YOH FOOTBALL CENTER/DURHAM There are higher expectations about the Duke football team this season than have been around any Blue Devil gridiron squad in quite some time.
It’s pretty easy for any football team to talk about optimism – even if the word “cautious” is thrown in there as a codicil – but it’s tough for the public to take seriously a team coming off a one-win season.
David Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils don’t have that problem anymore. Coming off last season’s very respectable 4-8 mark that followed a string of four seasons with a combined record of 4-42, the Blue Devils were within a couple of plays of actually finishing .500 and lost by more than 11 points just three times.
While the culture may have been changed, the Blue Devils are going to be very, very young this season with 38 scholarship freshmen and just nine scholarship seniors.
So when Cutcliffe (pictured) held his preseason press conference – a luncheon event featuring lots of appropriately cold stuff including cold cuts and tuna and potato salads that had about half a dozen players and probably 30 media in attendance – a lot of his mind was occupied with player development.
That was after he asked some trivia questions about the Wizard of Oz, told an Alabama joke (that’s cool, since he’s a native), and displayed a pair of padded compression shorts that Clemson had gotten in trouble for wearing to early practice – until the NCAA figured out that just about every team in the country was doing the same thing.
The fifth day of practice marked the first time Duke or any other NCAA team can take the field in complete uniforms.
“I’ve got a couple of observations,” the second-year head coach said. “We have a very interesting freshman class. They’ve done well as a group and there are no disappointments.
“And the retention with our older guys has really been good – throwing and catching, and where they’re supposed to be in coverage.”
He said he has talked a little baseball philosophy with his team – the difference between a .300-hitting Hall of Famer and a forgotten .200 hitter is one hit every 10 at-bats. The moral of the story there is not to take a play off.
“My favorite four-letter words are ‘hard work,’” he added.
With the youth of his team so evident, he talked about building depth quickly. The way to tell how good a football team is going to be, he pointed out, is to look at the second line on the depth chart. And the Blue Devils will certainly have some freshmen – including perhaps a true freshman or two or three – on that second line.
“Not a one of them (true freshmen) do you look at and say, ‘He can’t play this year,’” the coach said.
Cutcliffe said the offensive line is an ongoing concern, but he’s very high on the guys who will be carrying the ball behind it.
Senior Re’quan Boyette is back following a missed season with knee surgery after leading the team in rushing in 2006 and ’07, while sophomore Jay Hollingsworth who was last season’s leader is listed as a backup. Hollingsworth said he’s looking forward to another season playing alongside quarterback senior Thaddeus Lewis.
“(Lewis) is so mature for his age,” Hollingsworth said. “He seems a lot older, the way he carries himself, especially. He leads by example, and just tells me to play hard and stay in the playbook.
“Re’quan and I are real close. He’s my ‘big brother’ in the team. We compete with each other, but we’re real close.”
Duke returns five starters on offense, five on defense and two on special teams, including kicker Nick Maggio who is recovering from some facial surgery involving his teeth but should certainly be ready for the season.
Junior Patrick Egbow is a new starter at defensive end.
“A winning season would be great,” Egbow said. “We had a lot of great (senior) players on last year’s team, and we tried as hard as we could to send them out with complete turnaround.
“Football wasn’t a huge thing at Duke, but then Coach Cut came in and made it about the (Durham) community and not just Duke. That has helped earn us some more fans.”
The Blue Devils, who open their season at home Sept. 5 against defending NCAA Division I (Championship Subdivision) titlist Richmond, play a record three games against Triangle opponents this season. They’ll host the historic first game against cross-town rival N.C. Central on Sept. 26 in the Bull City Gridiron Classic, travel to old rival N.C. State on Oct. 10, and then visit UNC in the annual battle for the Victory Bell on Nov. 7