Duke's spring season will end at 1 p.m. this Saturday, when the Blue Devils take the field at Wallace Wade Stadium for their spring game. I caught up with coach David Cutcliffe over the phone earlier this week to talk about injuries, expectations and the next step for the program.
What would count as a successful spring for you guys, and how close do you think you are to that with just a few days left?
David Cutcliffe: We've had an unusual spring. We've had a lot of starters that have missed the entire spring. So it put us in a little different light. Brian Moore, Conner Vernon, Braxton Deaver, Kenny Anunike, Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, Kelby Brown, August Campbell, all guys that were returning starters. Desmond Scott on offense. So they've miss the entire spring and it's been difficult in that regard. So what was successful was to go out and kind of think players. Not plays, not systems. And see if we could go from kind of Point A to B with a lot of younger players and some of our more experienced players that are out there just being able to go to another level. So kind of really evaluated our team by evaluating individuals. So to this point I would tell you we've had a very successful spring in that regard. I think we've made more improvement with more players than any spring since we've had since we've been here. Hopefully when we get everybody available that computes to a much better football team, because with our schedule, Matt, it's going to take that.
That was going to get to my next point. Injuries aside, you obviously return a lot of starters. How important was it to build depth this spring and how much did you learn about some of those younger guys?
DC: I think it's been good. Right now we've got a good football team. And what we have learned here, at this point, we've been really, pretty good here. The record hasn't indicated anything. We've played a lot of good football. So there's another level we're hunting, and that's the next step for Duke football. Everybody asks you all the time: When is it going to come through? Well it already kind of has come through. This is a good team, now you just got to go win games, and that sounds simple, but that's about how simple it is.
You've said before publicly that good isn't good enough. What will it take for Duke to make the next step?
DC: I think that where you get into making critical plays. We need maybe some great playmakers that can do that to that level on a consistent basis, if you think about the teams winning in our league, there's a number of great playmakers. You just take the two teams that played for the championship. They had guys, both of them, had guys that just made great plays at critical times in critical opportunities, and they did it time and time again. We played Virginia Tech. We know at quarterback and at running back and [Jarrett] Boykin at receiver, and there were defensive players that made those critical plays. And you certainly look at Clemson, and they had the most playmakers in the league. And I think we've made great strides there in the recruiting parts of things and for us to go from being just a good team, we've got to have guys make some great plays for us at critical times that win games, and we haven't had enough of that, quite frankly. I think we have more of those guys and we're more equipped -- I don't think it, I know we're more equipped than we've ever been. I'm really excited and looking forward to seeing this team play.
Sean Renfree, Conner Vernon -- you have a lot of skill players returning. How high offensively do you set the bar?
DC: I would expect us to play very high. All of our backs have played. We have three quarterbacks that have played a lot. Not many people have that — certainly a starter in Sean Renfree that's very, very experienced. But [Anthony] Boone and [Brandon] Connette are as well. With Conner Vernon and Jamison Crowder and Blair Holliday, it allowed us to move Brandon Braxton to safety. But all of our receivers have played, and played well. Deaver at tight end, and we get him back. But we've got some young tight ends that are exciting, that have made plays all spring. I think our weapons are far deeper, and I think the beauty of all that is our line is kind of maturing at the same time those other guys are maturing. So I look for us to be much better offensively in production.
What did you take away from the scrimmage this past weekend?
DC: Again, thinking players, we had on both sides of the ball some huge plays made. Walt Canty in the secondary, [Lee] Butler and [Ross] Cockrell, people that have played again. Jordon Byas is playing the best football. Our secondary made some big plays. Up front Jamal Bruce and Dezmond Johnson and Sydney Sarmiento, and guys made big plays in the game. And then on offense just about everybody got in on the look. All the quarterbacks. Renfree had a big day, but David Reeves and Issac Blakeney, these young tight ends. Then Holliday, Crowder, Tyree Watkins -- just the people we had available to us made huge plays. And then our backs. Having Josh Snead back healthy, and Juwan Thompson, those two really got your attention Saturday. So I just felt good about the number of people that were contributing, and it was pretty well-played on both sides of the ball.
What would a bowl game mean for your players?
DC: There's no question that's part of the goal. What it would mean for me is not just these players but there's some vindication for the amount of work that's gone in to what we've done here with all the players that we've had in recent times. And certainly this staff, who, they're very close to each other. And this is an exceptional staff. All of the staff and the families, and then certainly the people, the fans of Duke football that have endured a long drought. It's a big deal, and it should be a big deal around here. And I don't think an average team with this schedule can be a bowl team. We can't be average; we've go to be well above average. You've got the schedule, you know what I'm saying is accurate. I'm not making an excuse, I'm just stating a fact: We're not going to be good enough if we're average.
How do you tell your players that? How do you get them to buy into that and know that it will take more than a typical performance from them this season?
DC: I've told them that. All I had to do was kind of just put the schedule, and just start writing up on the board and tell them that a lot of lesser people than them would crumble under this. You start looking at, we're playing Clemson, Florida State, not to leave anybody out. Miami and Florida State are two of the more talented teams in the country every year. Stanford. North Carolina's been as talented as anybody I know of in the country the last few years. Virginia Tech, Virginia. I could go on. Opening up with an FIU team that's a bowl team the last two years, all kinds of talent on that team. South Florida talent. We've got a lot of people that have played a lot of football. They know what's in front of them. And you've got to push and strive and do what you got to do to get past it. And I think this team is really looking forward to that challenge. Rather than worrying about it, I think they're looking forward to the opportunity that exists with it.