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'Not just rah-rah football': Duke football prepares for 2020 season remotely

<p>Head coach David Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils will look to make a bowl game for the first time since 2018 after a disappointing 5-7 finish last year.</p>

Head coach David Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils will look to make a bowl game for the first time since 2018 after a disappointing 5-7 finish last year.

Over two months have passed since college sports were put on hold throughout the country. While many question marks remain overall, from eligibility rulings to transfers, there’s a lot of uncertainty focused around the biggest money maker in amateur athletics: college football.

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe isn’t trying to predict what will happen with COVID-19 and its ensuing effects, and while he joins frequent meetings to discuss the future of college football in a pandemic, his main challenge right now is his team. Normally, the Blue Devils would have wrapped up successful spring practices in April and would return for fall football toward August, but now the coach who heads into his 13th year in Durham is having to manage over 100 players spread around the country. 

“It’s an unusual time for all of us,” Cutcliffe said. “I find myself in new circumstances daily. I don’t have all of the answers. What I would say is that the focus for us has been on communication. The best thing we can do is communicate and we’re doing that daily. A lot of good things come from difficult times.” 

Earlier this week, Duke President Vincent Price announced that the university plans to reopen in the fall with more details to come in June. However, this doesn’t guarantee a normal situation for the college football season. Last week, the NCAA voted to permit football and basketball athletes to return to campus starting June 1 for voluntary offseason workouts, though it remains to be seen how Duke will handle the return of student-athletes to campus. 

“You have to have a plan in place first for preparation,” Cutcliffe said. “When you realize what the preparation window is upon a return date, then you can start speculating what to do with a season. At this point, there is nothing but people’s opinions.” 

But for Duke’s head man, he’s quick to put more emphasis on the human aspect of the situation. From team talks to meetings with recruits and their parents, most of what Cutcliffe is focusing on now is not the Xs and Os he normally talks about in these times.

While Cutcliffe has the safety of his players in the front of his mind, he and his staff aren’t wasting any time when it comes to preparation of the team. The program transitioned team meetings to Zoom, a platform that Cutcliffe said has been working well as he bounces around to check on his players. There are now big screens and a speaking platform set up for him in his office for a more comfortable way to break down film to his players as they all try to make the most of the situation. 

“It’s a part of the human part of this thing. It’s not just rah-rah football. Every individual’s case is a little different," Cutcliffe said. "We’re having to do a great deal of work. It’s not just coaches. Our entire staff has served our football players extremely well. We’re trying to listen closely and support them every way we can.” 

After conference calls though, a major question mark remains with how to keep the players active and in shape with limited access to workout materials. Some players returned to full-sized home gyms, while others may not have enough space to even do home workouts. Luckily, Cutcliffe and his staff prepared early for these circumstances and put a plan in place for specific situations. 

Care packages were sent home to every player with resistance bands, protein powders and snacks to give the players some relief during the quarantine. The trainers also sent out diet plans to each player and specific workout routines that involve some running, as well as strength training based on what is accessible to the player. 

“All you can do is the best you can do in that regard,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re not with them. The difficult task is they are in different places in different environments. Different size of dwellings. Different abilities to go maybe run even on the street. That concerns me greatly. There are mechanisms put in place that Duke has done to give some financial relief to all sorts that need it for whatever reason. We’ve encouraged those students in that mode to apply.” 

The chaos and uncertainty of these times is a wrinkle to iron out for the Blue Devils, who will look to return to a bowl game for the first time since 2018 after a 5-7 finish last season. With last year’s starting quarterback Quentin Harris out of eligibility, Cutcliffe and his staff missed out on valuable opportunities in the spring to anoint their signal-caller of the future, whether it be Clemson transfer Chase Brice or a current player like redshirt sophomore Gunnar Holmberg or redshirt junior Chris Katrenick.

“My whole thing to our squad is to be compliant,” Cutcliffe said. “Nothing is easy right now. Nothing. But we are doing something of importance right now that will shape the fall—that’s the focus I think we need to have.”

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