Quiet confidence building at Duke

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

When quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, who was considered by many to be one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the class of 2006, announced he would sign a letter of intent to play at Duke, he said "a lot of people questioned why."

Lewis is hoping to answer that question this year, his senior season.

"To go out knowing you were a part of that signing class of '06, to help turn this program around to get it where it needs to be," he said. "Going out a winner and taking this program to somewhere they haven't been since '94 -- to a bowl game -- it would be great to cap off my four years here at Duke."

It's only coach David Cutcliffe's second season, but there is a quiet confidence building within the program, especially knowing the Blue Devils return one of the top quarterbacks in the league. Lewis enters this spring as the ACC's active career leader in touchdown passes with 47. He is a major reason why Duke won four games last year, as many as it had in the previous four seasons combined. Five of Duke's losses were by 11 or fewer points. That includes an overtime loss at Wake Forest and a four-point, last-minute loss to Northwestern.

Just how close is Duke to becoming the program it wants to be?

"I would say we're pretty doggone close," Lewis said. "We're not there yet. Even if we were there yet, I wouldn't say it. I want everybody to continue to work hard and better themselves and nobody be complacent or content with the level we're at right now. But we look like a totally different football team from last year at this time to now at this time. There's been a great deal of improvement and you can tell. You can tell by looking at the guys. They're passing the eyeball test now."

One of the biggest challenges Duke will face this spring is finding replacements for three starters on the offensive line, and a replacement for leading receiver Eron Riley. Defensively, the Blue Devils lost the ACC's leading tackler in linebacker Michael Tauiliili, along with two starters in the secondary and two on the defensive line. The second half of Duke's schedule is particularly unforgiving, and November is when Cutcliffe says teams are defined. This year, the Blue Devils will travel to Coastal Division opponents North Carolina and Miami that month, as well as host Georgia Tech and Atlantic Division foe Wake Forest.

It's those reasons, coupled with the fact that Cutcliffe hasn't had enough time to recruit more, and it takes more than two years to shake decades of losing records, that leave outsiders skeptical about their bowl chances in '09. It's one of those see-it-to-believe-it deals, but Lewis said he sees something others don't.

"These guys know that nobody expects us to do well," Lewis said. "When they get the preseason magazines, look at it, Duke is predicted to go 1-11. But it can't get you down. If you let things like that affect you, you're in the wrong sport."

There are a few outspoken players on the team who will let the rest of the players know in practice when somebody outside the program was belittling Duke. These conversations never take place outside of their locker room, though, or in public. It's what Lewis calls a little "boy talk."

"Every time someone comes at me negatively about Duke football, I get chills down my spine, because you have to prove a lot of people wrong," Lewis said. "I've been hearing that since Day 1, so it's nothing different, but to know what we can do, I know things that are going on here with Duke football I haven't seen since I've been here. How people are working, the different kind of athlete coming in here. There are a lot of things a lot of people don't know that I'm seeing, so you just brush it off and laugh. I kind of smirk.

"In the back of people's minds, now coming into Wallace Wade Stadium, or when Duke comes into anybody's stadium, it's no longer a game on their calendar they're marking as a win. Everybody knows they're going to have to earn it, no matter who you are -- the No. 1 team in the nation, or the worst team in the nation."

That's why he came to Duke.