David Cutcliffe is set to enter is seventh season as the Duke head coach.
For leading Duke to a 10-3 and achieving the ACC Coastal Division championship in 2013, Cutcliffe was honored as the ACC Coach of the Year and earned National Coach of the Year honors by multiple organizations.
Cutcliffe, however, believes the best is yet to come at Duke.
Today, I sat down with Coach Cut in his office on-campus in Durham.
Your team started spring practice in early February and finished during the first week in March. It seems by doing so that you have created a new recruiting window for your staff and that players are able to really concentrate on a strong academic push late in the spring semester. Can you describe the advantages that are associated by finishing earlier than every other team in the country?
Cutcliffe: My history is that I’ve always done it fairly early, all of the years at Ole Miss and here as well. But everything you just stated and more. We’ve had such great preparation time before we hit the road recruiting (next week). The recruiting calendar has changed a great deal. This is more of the decision time (for recruits) than December and January, so over the next two to three months we have found that we are hosting a lot people. We’re also preparing, we’re on the phone talking to high school coaches all day, and we’ve also had the chance to evaluate our team earlier, which has a lot to do with who you should be recruiting. We’ve been able to work on schematics after the fact rather than just prior to spring. We may find out ‘Man, we have a bigger hole here than we thought. We’re going to have to take four defensive linemen rather than two.’ The only disadvantage that I’ve found is if you have a huge change in staff because then it’s very difficult to re-crank things. We lost a staff member (this off-season) and did not replace him prior to spring practice or during, but it didn’t faze us a bit. Sometimes it may be who or what the circumstances are, but when you have an established systematic program like we have, I actually think we could lose a couple of coaches and still execute our spring practice properly.
When your staff hits the road recruiting next week, how will it be different compared to the spring recruiting period five years ago?
Cutcliffe: The thing that is gone is the location or search of players that you used to do. That’s already occurred. There is still some evaluation. We’ll go to a lot of places where spring practice is going on. We’ve identified a guy and think he fits, but I still like to use this time to evaluate our people properly. We’re taking that next step to evaluate character. At Duke, we have another semester under their belt, so we want to make sure we evaluate their academic capabilities. So it’s still our spring evaluation, but we also realize this is the spring communication time. We’re going to use social media to get them to call us. I’m going to be actively talking with players. So there is some sales involved and a lot people coming to campus. Another thing that we found because of our early spring practice is that young men and their families wanted to come to practice in part because we were the only ones practicing. We had a boatload of people coming in because we had no competitors on Saturdays, so we had people coming to Duke from all over to watch practice. We’re now at a stage where some guys have been here three times, so it’s definitely in the communication portion of things.
Roster attrition can really serve as a setback to a college football program, but haven’t experienced much attrition at all during your tenure at Duke. You don’t give lip-service to recruiting high character people, so how does your staff decide who you believe can be successful at Duke for 4-5 years in this academic environment coupled with your system?
Cutcliffe: We have standards and if you look over your left shoulder that’s our recruiting room. [a board room type of setting adjacent to Coach Cutcliffe’s office] It looks like a focused room. None of us are as smart as all of us, so when we evaluate, we may individually evaluate certain things but before we make an offer, all of us are going to watch, talk, and converse. There are a series of things that I like to know about every player and so we’re going to discuss those things that involve character, integrity, academic habits, social habits, and we now have the ability to look at how a young man uses social media. We do that. At Duke, we don’t have people leave. We sign 15. We may sign 18, but usually not more than that. We absolutely want to know who we are signing. We’re not going to compromise talent, but mostly we’re not going to compromise our values for talent. That’s easier to say than to do. I hear people that say that, but then I look and I’m not really sure they are doing that. I think I’ve been guilty of doing that (earlier in my career) – trying to sign the best available player. At Duke, we are a developmental program and I am proud of that. We are not a one & done, which in our world (football) you could call it three & done. I really believe that we can play with some of our freshmen, which we have, and then some of them are going to redshirt. We’re a program that expects guys in their fourth and fifth years to be really grown up through our system, understand the values of Duke football, understand our practice habits, understand what we do in the strength & conditioning program, understand what is expected academically – all of those things are systematic. I’ve done this for a long time and I’ve tried to get better. If there’s one thing we’re doing even better, it’s that we’re adhering to our system. A system is in place here.
The last two times you’ve had staff openings, you’ve promoted grad assistants within the staff to full-time positions. Re’quan Boyette (running backs) and Jeff Faris (wide receivers) are Duke alums that served as grad assistants for a period on your staff. What do you gain by promoting from within the staff?
Cutcliffe: They know the value system. We’re trying to hire talent. I’m going to avoid hiring a graduate assistant just to be a gopher. That’s long since gone to me. If you’re going to coach at this level, there is an amount of talent that is required. So once we’ve got a graduate assistant, I truly want them to be a candidate to become a full-time coach based upon their performance. I give them more responsibility than most, so I know whether I’ve got a candidate to be a member of our staff or not. I’m going to tell you, the most recent one, Jeff Faris, he’s been with us the entire time we’ve been here and he’s the most qualified young coach in the business, in my opinion. We got better as a staff. I believe if we’re going to preach our way and believe in our way, we want people that are bought it. We’re not ingrown by any means. We’re always willing and want to grow. I don’t want to become stale by any means, but that’s where young talent…. they’ve made me better. They’ve lightened me up in ways.
What are your thoughts on an early signing period in the recruiting process?
Cutcliffe: I would like an early signing period that didn’t adjust our calendar with official visits in the summer. I don’t want to take our coaches’ lives away from them. An early signing period is not for everyone. If someone has to travel at the expense of the school, that’s fine. What I have found is that this is an investment for most people. Most people are willing to travel to make the unofficial visits. I actually think it may be a little bit better way to make a decision than the official visit when everything is contour to see this, see that. When you come in unofficially, you see it all. Don’t change the calendar. Even more so, if someone signs with you, we certainly need to honor those scholarships. I really don’t think you have to make official visits available earlier because an early signing period is not for everyone. I really have a problem with people that teach our young people to ‘Go ahead and commit, and then keep shopping.’ That’s a horrific lesson to young people. It’s not the way life is intended to be. I tell players I don’t want them to commit early if they don’t know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. It’s not that I’m afraid of them going somewhere else. If you want to continue to visit, then keep visiting but don’t commit. The word ‘decommit’ doesn’t really exist. All of us can ‘change our minds,’ but you want to avoid that. When people give their word or shake hands, it should be meaningful. That’s why if you have an early signing day, that’s not an ‘early commitment’ anymore. I think the date could be as early as July 1. If they won’t sign, then they’re certainly telling you that they’re not committed. I think it would solve a lot of issues for a lot of people. The worry you have is coaches getting fired. Maybe if the staff gets fired, the NCAA should look at freeing up a young man from a national letter and I think that’s okay.
In what area would you like to see your quarterback Anthony Boone advance next season?
Cutcliffe: I just got through watching film of Anthony. There are so many things about him that I like. The thing that I want to see from Anthony, a fifth-year senior type of thing, what ultimately lets you start using the word ‘great’ with a quarterback is an amazingly consistent guy. He doesn’t have to throw it harder; he doesn’t have to throw if further. It’s the consistency of third-down success, the consistency of knowing that I have to take care of the ball in critical times of the game. I want to see him grow with the things that win games in the second half. If you go look at any quarterback, it’s conversions in critical drives. The game is a possession game, now. It’s those critical second half third-downs, those critical second-half numbers in the turnover world, and coming away with points in the red zone in the second half. If I want to go for it on fourth-down, that’s on me and I’m going to some, but I want that option. I don’t want the quarterback to take that option away from me, so if we want to kick a field goal in the second half, we can. That’s where Anthony is. He knows our offense, gets it out quick, can make big plays, and he can beat you with his feet. Another thing, he is right now trying to tear it up to get to another level of conditioning. The faster and/or quicker that Anthony is, the better we are going to be. He can get to 235-240 in a heartbeat; he can smell food. So I want Anthony to get in the best condition of his life and I think that will lead to this kind of consistency that we’re looking for.
In 2011, you made a statement guaranteeing this program would win an ACC championship in the next five or six years. Last season, you won the ACC Coastal Division championship. What about College GameDay? Do you think we’ll see Chris, Lee, and Kirk set up shop outside of Wallace Wade Stadium on a Saturday morning in the near future?
Cutcliffe: Pete, I am a realistic and so the answer is yes. We believe so strongly in what we do. I believe so strongly in our people. We have incredible people here. We have the ability to be successful offensively, defensively, and in the kicking game. That’s the football end of it. We have great people in strength & conditioning. We have a great medical staff. We have a great academic support staff. I have an incredible group that administrates our recruiting process. If you look at Duke football, you can travel anywhere you want to in the country, there is nobody operating better than this program is operating. Do we have every resource that some of the other people have, no. But the greatest resource in this business, and you’ve been in the business as a part of our staff at Ole Miss, there is no substitute for the resource of great people. Yes, we’re improving facilities. We’re conscious of that war that occurs. People… none better than what we have… none, nowhere, anywhere in this country. I am a realist and I’m a realist about people. With the people we have in place, so the answer is absolutely yes.
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