Duke starts spring practices today and it does so with plenty of questions as the program tries to build upon last year’s postseason success of making it to a bowl game for the first time since 1994. Gone are quarterback Sean Renfree and his favorite target, record-setting receiver Conner Vernon, and there have also been several staff changes. I spoke with coach David Cutcliffe to get his take on the state of the program heading into spring ball, and we talked at length about a variety of topics. Here are the highlights of the first part of our interview:
From an insider’s perspective, how big of a deal are these staff changes and what kind of an impact do you hope they make?
David Cutcliffe: We lost two great people in Ron Middleton and Matt Lubick. You can trade different, but you can never trade down when you make staff hires. That’s one of my rules. I don’t have to have an identical match. In this case, we certainly traded a little different, as you look at it, but we did not trade down. I think the impact, we have two North Carolinians, two former Duke football players there (Re’quan Boyette and Scottie Montgomery). They’ve invested their athletic careers here at Duke, both of them great players in this state, groomed in this state. They will have a lot of energy and enthusiasm on the practice field. Scottie is 34, Re’quan 26. When you’re getting as old as I am, you need to surround yourself with young people. I love it. I truly do. I think their energy is going to be infectious to our squad.
What are your top priorities heading into practices?
DC: We’ve got to look at the offensive side first, and get our people in the right place to replace playmakers, a guy who started at quarterback for three years. Our all-time leading receiver in the history of the ACC. And an unusual athlete in Desmond Scott, a guy who produced a lot of yards in receptions and rushing, one of the top three in the history of the league in that regard -- rushing yards, return yards, and reception yards. You can’t ignore that. We’re going to look at people. We’re going to move Brandon Braxton back to offense, who started for us two years ago and played as a true freshman. We’ve got some other people who mix in there well. We will certainly accentuate Jamison Crowder. We’ve got to solidify our circumstances at quarterback. Anthony Boone comes in this spring as the starter. We have some talented people around him, so I expect this team to be a very athletic team on offense.
On defense, certainly the attention goes first to the secondary, where we have to replace three starters there, Tony Foster at corner, Jordon Byas and Walt Canty at safety. I think we’ve got a good start there. The biggest concern I have other than the secondary is building quality and depth. It’s going to be interesting. On both sides of the ball, we’ve gotten better. We’ve run it a little better, and we’ve got to continue that path offensively, but we’ve got to stop the ball being run against us, particularly in big plays. And then we certainly have to stop explosives on the defense in the passing game. That’s our areas of biggest emphasis.
Check back in a bit for Part II.