowl appearances since Bill Murray’s 1960 team advanced to the Cotton Bowl, where the Blue Devils scored a mild upset over a Frank Broyles-coached Arkansas team featuring HB Lance Alworth, 7-6.

Since Murray retired after the 1964 season, almost 50 years ago, Spurrier is the only Duke coach to have fashioned a winning record (20-13-1 from 1987-89). Tom Harp (22-28-1 from 1966-70), former Blue Devil All-American tackle and one-time high-level administrator Mike McGee (37-47-4 from 1971-78), Red Wilson (16-27-1 from 1979-82), the well-regarded Steve Sloan (13-31 between 1983-86), Barry Wilson (13-30-1 in the 1990-93 period, subsequent to Spurrier’s departure), the aforementioned Fred Goldsmith (17-39 from 1994-98, and that includes the 8-4 mark and bowl team in his first season), former Spurrier Florida assistant and Duke alum Carl Franks (7-46 from 1999 to mid 2003), Ted Roof (6-45 from mid 2003 thru 2007), and current HC David Cutcliffe (15-33 from 2008-11) have all failed, some spectacularly, to post career win marks at Duke.

The Blue Devils have also made brief appearances in the national polls only three times over the last fifty years (in McGee’s first season of 1971 when breaking 4-0 from the gate, highlighted by a 9-3 upset win at Rose Bowl-bound Stanford; also in the bowl years of ‘89 and ‘94).

Indeed, uncovering periods of Blue Devil football prominence involves the gridiron equivalent of an archaeological dig. The aforementioned and well-regarded Murray had the Blue Devils as an ACC force throughout much of the ‘50s and into the early ‘60s, winning or sharing a total of seven Southern Conference and ACC titles between 1951-65, with three bowl visits including the 1960 team and its previously-mentioned win over Broyles’ Arkansas in the Cotton, and the 1954 team whipping Nebraska 34-7 in the Orange Bowl. The ‘57 team also qualified for the Orange, where it was beaten by Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma, 48-21. Murray also fielded an 8-2 side in 1962 that won the ACC and featured a soph named Mike Curtis (right), who would eventually earn All-ACC honors as a bruising fullback and jarring linebacker, eventually to move on the NFL glory at the latter position with the Baltimore Colts.

Duke’s greatest gridiron glories occurred more than 70 years ago, with teams coached by the legendary Wallace Wade (left), who shocked the college football world by moving to Durham from Alabama in 1931 after being contacted by the Blue Devils for ideas about whom they should hire. Wade suggested himself, and the rest is history during an unparalleled era of gridiron success at Duke that included the memorable 1938 “Iron Dukes” side that remarkably didn’t allow a single point (!)in the entirety of an unbeaten regular season. Invited to the Rose Bowl, Wade’s Blue Devils held a 3-0 lead into the late going against Southern Cal before Trojan backup QB Doyle Nave engineered a stunning last-minute TD drive, climaxed by a 16-yard TD pass to Al Krueger, with only 40 seconds to play, to give Troy a stunning 7-3 win.

Wade’s 1941 team got back to the Rose Bowl in 1941, but events at Pearl Harbor just a few weeks prior to New Year’s convinced officials that gatherings of thousands of people on the West Coast probably wasn’t a good idea, so the game was thus switched to the Blue Devils’ home in Durham, which was expanded from its normal 33,000 capacity to over 56,000 thanks to the addition of portable bleachers (shown at right) for the game against Oregon State. It remains the only Rose Bowl ever played outside of Pasadena. The Beavers scored a 20-16 upset win, but reminders of the event are prominent at the stadium since named for Wade, with a statue of the great coach symbolically surrounded by rose bushes and a plaque commemorating the 1942 game tastefully displayed at the north entrance to the stadium.

Wade then enlisted in the Army for four years and was temporarily replaced by Eddie Cameron, Duke’s basketball coach and future AD for whom the Blue Devils’ famous basketball arena was eventually named in 1972. Cameron proceeded to win three ACC titles in four years and took Duke to the 1945 Sugar Bowl, where the Blue Devils won an exciting contest vs. an Alabama team featuring jump-passing QB Harry Gilmer, 29-26. Wade returned from service duty in 1946 to coach for four more years, while Cameron returned to a faculty position before eventually becoming the driving force behind the creation of the ACC in 1952.

We told you it required the equivalent of an archaeological dig to uncover evidence that Duke has indeed experienced periods of success in its football history! Although anyone under 65 years of age would have a hard time personally recalling Duke’s last glory days on the gridiron.

As for Cutcliffe (left), he seemed a worthwhile gamble when hired before the 2008 season. Having been prematurely forced out after 2004 in what is now regarded as a mistake at Ole Miss (where he recorded a solid 43-30 mark over six seasons) and a renowned offensive strategist who, while Phil Fulmer’s o.c. at Tennessee, had mentored Peyton Manning before tutoring his brother Eli at Ole Miss a few years later, the cerebral Cutcliffe was viewed as the sort of coach who could attract the type of skill-position recruits to Durham that had stayed away in droves during the ill-fated Franks and Roof regimes, when the program truly hit bottom.

Unfortunately, the best recruit Cutcliffe has brought to Durham has been none other than Peyton Manning, whose college eligibility had long since been exhausted before his extended rehab and tutoring sessions with Cutcliffe this past offseason in Durham. After some reasonably encouraging results with his first two Blue Devil editions that finished 4-8 and 5-7, respectively, Cutcliffe’s last two teams have regressed to identical 3-9 marks. The 2011 campaign was especially frustrating, as Duke collapsed at midseason after breaking 3-2 from the gate.

Even given the modest expectations in Durham, Cutcliffe enters 2012 on the hot seat, as another sub-.500 mark would likely confirm that he is not the coach to reverse Devil fortunes, Manning connections or not. Five straight losing seasons don’t play well anywhere, even in Durham.

Still, the Blue Devils weren’t too far from respectability a year ago, with three of those last seven losses by seven points or fewer. Yet those close results hardly salved the wounds of Duke supporters who were hoping Cutcliffe’s program would have progressed to the point it would be beyond losing at home to a lower-level side, which unfortunately occurred in a stinging 23-21 opening home defeat vs. the Richmond Spiders.

The thought process involved in the hiring of Cutcliffe was that a good offense was always going to be the best defense for the Blue Devils. In other words, a well-oiled, ball-control pass attack that could move the chains and the clock and keep the defense off the field. That recipe, however, has only been cooked as intended a handful of times in the Cutcliffe regime.

Defense, or lack thereof, remains a constant problem in Durham. While not the worst stop unit in the country a year ago, the Blue Devils weren’t Alabama, either, ranking well down the national charts vs. the run (85th), pass (84th), total (92nd), and scoring (90th at 31.2 ppg). Moreover, the platoon lacked playmakers, forcing a measly 12 turnovers all season, ranking a woeful 116th nationally in that category.

Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles thought he was on the way to solving the problem a year ago when installing a new 4-2-5 scheme, putting more-impactful performers (those in the secondary) on the field. Again, what worked in theory didn’t translate into practice.

Eight starters do return this fall, at least giving the “D” a more-seasoned look, but the upgrades have to begin up front with an improved push from the DL after the Devils managed just 17 sacks (ranking 94th nationally) a year ago and lost their most productive component, run-stuffing DT Charlie Hatcher, to graduation. ACC sources indicate there’s more athletic upside to this group than at any time in the Cutcliffe era, but more is expected of 6'4, 300-lb. jr. DT Sydney Sarmiento (left). It is also hoped that sr. DE Kenny Anunike, who generated much of the Blue Devil pass rush a year ago (four sacks in three games) before going down with a knee injury, will be fully recovered in time to make major contributions in the fall.

The Duke injury watch also includes LB Kelby Brown, a potential force who continues to have trouble staying healthy; the second ACL tear of his college career ruled him out of spring practice, though he’s expected to be ready to try it again in the fall. A newcomer to watch at LB could be true frosh Deion Williams, who has enough quicks to make an immediate impact and likely won’t be redshirted as a result.

Four starters return in the secondary, including CBs Ross Cockrell (right, who emerged as a semi-force last year as a soph) and Lee Butler, although replacing S Matt Daniels, the QB of last year’s defense and in the St. Louis Rams camp this summer, remained an unresolved issue throughout spring. Butler and the man projected to replace Daniels, Brandon Braxton, were both knocked out of spring work by injury, although Knowles and Cutcliffe expect them to be ready in the fall as Duke hopes to improve upon some of the more-disturbing defensive numbers from a year ago (23 TD passes allowed and just 6 picks).

There is legitimate hope for improvement in what was another imbalanced Duke offense last season that ranked a poor 115th in rushing (mere 94 ypg) and 93rd in scoring (22.5 ppg), numbers that must improve this fall if the Devils are going to break their bowl drought.

Encouraging signs, however, are developing with the offensive line, which was a young unit that force-fed a handful of frosh into significant action a year ago. The forward wall now has experience, with four linemen returning up front who started nine or more games last fall. Soph RG Laken Tomlinson, one of those thrown into the fire a year ago, has hinted at developing into a premier force. Top 2011 rushers Juwan Thompson (457 YR a year ago) and Desmond Scott (left; 367 YR last season) also return; Scott, dogged by injuries throughout his career, has performed with some flair on occasion and gets one more chance to make an impact as a senior. Either soph scatback Josh Snead, who missed 2011 with a foot injury after showing promise as a potential breakaway back as a frosh in 2010, or decorated Las Vegas frosh Shaquille Powell (from the powerhouse Bishop Gorman program), could emerge as Cutcliffe’s wild card at RB.

Where Cutcliffe and o.c. Kurt Roper might have some real fun is with their varied trio of QBs led by sr. Sean Renfree (right), a classic drop-back passer who has 23 career starts under his belt and hopes of playing on Sundays in the future after passing for 6022 yards over the past two seasons. But what really excites the staff is the versatility provided by other options behind center, Brandon Connette (the MVP of the spring game) and Anthony Boone, each an accomplished runner who can entice the coaches to open up the playbook and mix in various different packages.

Included in the new schemes could be formations where two or all three QBs are on the field at the same time, as indicated by spring scrimmaging. The versatile Connette (left) provides lots of options, as he also often lined up at receiver and tight end in spring work. The QBs were all working at a faster tempo in the spring as well, as Cutcliffe prefers his troops get to the line of scrimmage quickly before the defense can make personnel adjustments, and let Renfree (or one of the other QBs) orchestrate tempo while scanning the field.

As usual, there should be serviceable receiving targets, led by four-year starting WR Conner Vernon (right; 198 career receptions and 13 TDs), although an effective complement must emerge after the graduation of wideout Donovan Varner and his 61 receptions a year ago. The pass-catcher to watch could be soph Blair Holliday, who wowed Cutcliffe in spring with his playmaking ability. “I don’t know if I ever saw a player jump forward (in spring) they way he did,” said the coach.

True frosh Ross Martin, who has impressed Cutcliffe with his long leg, will be counted upon to handle PK duties and leave RS frosh Will Monday to take care of the punting chores after handling both punting and kicking duties in spring.

Unfortunately, Duke’s 2012 schedule is no picnic, with five road games against bowl teams from a year ago. Spread-wise, Cutcliffe’s teams (dating to his Ole Miss days) have usually been worth an extra look as an underdog, covering 10 of their last 15 as the “short” at Duke.

Summary...With few gimmes on the schedule except September home dates vs. lower-level NC Central and perhaps rebuilding Memphis, Cutcliffe might have a hard time forging the sort of record he needs to keep the war drums from beating loudly in Durham. Ongoing defensive concerns make a real breakthrough unlikely, but there are indicators that this could finally be the offense Cutcliffe has been promising at Duke for the past four years, with a sr. QB in Sean Renfree, an established OL, and plenty of intrigue within the supporting cast (including multi-dimensional QBs Brandon Connette and Anthony Boone) to suggest the Blue Devils at least have a puncher's chance vs. most of the foes on their schedule to perhaps get at or near .500 and a chance at an elusive minor bowl berth. The payoff for Cutcliffe has to happen this fall...or else.


Return To Home Page