DURHAM, N.C. — After years of futility, Duke football is finally relevant in the ACC.
Under coach David Cutcliffe, who is entering his ninth season, Duke has undergone a historic transformation from simply being a basketball school to one that now has a consistent winning football team.
Cutcliffe has taken Duke to a bowl game in four straight seasons for the first time in school history. The Blue Devils set a school record with 10 wins in 2013.
When Duke beat Indiana in the 2015 Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, it was the program’s first bowl victory since the 1961 Cotton Bowl.
“Whenever somebody gives me a hard time about the basketball team losing, I just tell them, ‘That’s OK. We’re a football school now,” one school official joked Saturday.
With the product on the field steadily improving, Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium is undergoing a major renovation. Saturday’s spring showcase, normally open to the public, was an invite-only affair for players’ families, recruits and media.
The stadium is essentially a construction zone with a new 90,000 square foot tower with 21 luxury suites and a new press box going up. Duke is also adding about 4,000 more seats, bringing the seating capacity up to around 44,000.
If Duke football is going to play like a prominent program, the stadium will finally look like one befitting a big-time program. With 13 starters back from last season, Duke should contend in the ACC’s wide-open Coastal Division.
While Duke has been able to sporadically provide NFL talent over the years, the Blue Devils have had at least one player picked in the NFL Draft in three straight seasons for the first time since 1998-2000.
Guard Laken Tomlinson was the first Duke player selected in the first round of the regular draft since the Cleveland Browns took linebacker Mike Junkin with the fifth overall pick in the 1987 draft. Former Duke quarterback Dave Brown was a first-round pick of the New York Giants in the 1992 supplemental draft.
Tomlinson represents the one area that has had the biggest influence on Duke’s sustained success over the last four seasons.
“When you look at both sides, the biggest growth has been on each side of the line of scrimmage,” Cutcliffe said Saturday.
Cutcliffe is “encouraged” about how much the offensive line has improved. He said the depth up front gives Duke multiple options to offensive line coach Marcus Johnson to find the best combination. Cutcliffe singled out 6-foot-4, 295-pound redshirt freshman Zach Baker and 6-3, 280-pound sophomore Zach Harmon as possible starters at center and/or guard.
The 61-year-old coach cited redshirt junior center Austin Davis and redshirt freshman wide receiver Keyston Fuller as two of the team’s most improved players. Defensively, redshirt freshman safety Jordan Hayes and redshirt sophomore linebacker Tinashe Bere received most improved player accolades.
Cutcliffe also said the added depth on the defensive line has helped that unit make “some real progress.” Redshirt freshman Twazanga Mugala and redshirt sophomore Edgar Cerenord were able to consistently get into the backfield Saturday.
While Hayes and Bere showed well Saturday, junior safety Phillip Carter and senior cornerback Grant Hall broke up several passes. Redshirt freshman linebacker Joe Giles-Harris also returned the scrimmage’s lone interception for a touchdown.
As the Blue Devils seek a replacement for Jeremy Cash, last year’s ACC Defensive Player of the Year, at safety, redshirt freshman Brandon Feamster will also join Hayes, Carter and senior Corbin McCarthy on the back end.
“He’s going to be on the field and find places to make plays,” Cutcliffe said of Feamster. “He’s a big guy who can really, really run.”
Senior quarterback Thomas Sirk is likely out for the season with a ruptured Achilles, meaning junior Parker Boehme will get be the starter. If sophomore wideout T.J. Rahming, senior tight end Dan Beilinson, and running backs Shaun Wilson and Zach Boden can play like they did Saturday, it will make Boehme’s job a little easier.
“The best part about (Saturday) was the give and take,” Cutcliffe said. “We got some big plays. The defense scored a touchdown. We had players making plays on offense to convert third downs.
“We’re going to see a lot of things we like (on film). We’re going to see a lot of things we need to work on. I think one of the things we showed is we have a lot of people who can run and a lot of skill on this team. We just have to keep trying to define what we do best. That’s what we’ll be focusing on when we start in August.”
Duke opens the season Sept. 3 at home against FCS North Carolina Central and then plays host to Wake Forest. Duke’s home slate is manageable, but the away games include trips to Northwestern, Notre Dame, Louisville, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Miami. That’s not exactly a cakewalk, but if the Blue Devils really want to join the big boys of college football, those are the games they have to win.
As Boehme told reporters Saturday, “It’s another step in the journey.”