David Cutcliffe's Duke tenure came full circle during the pandemic-altered 2020 college football season.
In 2008, Cutcliffe took over one of the worst programs in Division I, a team that had won just 10 games over the previous eight years.
It took him five seasons before reaching a bowl game and six before posting a winning season, but Cutcliffe took Duke to an ACC Championship Game and six bowl appearances in seven seasons from 2012-18.
That progress halted with a 5–7 season in 2019 and reversed dramatically in 2020 when the Blue Devils went 2–9, the fewest wins in any of Cutcliffe's 13 seasons as their coach.
Now Cutcliffe, at 66, sets about reversing that trend again and making Duke competitive in the ACC.
It won't be easy. The Blue Devils will break in a quarterback who has yet to start a college game and two young tackles tasked with helping protect him. They'll have three new starters along their defensive front.
Cutcliffe, though, says his team worked with an edge through the offseason, aiming to restore the winning culture.
"We have faced circumstances like this after we got the ball rolling," Cutcliffe says, "but these aren't issues or problems. They are opportunities for a team. The first word is hunger, maybe emaciated. That started in January, which this team got a great kick start. That continues in our process. This is not something where you decide suddenly you are going to be better."
Previewing Duke's Offense for 2021
Duke's losing record last season was certainly justified. Its offense lost a staggering 39 turnovers in 11 games. No FBS team in the country had more.
Fixing that is first and foremost on Duke's offseason agenda. "You can't repeat it," Cutcliffe says. "I mean, I've never been around it. I've never seen anything like that in this very long career that I've had. I can't pinpoint all of the unique and different reasons."
Responsibility for the majority of the turnovers went to quarterback Chase Brice, the Clemson transfer who was intercepted 15 times with six lost fumbles while starting all 11 games. Brice moved on to Appalachian State in January, clearing the way for redshirt junior Gunnar Holmberg to win the starting quarterback job.
Holmberg, who missed all of the 2019 season with a knee injury, has played in seven games over the last three seasons.
The good news on offense is that Duke returns three wide receivers with starting experience in senior Jake Bobo and juniors Jalon Calhoun and Eli Pancol. Senior running back Mataeo Durant should be a major weapon after posting a team-best 817 yards with eight touchdowns as a reserve last season.
Along the offensive line, Duke needs starting center Jack Wohlabaugh to play like his old self after missing last season with a knee injury. Sophomore Graham Barton, who impressed playing inside as a freshman, slides out to tackle where he'll be a new starter along with former tight end John Gelotte.
Previewing Duke's Defense for 2021
Pass-rushing ends Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje have moved on to the NFL after combining for 15.5 sacks last season. So the Blue Devils will have senior Ben Frye move out to end from tackle to help replace them.
They hope new starting tackle DeWayne Carter, a sophomore who impressed in spring practice, can be a force in the middle.
"Yeah, we lost a lot of talent, but talent isn't going to win us games," Frye says. "It's going to be discipline and conditioning. That's how you win at Duke. I feel good about the guys we have."
The experience on the defense comes at linebacker, where Shaka Heyward and Rocky Shelton II are back to start once again.
A secondary hurt by injuries last season needs safety Lummie Young IV and cornerback Josh Blackwell to come back healthy. Senior cornerback Leonard Johnson has experience, and junior safeties Nate Thompson and Jalen Alexander step into larger roles.
Previewing Duke's Specialists for 2021
Duke needs to win big on special teams to win, and the Blue Devils have two sophomores to help them in kicker Charlie Ham and punter Porter Wilson. Ham hit 13-of-15 field goals as a freshman last season, including 3-of-4 from 40 yards or longer. Wilson averaged 42.9 yards per punt, recording punts covering 57, 60, 63 and 70 yards in his freshman season.
Some of Duke's results last season, particularly down the stretch, showed a team struggling to compete in the ACC. The Blue Devils allowed 56 points in three of the last four games. In the one they didn't, they lost 48–0 to Miami.
Players and coaches cite the pandemic-altered offseason, which curtailed workouts and spring practices, for the team's struggles. As a program that relies on developing three-star players into starters rather than attracting five-star guys, that theory has merit.
To get back to a bowl game this season, Duke needs Cutcliffe to work his quarterback magic with Holmberg and the new starters up front to prove as sturdy as the guys who departed.
It's a tough job turning Duke into a winner, but one Cutcliffe already completed once with the Blue Devils.
National Ranking: 93
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