Now is the time to prepare for future

Outside of the locker room following Saturday’s upset win in Annapolis there was a noticeable difference in the attitudes of everyone associated with Duke football.

There was a palpable sense of happiness and relief that permeated from head coach David Cutcliffe, his coaching staff and players all the way down to the student managers, who were upbeat, rushing around and rounding up equipment. The Duke football family had good reason to be in such a mood.

Entering the tilt with Navy, Duke sat at 1-6 with the very distinct possibility of winning just one game in 2010, the season-opener against FCS opponent Elon. Duke, however, would jump out to a surprising yet convincing 24-0 halftime lead. Even though the Blue Devils almost found a way to give away the game late, the end result was all that mattered.

Had Duke dropped its seventh game in a row, it would have fallen further into its rut, and playing with purpose is difficult when there is an expectation of losing games. Instead, Cutcliffe got what I would call a signature win for his program.

Although his signature win last year against heavily favored N.C. State bumped Duke to 3-3, with a bowl berth a possibility, last weekend’s win is equally as important. Halting the losing mentality and creating a new sense of optimism suddenly gives Duke a real chance to win its next two games, home matchups against Virginia and Boston College.

More importantly, though, the win gives the season more purpose. And the purpose gives an opportunity to develop talent and build momentum going into next season.

Even though head coaches don’t like to admit it, Cutcliffe acknowledged at his press conference Tuesday that he is constantly thinking about the future in conjunction with the tasks at hand. So, I hereby offer him a priority list on how to get the most out of the rest of season but, primarily, to prepare for a realistic shot at a bowl game, which won’t occur until next season.

1. Figure out the quarterback situation

Cutcliffe is well respected when it comes to managing signal callers. Clearly, current starter Sean Renfree—a redshirt sophomore—is a young, talented prospect who has had an up-and-down campaign due to his inconsistent decision making. Determining if he can build off of his career performance against Navy and demonstrate some consistency down the stretch is crucial. If his erratic play continues, it might be worth giving running specialist Brandon Connette, a true freshman, more snaps to determine if he is a capable passer. The best situation would be to have Renfree separate himself as the clear-cut starter going into the spring, but if opening up the competition is necessary, Connette and redshirt Anthony Boone—who still has four years of eligibility—will be more than ready to push Renfree.

2. Shore up the secondary

Since the beginning of the Cutcliffe Era, a continual theme has been the cornerbacks’ inability to play balls in the air. These struggles have led to far too many big plays being yielded in the passing game. While senior Chris Rwabukamba has played well at times this year, it may be time to give increased looks to the younger corners. Redshirt freshman Ross Cockrell has started all season and has shown an improved ability to break on the ball the last few weeks. Backups Johnny Williams and Garrett Peterson are both athletic but unproven, and the coaching staff needs to see how the pair fits into next year’s plans. Get them on the field more.

3. Establish a running back rotation

A glaring weakness in Cutcliffe’s first two years, the rushing game, has proven competent this year. In many ways, the improvement can be attributed to the offensive line, a unit that will return three starters next year. But the question remains: who will run behind these guys? Sophomore Desmond Scott has gotten the bulk of the carries lately, but he still needs to improve as both a rusher and receiver before he can be considered a lead back. Behind him, freshman Josh Snead, junior Jay Hollingsworth, and freshman Juwan Thompson have all seen action this season. If Cutcliffe establishes a defined rotation, more progress could be made on the ground.

4. Determine who will be rushing the passer

The victory over Navy marked the best job that Duke has done pressuring the quarterback all season. Still, the Blue Devils have just a paltry seven sacks in eight games, good for 116th out of 120 FBS teams. The starting defensive ends, Patrick Egboh and Wes Oglesby, are both seniors whose performances have been pedestrian. As a result, it’s time to start giving younger ends Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx more repetitions and experimenting with blitzes to get the linebackers and safeties into the opposing backfield.

Though the win Saturday was inspiring for fans and players alike, hopefully it doesn’t create the illusion that a .500 record is attainable this year. Continue giving younger players more reps, and the future for Duke brightens.


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