Cutcliffe has plan for Duke

David Cutcliffe knows a thing or two about winning.

He coached at Tennessee from 1982 to 1998 and, as offensive coordinator, helped the Volunteers to a national title in 1998. Over the course of his 17 years in Knoxville, he helped Tennessee win four SEC championships and 16 bowl games. As head coach at Ole Miss from 1999 to 2004, he was 44-29, including a 2003 campaign where he won 10 games, a share of the SEC West and the Cotton Bowl en route to being named SEC Coach of the Year.

So when he says Duke can win and he has a plan to make it happen, you give him the benefit of the doubt.

"We are having a blast. The [coaching] staff, the blend of the kids on the team and the kind of kids we are recruiting is just phenomenal. I absolutely love where we are in recruiting," said Cutcliffe, who is 9-15 heading into his third season at Duke. "Can we win at Duke? Yeah, and it's because of our high standards.

"I hear two things that people always say: 'You play football at Duke?' and 'Duke football is the worst football in the BCS.' We are better than that. No one questions that now. And wait until they see us in a few seasons."

This isn't the first time Duke has tried to rebuild, but the Blue Devils have proven they can win. Before turning Florida into a national power, Steve Spurrier was working his magic at Duke. Spurrier took over at Duke in 1987 and went 5-6 his first year, 7-3-1 the next and then led the Blue Devils to the ACC championship in 1989.

It's been rough going for the most part since then. Over the past two decades, Duke's had one eight-win season and its highest finish in the ACC has been third place (both happened in 1994). The Blue Devils have lost 174 games in that time span.

Still, Blue Devils assistant defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Jim Collins said he knows Duke can have a winning program. He was on Spurrier's Duke staff and has seen it done.

"People say we can't win here because of the academics," Collins said. "They said that to coach Spurrier and they say that to coach Cutcliffe. But you can't use that as an excuse not to win. The way Cut believes that's an advantage for us because the opportunity at Duke is a special one. This is a special place for special young men. That was our approach in the '80s and that hasn't changed.

"We offer a student-athlete the best of both worlds. To get a degree from Duke is one of the top degrees in the world."

In an effort to enhance recruiting, Duke is improving its football facilities. Cutcliffe knows that's important to players, and with the help of new athletic director Kevin White, who came to Duke from Notre Dame shortly after Cutcliffe arrived in Durham, they recently received approval for a full-length indoor facility.

"Kevin White has been at Notre Dame, and he knows big-time football. He knows the model. He knows how to support us, raise money and organize," Cutcliffe said. "Kevin White is the consummate pro.

"The facility is really good and we have enhanced the stadium. We are way ahead of where I was at with Ole Miss. We are going to compete with higher institutions. We have to beat teams like Notre Dame on kids, and that's what we intend to do."

Cutcliffe and his staff know they have their work cut out for them on the recruiting front and they will stick to their recruiting formula.

"There are three things we look for with prospects," Cutcliffe said. "First, we try to recruit the best players. Second, these players have to have great character. Third, we look at their [school] attendance and academic performance. If you hit all three, then we will recruit you. But you have to have number one. We have to have great football players."

The main characteristic the Duke staff looks for is speed. Cutcliffe knew coming in the Blue Devils had to be faster across the board.

"We will not recruit a kid that can't run," he said. "It's simple. One of our goals is to be the fastest team in the ACC."

The Blue Devils are certainly on the right path, as their recruiting efforts have gotten better each recruiting season under Cutcliffe. Another key to their success will be recruiting players they believe will develop into solid college football players, no matter where they were rated coming out of high school.

Take Issac Blakeney for example. A member of the 2010 recruiting class from Monroe, N.C., Blakeney is 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds. He runs in the 4.5 range, averaged 25 points and 17 rebounds for his high school basketball team and won the state triple jump (49-3), long jump (22-9) and ran a 47.4 400 meters. Yet he wasn't rated by any of the recruiting services.

"Issac shows up to our camp with no [scholarship] offers and is playing cornerback," Cutcliffe said. "We asked him to play a little defensive end, and he took to it like a dove to water. I will take this two-star prospect any day of the week. We are finding those types of kids."

Who the Blue Devils have
Duke has 17 commitments so far with speed and athleticism being the key traits. The Blue Devils will look to sign in the neighborhood of 22 prospects.

Two versatile running backs have committed to Duke in Kaylen Pearson (Lenoir, N.C./Hibriten) and Jalen "Scoot" Simmons (Charlotte, N.C./West Charlotte). Pearson, a three-star prospect who averaged 11.5 yards per carry last season, is a 5-10, 185 pound, versatile back who can get wide or run up the gut with deceptive power. Meanwhile, Simmons is a perfect changeup and complement to Pearson. At 5-8 and 190 pounds, he can make his way through traffic and has good quickness. Simmons is fearless and can run between the tackles.

A pair of three-star tight ends are headed to Durham in Brendan Downs (Bristol, Tenn./Tennessee) and Kyle Brown (Charlotte, N.C./Charlotte Christian). Downs, at 6-5, 225 pounds, should fit in Cutcliffe's offense perfectly because he's solid in every facet of the game. Brown, who plays wide receiver in high school, looks a little more athletic than Downs and could flex out. Brown just needs to bulk up, get stronger and learn how to play at the line of scrimmage.

Duke has landed four offensive line prospects. Leading this group is three-star Marcus Aprahamian (Brookfield, Wisc./Brookfield). He's plays tackle now but projects to slide inside and become a guard. He is the No. 21 guard prospect in the country.

Another three-star guard is Lucas Patrick (Brentwood, Tenn./Brentwood). Like Aprahamian, he plays tackle in high school but is likely to move inside to play guard for the Blue Devils. Patrick is quick off the ball, athletic and can get to the second level quickly. Three-star Matt Skura (Columbus, Ohio/Worthington Kilbourne) is one of the top center prospects in the nation. Skura, who has played both guard and center, fires off the line of scrimmage and is a good drive blocker. Offensive tackle Carson Ginn (Belmont, N.C./South Point) has also committed to Duke.

Defensively, Duke has two defensive ends headed their way in Mario Sanders (Greer, S.C./Greer) and Lucas Fisher (Monroe, N.C./Piedmont). Sanders, a three-star prospect, is a long and rangy edge rusher who needs to fill out his frame.

Four linebackers have committed to Duke, led by three-star ILB David Helton (Chattanooga, Tenn./Baylor). He's a physical and strong Mike that plays downhill. He has good size and plays the run well. Helton is an old school kind of player that just gets the job done. OLB Zeek Bigger (Gastonia, N.C./Ashbrook) looks like a good athlete who makes a ton of plays. Britton Grier (Charlotte, N.C./West Charlotte) plays both linebacker and defensive end in high school. The fourth 'backer headed to Durham is Jonathan Woodruff (Waldorf, Md./Westlake).

Three-star athlete Jamison Crowder (Monroe, N.C./Monroe) is a smaller player (5-8, 160 pounds) with excellent quickness and thrives on both sides of the ball. He could play in the slot or at cornerback for the Blue Devils.

Duke has also landed wide receiver Joe Watson (Mocksville, N.C./Davie) and kicker Will Monday (Flowery Branch, Ga./Flowery Branch).

Who the Blue Devils still want
Duke would love to land at least one playmaker at receiver and one more defensive lineman. If there's a big focus on one area, it will be in the secondary, where the Blue Devils would like to land a big-time safety and two cornerbacks.

Duke would obviously love to be in the mix for the top players, but that isn't always easy for it. So instead, Cutcliffe and Co. will scout out and find good players who fit their schemes and systems. It might not make for a bunch of big names, but this staff has shown it finds good players.

Bottom line
The ACC and the game of football have changed a lot since 1989. Now Florida State, Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech are part of this conference and the ACC is certainly stronger for it. But it still takes good players to win any conference, and each year Duke gets a little closer, with the same goal in mind: win the Coastal Division of the ACC.

"Fifty-four of our 82 scholarship players are freshmen and sophomores," Cutcliffe said. "We are a very young team that will play a lot of young players. We have a nice blend of older players that are improving. But I have to say it's so exciting to watch these kids in transition and they have a little swag about them now. I kind of like that."

With a youth movement in Durham, Cutcliffe said the Blue Devils' best days are ahead of them.

"We will be youthful this season but capable of playing great," he said. "We have a lot of threats on offense and speed on defense. When it comes together, watch out. We will just have to learn to play together and up to our potential each week.

"We will grow in maturity over the next three years and I believe in three years we will be [ACC] contenders."

Cutcliffe would be ecstatic to win a conference title, but his main objective is to build a program that wins over a period of time. That's his goal. That's where he wants to take Duke football.

"Coach Spurrier proved you can win at Duke. I believe that history has way of repeating itself," Cutcliffe said. "I look back and know it can be done. It takes commitment on all parts, and this is a great opportunity for all of us. We want to do something significant and we want to really build a program. We want to look back and say we have done something."

Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at jamienewbergbw@yahoo.com.