I had the pleasure of interviewing new Duke football coach David Cutcliffe on Monday night at Fat Junior’s Grill in Sanford and came away impressed.
First of all, it was nice to hear that former Lee County star Jay Hollingsworth has a real chance to see some action on the gridiron this season in a potential backup role to starting running back Re’quan Boyette.
But mostly it was good to hear not just an upbeat assessment of the future of Duke football from a man who has succeeded among the highest ranks in the college game, but also that he was so realistic about the issues facing the program.
Cutcliffe, who taped an episode of WBFT’s “Heart of Carolina Sports” with Tom Welborn (which will air on Charter Cable 16 on Wednesday at 9 p.m., Friday at 10:30 p.m. and Monday at 8 p.m.), didn’t sound much different than a high school coach taking over a struggling program, starting by saying that unless you can run, you can’t play at Duke. He’s also stressing strength and conditioning in order to get the Blue Devils to a competitive level. Being competitive on a consistent basis is the first step for Duke football. Winning comes only after that aspect is put into place.
And Cutcliffe is real about the problems facing Duke. When he was asked by a fan about the offensive line on Monday, Cutcliffe doesn’t BS. He out and out says that it’s a big concern for him. Listening to him, you can tell that he wants to redshirt every freshman — even Eli Manning redshirted — but understands that he just can’t yet.
This isn’t a retread hire for Duke. The university went out and got a guy who won 60 percent of the time in the SEC and went to the Cotton Bowl as a head coach. He’s built a national championship offense.
But it won’t be easy. North Carolina is proving to be a difficult state to recruit in. Butch Davis and his reputation are at North Carolina. Jim Grobe has built a consistent winner at Wake Forest. Skip Holtz is winning at East Carolina. N.C. State is a still a strong state school and Appalachian State is firmly on the college football map.
Cutcliffe, though, in his no-nonsense manner, understands that as well as he does the need for Boyette and Thaddeus Lewis to remain healthy.
And Duke is better off for it.
Here’s the story:
Duke’s Cutcliffe: Hollingsworth “in the mix” for backup role
SANFORD — Jay Hollingsworth has a chance.
His coach said so.
During his visit to Hollingsworth’s hometown on Monday, new Duke football coach David Cutcliffe said that the former Lee County star running back has a shot at seeing time on the gridiron in a backup role during his freshman season.
And that’s not bad, considering Re’quan Boyette enters his senior season having played in nearly every Duke game since 2005.
“He’s coming in a situation where Re’quan Boyette is the starter, and then there’s interesting opportunities behind him,” Cutcliffe said. “And Jay is very much in the mix. I can say this — he’s very much in the mix to be tested to see who ends up in that backup role to Re’quan.”
And a lot of that has to do with Hollingsworth’s work ethic since his arrival in Durham a month ago on June 28. Cutcliffe, who installed a summer conditioning program to turn the Blue Devils into a leaner, more fit team across the board, said Hollingsworth has taken to the workout regimen and is turning some heads.
“Jay is already changing his body,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s obviously a fine athlete. It’s hard to project what freshmen will do for you … but he’s in our strength and conditioning program, and our strength and conditioning coaches give me great reports on him.”
While Hollingsworth appears to be on the right track to a bright future, Duke fans are hoping the same is true for the Blue Devils under Cutcliffe, who was interviewed in front of a packed house at Fat Junior’s Grill on Monday for a taping of WBFT’s “Heart of Carolina Sports.”
Cutcliffe’s resume speaks for itself. He’s spent most of his career in the Southeastern Conference, serving as a longtime assistant coach at Tennessee before and after a six-year head-coaching stint at Mississippi from 1999-2004, where he compiled a 44-29 record and took the Rebels to four straight bowl appearances. Cutcliffe was the architect of the offense of several successful Vols’ teams, including the 1998 national championship, and mentored both Peyton and Eli Manning.
Duke fans are hoping some of that success will rub off on a football program whose seniors enter the 2008 season with just two victories in their tenures.
But it won’t come easily, Cutcliffe said. And it starts with plain hard work.
“Fans are going to see the best conditioned team in the ACC wearing Duke jerseys,” Cutcliffe said. “What we’re hoping is that we become, instead of a liability in the fourth quarter, that we become a fourth-quarter football team.”
At the same time, the Blue Devils will be looking to take one simple step at a time toward the kind of success Cutcliffe is accustomed to.
“What we have to do at Duke is to get into every game we play in,” Cutcliffe said, “to be competitive in every game that we play. If you do that enough times, and you are conditioned as a football team, you start finding a way to win.
“I hope we learn how to win, and hope we learn how to win on a consistent basis. How fast that can happen is a challenge. But when your seniors have won two games in their careers, I think starting anywhere beyond that is a mistake. So we’re definitely taking it one game at a time, as that old cliché says. If we can be competitive going into the fourth quarter of every game we play, you’ll find a way to win your fair share.”
Still, the cautious approach, while appropriate, isn’t stemming the tide of enthusiasm. Duke is reaching a record number of season tickets sold, and the excitement surrounding Duke football is unlike anything seen entering a season, said Bob Harris, who has been the radio voice of the Blue Devils for 33 years.
“I have never seen the level of enthusiasm for Duke football like it is right now going into a season,” said Harris, who also attended the event Monday. “In 1994, we won the first seven games of the season and were ranked No. 23 in the country, and there was a lot of excitement then, just like there was in the (Steve) Spurrier years. But nothing going into a season like this has been.”
Duke will open its season at home at 7 p.m. on Aug. 30 against Football Championship Series (formerly 1-AA) heavyweight James Madison.