Cutcliffe's cut-throat conditioning challenge
In one of his first meetings with his new team, Duke head football coach David Cutcliffe dropped a bombshell that seemed more befitting of reality TV shows such as The Biggest Loser or MTV's True Life: I'm Going to Fat Camp.
"He said collectively we needed to lose at least 1,000 pounds," junior defensive lineman Ayanga Okpokowuruk said. "When he first got hired, he straight up told us that we need to be able to run, and that in order to be able to run, we need to be in good shape and well conditioned."
Cutcliffe said his first goal in turning around a team that has struggled to win games in recent seasons-particularly in late-game situations-is conditioning. With the team's 15-day spring practice period beginning March 19, Cutcliffe already has set weight-loss and endurance goals for his players.
"We're not going to have a fat football team," Cutcliffe said. "And we're a fat football team right now."
One of the chief struggles for the Blue Devils last season was the ability to close out games. Duke was outscored 100-50 in the fourth quarter last season and lost contests against Navy and UNC in the final period, realities players such as senior wide reciever Eron Riley find hard to gloss over.
"It's obvious that in certain games last year, we'd be playing well, and you could tell that we started getting tired and getting lazy," Riley said. "That Navy game, for sure, came down to the last second, and people started getting lazy, dropping passes... conditioning was a big thing."
In contrast to the conditioning program of former head coach Ted Roof, who emphasized gains in bulk and speed, Cutcliffe's strength and conditioning program is focused primarily on endurance. Although his full pre-spring program has yet to be fully implemented, Cutcliffe recently hired Noel Durphy to serve as the team's strength and conditioning coach. The new head coach has stressed to Durphy and his staff that they should do whatever it takes to get their players in great running shape by establishing a base program for the team to follow.
"If I have to get out there on that field and run them myself, 100 100-yard sprints, then they'll start losing weight and moving better," Cutcliffe said.
Cutcliffe's belief in heavy running and conditioning goes back to his high school playing days, when his coach would assemble the team on Saturday mornings after games to run anywhere from 75 to 125 50-yard windsprints.
Although Cutcliffe did not say that he would do the same with Duke, he did refer to the words of his former coaching mentor, legendary Alabama head coach Bear Bryant, when explaining his deep personal belief in the importance of conditioning.
"Coach Bryant convinced me that if you can't run, if you can't move your feet, you have no chance to play this game," Cutcliffe said.
In Cutcliffe's eyes, losing unnecessary weight is key for his players to improve their foot speed and conditioning. In his previous coaching stops at Ole Miss and Tennessee, Cutcliffe implemented weight-loss benchmarks for the offensive line, but his early analysis of the Blue Devils and their fitness has led him to favor a team-wide standard for shedding pounds.
"We can't put players on the field that can't run, or if you can't run great," Cutcliffe said. "Why would you want to be out there running worse than what you were before?"
Considering the number of players on the team's roster in spring practice will probably be somewhere around 75 players, a blanket benchmark of 1,000 pounds lost would average out to at least 13 pounds per player--a number that might seem like a lot to ask for smaller skill-position players such as wide receivers and cornerbacks. But even for lighter players, Cutcliffe said he feels it is vital for everyone on his team to drop extra weight.
"If anybody doesn't understand [why] sometimes I want a guy at 205 instead of 215, they should strap on a 10-pound weighted belt, or put a 10 pound vest on and jog around campus and just find out how much 10 pounds makes a difference," Cutcliffe said.
With these measures, Cutcliffe hopes to downsize a Duke roster, which in many respects is already the smallest in the ACC. For example, the Blue Devils boasted only one starter last season on the offensive line who weighted over 300 pounds.
Still, Cutcliffe said he feels the gains in speed and quickness derived from a lighter team will better serve his no-huddle offensive scheme, which counts on linemen to trap, move and double-team effectively.
On the other side of the ball, Okpokowuruk acknowledged that although the team-wide benchmark will probably put extra pressure on bigger players such as himself, the benefits of a lighter playing weight are significant.
"I feel good being lighter," Okpowowuruk said. "It's going to be tough getting down to that weight, but I like the idea of losing weight, being able to move better and just feeling faster and in shape."
With the offseason program soon to kick into high gear, Cutcliffe knows that results won't be immediate, but that when he sees his team competing consistently, he will know his efforts have paid off.
"The biggest thing is just getting where they can compete-two hour practice, 60-minute game, whatever it takes," Cutcliffe said. "It would be like you and I going out right now and trying to run a Marathon. We may want to, but we're not going to finish.
"These guys have wanted to win-they really have. And those coaches really wanted to win. The difference is preparing to win and going and winning. The only way to do that is to compete for 60 minutes and see if you can win."