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'I believe we can play': As questions mount, Duke football continues with fall camp

<p>Head coach David Cutcliffe touched on a variety of topics, from keeping his team safe as other students return to campus to the uncertain future of the sport of college football as a whole.</p>

Head coach David Cutcliffe touched on a variety of topics, from keeping his team safe as other students return to campus to the uncertain future of the sport of college football as a whole.

With the ACC still hopeful to have fall sports occur on schedule, Duke is rolling on with preparation for the season. 

During a virtual press conference Friday afternoon, head coach David Cutcliffe discussed the leadership needed from the NCAA and various conferences during this time, as well as how players have adjusted to the uncertainty.

One aspect of the unpredictability that pervades fall sports is the fact that a decision on eligibility and scholarship limits will be necessary due to potential cancellations or reduced number of games. Cutcliffe expressed his opinion on a rule change that could serve as part of a solution to the difficulties student-athletes will face. 

“If you ended up losing a season, you would certainly want to look at going above 85 with commitments,” Cutcliffe said. “You already have seniors that may or may not return—it’s a complex issue. We’ve asked a couple times for the oversight committee to consider taking the four-game redshirt rule to six, which would handle some of those circumstances. But I say this all the time—it’s 2020, so who knows what’s going to come out of this. I know that we are going to do what we can, no question here [at Duke] and across the board collegiately, to help student-athletes through a very difficult time.”

Even if the ACC decides to move forward with the season as is, playing all 10 conference games along with the single nonconference matchup will be a challenge. Despite prevailing concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19 as students return to campus at Duke, Cutcliffe expressed confidence in his team’s ability to stay safe and responsible. 

“I think it’s really difficult to say,” Cutcliffe said when asked about his overall confidence in terms of finishing the entire schedule. “I’m very proud of our players. A very difficult circumstance across the country is going to be when students come back on campus, you’re not going to live as you once had. College students are college students, they’re very social, but it’s 2020 and contact tracing in a football game could be a nightmare—everybody obviously has to be aware of that. 

“So, at this point, I think the focus is on mitigation and the bubble so to speak. We don’t have near the same circumstance that an NBA team has, but I think our players are very aware of what their responsibilities are to each other, as is our staff. In my heart of hearts, I believe we can play 11 games and we’re going to get it done. I feel really about that, but I can’t speak for anyone else because I don’t see what the day-to-day operation is. We’ve been testing twice a week and our guys have done a great job. It’s just been really, really fun to be with them.”

Obviously, the NCAA is somewhat hamstrung by the fact that they ultimately do not have full jurisdiction over FBS football. However, the lack of a unified approach to the upcoming season is a major dilemma in Cutcliffe’s eyes. 

“I was hoping at the beginning of this thing, as we were having American Football Coaches Association board meetings and were in communication with some folks with the NCAA, that we would get a unified approach,” Cutcliffe said. “I felt like from the beginning that was going to be necessary. I do have a fear of never seeing college football be the same. It’s just a unique time, I realize that it’s 2020 and we can always recover from this, first of all the players, secondly the game itself and then thirdly certainly our profession. I hope the leaders are the people that are involved in these very difficult decisions and I hope that coaches and players alike can find common ground. I can’t even fathom it, but I don’t see how we can be the same. 

“It’s a little frightening to me because I love college football and have all my life. I certainly don’t want to see any drastic changes to our great game. It’s a great form of amateur football, it’s provided a platform for a lot of great young men both educationally and athletically. I guess we’re the cheapest minor league for any major sport—the NFL doesn’t have to fund us. It’s provided a lot of things for a lot of people, and I think our leadership really needs to step up at this time.”

Besides the obvious safety and logistical concerns surrounding the season, a few key points were made regarding the ongoing positional battles during the early stages of fall camp.

Chase Brice, the former Clemson backup signal caller who arguably saved the Tigers’ national title hopes in 2018, comes into the season with significant fanfare. Cutcliffe raved about the redshirt junior’s measurables and intangibles.

“He’s got great arm talent, he’s a natural thrower, his accuracy level is really high and he’s got a great football IQ,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s still obviously learning a system. It’s tough as a quarterback. He did get the benefit of some Zoom meetings, but not what the other guys got all through the spring because he was still in the process of trying to graduate [from Clemson]. What I will tell you is that he’s getting more comfortable with the passing game every day, he’s a really good football player and it’s important to him.”

The secondary also features a host of returning talent, with the defensive backfield shaping up to be a strength of the team. Cutcliffe was extremely pleased with how the group has carried itself as a whole.

“It would be really easy for me to say all of them,” Cutcliffe said regarding who has emerged as vocal leaders in the secondary.  “They’re having fun practicing, Mark Gilbert is back at full speed, he obviously is inspirational as a veteran player. Marquis Waters and Michael Carter in a safety combination are pretty darn special. [We also have] Lummie Young, J’Marick Woods, Leonard Johnson and Josh Blackwell. We’re getting Jeremiah Lewis back, he’s been out just a little while. A lot of young talent there, I’m excited about that. 

"We’re not as deep at safety as we would like to be, so there’s some young player opportunity there. As always, some of our young guys have sore hamstrings, sore quads. We’ve got to get through that to continue our evaluation. It’s a fun group to watch work in the secondary right now, and what has been good for us is they’ve taken young receivers and challenged them. I’ve watched us get better at receiver because of the quality and the talent that we have in the secondary.” 

While it remains to be seen whether the ACC will in fact go on with fall sports next month, the Blue Devils are preparing as if they will take the field in South Bend, Ind., Sept. 12.

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