Duke's next step remains a question

In just two seasons, Duke coach David Cutcliffe has elevated the program to a level of respectability it hasn’t seen in over a decade. In 2008, Cutcliffe led the Blue Devils to a 4-8 overall record, matching the program’s win total from the previous four seasons combined. Last year, Duke finished 5-7, the most wins the program has seen since 1994.

Now, as Cutcliffe is in the midst of his third spring in Durham, he is always prepared for one question before it is even asked: Is a bowl game next?

Truth is, he's really not sure. Not yet, anyway.

Considering the progress of the past two seasons, a sixth win would appear to be the next likely step, but because of the youth on the roster and the uncertainty at quarterback after the graduation of four-year starter Thaddeus Lewis, Cutcliffe is a little more reserved about voicing his expectations. Cutcliffe has placed a premium on the 15 spring practices to help determine what the 2010 team is capable of.

“We’re very young,” he said. “I think we have the ability to do a lot of things, but I think we have to find out what our personality is, and how willing we are before you start making any predictions. That tells you in my mind how important I think spring practice is. Hopefully on March 27, when we play our spring game, we’ll have a lot better feel at that time about what this team should do.”

From senior linebacker Abraham Kromah’s perspective, there seems to be little more Cutcliffe can do to point the Blue Devils in the direction of the postseason. The players have bought into the system. They’ve developed a trust in their coaching staff and adopted its work ethic and philosophies.

If Duke is going to play a bowl game in 2010, Kromah said, it’s up to the players to get them there.

“I feel like the next step is to not drop the ball, just to keep going, progressing, and doing everything he’s told us to do to the best of our abilities,” said Kromah. “He’s definitely put us in a position to be successful. A lot of it lies on us to take that next step. We know what to expect from him. There are no excuses for anything. Now it’s holding ourselves accountable. Coaches take the blame for a lot of things, but we have to hold ourselves accountable to him as well, because he’s telling us all of the right things. He knows how to win. It’s proven.”

Duke returns 18 starters from last year’s roster, but even with Lewis the Blue Devils weren’t able to find two more wins in their final four games to earn a 2009 bowl bid. Duke hasn’t been to a bowl game since 1994. This spring, there is more competition for playing time, the defense is working on a “new look” with Marion Hobby calling the plays, and there is more of an emphasis on developing the running game. Quarterback Sean Renfree has been limited as he recovers from a torn ACL, leaving the bulk of the work to Sean Schroeder, who was running the scout team offense a year ago.

While there is a newfound confidence at Duke, those within the program also know it’s a long-term project.

“I think it’s a daily process,” said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper. “You’re always trying to get better, and there are two ways to do that. You obviously keep developing your talent that you have in-house, which is improving, and working hard every day. You stick to what you believe in as a football team and keep doing what you know and what you’re capable of executing. And then you can never let off of recruiting. That’s the next step, keep bringing in good football players. It’s a daily challenge, player development and recruiting.”

Whether or it pays off in 2010? Not even Cutcliffe is ready to answer that one – yet.