Duke gets spring ball started in the ACC

It’s not spring yet.

Duke’s not waiting for it, either.

Coach David Cutcliffe said he walked into the Blue Devils’ weight room on Wednesday morning and about 15 players approached him to tell him how excited they were about starting spring practices today. The Coastal Division champs are the first program in the ACC to start spring practices -- they’ll play their spring game on March 1, before rival North Carolina even starts practice -- and they’re eager to continue and build upon last year’s success. There’s a good chance they can do it, considering Duke has 17 starters returning from a team that won a school-record 10 games last fall.

So, why wait?

“We’ve got great momentum,” Cutcliffe said. “Our players want to, our coaches want to, and you know what it makes you do? It makes you think of players, not plays. The best way for a football coach to evaluate young people is to not do a lot of things schematically. As soon as you confuse a player, he can’t compete with an older player.”

The emphasis this spring will be on fundamentals and the younger players, but Cutcliffe said other priorities include solidifying the offensive line and building depth on both fronts. He also said he wants to “work the kicking game hard,” see who can block punts and return kicks. Duke will install its Xs and Os later in the spring and in August, but it has plenty of experience to work with already.

Returning for the Blue Devils in 2014 are veteran quarterbacks Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette, who combined 4,023 yards of total offense and 45 touchdowns last fall, along with wide receiver Jamison Crowder, who set the school single-season record for pass receptions (108; also an ACC record), receiving yardage (1,360) and 100-yard games (7) in 2013. Duke also returns three starters along the offensive line including All-ACC guard Laken Tomlinson, while Josh Snead is back after leading Duke in rushing with 651 yards on 107 attempts in 2013.

Defensively, Duke returns safety Jeremy Cash and linebackers Kelby Brown and David Helton. Cash had 121 tackles and tied for the team lead with four interceptions last year. Brown was a first team All-ACC selection after totaling 114 tackles including 11.0 tackles for loss while Helton led the conference in total tackles with 133.

Duke is also coming off an impressive signing day, which featured arguably the most talented class the program has inked since Cutcliffe was hired.

“I think we’ve got some really good young players who have a chance to compete with their older teammates,” Cutcliffe said. “I want a physical spring, I want a physical team, and I want to find out how many of our young people are going to help us win in 2014.”

He won’t have to wait long to find out.