I still remember when Duke hired David Cutcliffe back in 2007. All I really knew about him was that he coached up both Peyton and Eli Manning during both of their college careers and that he had also turned Erik Ainge into a legitimate quarterback at Tennessee. If anything, I figured, Duke’s offense would be exciting to watch.
Exciting, they were. I’ve sat back and watched as quarterbacks Thaddeus Lewis and Sean Renfree guided pretty decent passing attacks. They still lacked elite playmakers, because elite playmakers aren’t going to sign with a school that hasn’t been to a bowl game since 1994. Still, they found a couple gems in recruiting, such as Connor Vernon, and Cutcliffe and his boys began the long journey from laughing stock to the top of the ACC. It hasn’t been an easy process, and it still is a good two or threes away from being done on the offensive side. They still lack a capable running attack to compliment their passing game and if you’re going to be one-dimensional, you better be damn good at that one dimension. Duke’s passing game is a little above-average, at best, as they simply don’t have the personnel yet to take that big step into an elite territory.
The offense, however, isn’t the problem moving forward. There is no reason to believe that Cutcliffe won’t bring in the right guys over the next couple years and continue to see progress with the program that he has virtually built. No, the problem with the future lies entirely with the defense.
This season, Duke’s struggled against any team with an average offense or better. Wake Forest, a team that ranks near the bottom in most offensive categories, dropped 27 points and 400 yards on the Blue Devils. Florida International in in the bottom half of most offensive categories, and they managed to run around for 500 yards back in the first game of the season. If it weren’t for Duke’s strangely easy ways of converting turnovers, the teams defensive statistics would be even uglier. Only once, over the entirety of the season, did they hold a team to less than 300 yards: a week four victory over the Memphis Tigers, who are one of the worst offensive teams in the entire country.
Jim Knowles has been running the defense for three years now and the Blue Devils have shown little improvement during his time at the helm. In his defense, Duke’s defense has been blasted with injury problems and they lost a couple of very talented players to the NFL, including defensive leader and ALL-ACC Safety Matt Daniels. I don’t know if it is time for a change. I’m not into placing the entirety of the blame on a coach and it isn’t as if Knowles has been failing with adequate talent.
Still, the defense will be the reason this team takes a much longer time before they’re near the top of the ACC. It is incredibly difficult to build up a defense from scratch and, if Duke begins taking all the right steps, it could take as long as three to five years before you see them at a level where they can consistently perform against the ACC’s better offenses. Unless they can start putting out an elite offense, which they won’t be doing any time soon, having a league-average defense, at the very least, will be crucial.
While Duke has certainly given their fans plenty of reasons to be excited this season, I’ve fought the urge to be overly optimistic. This team wasn’t going to win the ACC Coastal Division as they were too miserable on defense and the offense couldn’t do anything special against an above-average defense. That being said, I still saw all the bright spots on this team. I saw the potential of Anthony Boone and I saw the improvement of the rushing game and I saw how much harder a team works when they finally start to believe in themselves.
This team will get better. Their new-found success will lead to improvements in recruiting and they are going to be a much more talented team in a few years if they stay on this path. They have quite a few talented players coming to Durham next year, such as Everett Edwards and Parker Boehme, who could blossom into very good players. I’m not asking you to believe this team isn’t on the right path, because they are. They are heading in the right direction in every possible way.
I’m only asking for you to patient, Blue Devils fans. One day, this team is going to be at the top of the ACC, just not anytime in the near future, barring a drastic turnaround by the defense.
Their time is coming, though. Just be patient.