One of the first things Duke head coach David Cutcliffe did when he took over a program that had won 10 games from 2000 to 2007 was ask his team to lose 1,000 pounds combined and get in better shape.
After winning 48 games in his first eight seasons—including 27 the past three years—Cutcliffe made a new request to his players this year. Following the team’s first bowl win since 1961, the 2013 National Coach of the Year asked them to get stronger across the board before navigating one of the Blue Devils’ toughest schedules in his tenure.
“I declared it, and I told them way back in February that this was the year of the beast,” Cutcliffe said. “We need to be aggressive. We are a very fit team, you still have to be able to move. But I wanted to see some progress in our numbers, I wanted to see visual numbers, what it would look like, body up to body. So we have intensified and increased the amount of work we are asking [our players] to do.”
Cutcliffe wasn’t the only one who wanted to see a stronger Duke team in 2016.
After the Blue Devils allowed 30 or more points in six of their final seven games last season—including 66 to rival North Carolina—veterans on Duke’s defense wanted the team to come back with more physicality.
“We can’t keep being pushed around,” senior cornerback Breon Borders said. “We were fast but we simply couldn’t keep up with the strength of other ACC teams.”
The man tasked with improving the team’s fitness? Head strength and conditioning coach Noel Durfey, who has worked with Cutcliffe since the late 1990s when Durfey was a graduate assistant and Cutcliffe was the offensive coordinator at Tennessee.
But Durfey said the real difference this offseason has been more than just in the weight room.
“The biggest change has just been the players themselves buying in,” he said. “They’ve always worked hard, but it’s the other 22 hours of the day that they’ve bought more into—the sleeping, the eating, they hydrating.”
‘It was pitiful’
One of the reasons the Blue Devils are taking better care of themselves is simple—the food they’re being served is better.
In fall 2015, Duke switched caterers, tasking Core Catering—which operates the Duke Divinity School Cafe—with preparing the team’s training table meals. It may not seem like much, but Franca Alphin, the director of nutrition services for student health who also oversees athletes’ nutrition, said she has already noticed that players are not dropping as much weight as they might have in years past.
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“I could be there to give them guidance on what they might choose to eat, but let me tell you, that training table sometimes did not look pretty.... It was pitiful—the quality of the food, the way it was prepared, it wasn’t appealing,” Alphin said. “It tasted okay, but it really wasn’t great.”
The changes for Duke football are part of the trend of schools paying more attention to athletes’ nutrition. In spring 2014, the NCAA began allowing teams to provide as much food as they want to their athletes.
For the Blue Devils, paying closer attention to food was another mandate that came from their head coach, who Alphin said has been practicing what he preaches himself.
“It has to start from the top,” she said. “If it’s not a priority for the coach, then it’s really hard for me to walk into a team and say, ‘Hi, this is really important.’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, really lady?’”
‘We have to take a pee test’
Under the watchful eyes of Durfey and Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils have also prioritized sleeping and hydrating given the brutal practice conditions for fall camp.
They have a pretty simple way of determining who’s ready to practice and who isn’t in the hot and humid Durham summer.
“We have to take a pee test before every practice to see who’s hydrated and who’s dehydrated,” senior Deondre Singleton said. “It’s just made a really big difference for me and for everyone else. I have a lot more energy now that I know I’m hydrated before practice and throughout every point of the day.”
Duke also has its own “sleep doc”—Cornell professor James Maas—who Cutcliffe has brought in for years in the offseason to address the team. Maas, who coined the term “power nap”, has a connection with the Blue Devils because defensive coordinator Jim Knowles took his class in the 1980s. After reading two of Maas’ books. Cutcliffe said he fell in love with the sleep consultant’s research.
“It opens our players’ eyes,” Cutcliffe said. “We all know that health is associated with diet, exercise and sleep. And probably from a pure health standpoint, sleep may be the most important when it comes to obesity or otherwise.”
Looking for the payoff
The Blue Devils want to see the results of their off the field efforts this season, and some of their key players have already made major progress this offseason.
Perhaps none have made a bigger jump than sophomore Ben Humphreys, who looks poised to be Duke’s next star linebacker and follow in the footsteps of Kelby Brown, David Helton and Dwayne Norman. After starting two games a season ago and standing out in the Blue Devils’ bowl win against Indiana, the Newport Beach, Calif., native worked hard to seal the starting job at mike linebacker this year.
“Playing linebacker at the size I played last year was probably a little unsafe at this level, but I put on a little weight and I can kind of call myself a true college linebacker now at 225, 230, which is tremendous from what I was last year at maybe 210,” Humphreys said.
Durfey and his staff prioritize mobility and range of motion rather than raw numbers in the weight room, which is why they’ve had to keep a watchful eye on a group of players that Durfey said “would probably lift weights until their arms and legs fell off.” Two new Blue Devil starters—strike safety Corbin McCarthy and running back Jela Duncan—are in that group, along with long snapper Thomas Hennessy.
“I basically live in the weight room and they got to tell me to stop lifting too much because there’s a point in time where you can get too strong and stiff,” Duncan said. “I’ve just been working more on my flexibility.”
Duncan and Duke’s running backs are some of the most explosive players on the team, but the Blue Devils’ strongest player pound for pound is rover safety and kickoff returner DeVon Edwards, who at 181 pounds squats 455, cleans 324 and benches between 330 and 340, Durfey said.
Durfey and his staff have introduced Catapult Sports GPS technology to measure player movements when the team runs, providing them with a way to see how their work behind closed doors has translated to explosiveness on the field. The team has also prioritized injury prevention, which Duke is all too familiar with after losing quarterback Thomas Sirk for the 2016 season because of his third major Achilles injury.
As much as the Blue Devils would love the impact to be immediate and to translate to a better record on the field, Durfey knows that the “year of the beast” is just one part of a longer process to continue building a Duke program that has made major strides in recruiting and facilities during Cutcliffe’s tenure.
“How could you not buy in to Coach Cutcliffe?” Durfey said. “They’ve always been bought in, it’s finally seeing them get rewarded, seeing them carry themselves with more pride in the program.”
Hank Tucker, Brian Mazur and Brian Pollack contributed reporting.