Even while suffering a 48-34 loss to the Cincinnati Bearcats in the Belk Bowl at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. on Thursday, Duke Blue Devils head coach David Cutcliffe hoped that serious prospective recruits watched the game.
Even though it was the program’s first bowl game appearance in 18 years, the tone of the message that Cutcliffe and his players sent in a losing cause was that Duke football wasn’t giving up.
“At the end of the day you’re going to a program that is competing for championships every year,” senior wide receiver Conner Vernon stated in reflecting on what the current state of the Duke football program is.
“There is a commitment level that is unparalleled, on and off the field.” added senior safety Walt Canty.
Both players know how much progress Cutcliffe and his staff have made in helping to grow the program, bringing legitimacy in its presence as a contending program in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).
“We’re going to move forward with this,” Cutcliffe said after the loss to Cincinnati.
“We’ve done a lot of great things. The biggest insult we could pay to our seniors is to not move forward and build off of this, so we will do just that.”
When asked what the program has to offer incoming players who get the opportunity to play at Duke, Cutcliffe praised the quality people involved with it.
“The strength of the program is the people,” he said.
“Not just the players, but our staff and our support staff. It’s the best collection of people that I’ve been around during my time in sports which is a long time.”
Best of both worlds
Cutcliffe called his senior class ‘special’ and hoped that the Blue Devils’ luck will change in the future.
Even with that, players like Vernon, the ACC’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, expressed his full appreciation of what he’s gained by playing at Duke.
“You get the best of both worlds,” Vernon said.
“Not only are you getting to play top competition each week on the field, but you’re getting that degree with that Duke name – that goes a long way.”
Vernon didn’t really believe the hype nor understand the significance of attending Duke until he arrived on campus.
“As soon as I got there and realized just who was associated with that university and how that University operates – it’s a 100 percent true. I’m going to chase this football dream, but at the end of the day if I fall back on that Duke degree, I’ll be set – just because of the people I have met through that university – that Duke connection is so strong.”
Stepping up to the challenge
Though Vernon and Canty won’t leave Duke with a bowl championship ring and came short of earning a winning season for the program, the legacy that their class leaves behind is one that Cutcliffe and the rising underclassmen will continue to work hard to improve upon.
“This group of seniors is pretty special,” Cutcliffe said.
“We’ll grow from this and maybe, just maybe, our luck will change. We’re hoping so.”
When fielding a team next season, Cutcliffe said he will only have 27 returning players who will be juniors or seniors, so it will be a very youthful group that will have to mature quickly in order to achieve success similar to that of this year’s team.
“Absolutely – that’s what we expect as seniors leaving this program,” Canty stated.
“We expect those guys to continue to pick it up and continue to lead and continue to grow as players.”
More than likely, incoming players will also get the opportunity and be expected to continue to build the winning mentality for Duke football.
“With the guys that Coach Cut is recruiting – he’s recruiting the right men – they’re gonna’ have it inside of ‘em (to win) and with the older guys in front of them – to lead them in the right direction,” Canty continued.
Leaders of tomorrow
A member of the group returning next season will be quarterback Brandon Connette, who understands what will be necessary to improve upon this season’s accomplishments.
“Being in a bowl game, it was new for all of the players,” he said.
“Knowing what this feels like, we want to be able to just turn around and get back to work. Obviously, there is going to be couple of days or a week or so where this is obviously just a tough pill to swallow. After those couple of days, once we get back to school and into the swing of lifting, running and then once we get into the spring and spring ball, I know the competitors in that locker room. There’s no way they don’t step up to the challenge.”
Cornerback Ross Cockrell concurred and noted that winning will be important in order for the Duke program to continue to move forward and upward.
“We understand that to be a good program, we gotta’ consistently go to bowl games,” he said.
“The goal for next year is to keep on winning and keep on building the program.”
Cutcliffe pointed out that experiencing and working through adversity was an important ingredient in helping the team to be successful this season, and that it will be just as important for his team to learn from the bowl game loss to the Bearcats.
“Like anything in life, you maybe learn more from adversity than success,” said Cutcliffe.
“That’s what I told all of them. To best honest with you, that’s what I expect them to do. I’m going to be there to love them and support them, but I’m not going to be pleased if they don’t move forward with a little more fire and intensity.”
Stating the message clearly
In signing a contract that will keep him at Duke through 2019, Cutcliffe is committed to setting the expectations and standards for Duke football at higher levels than they have ever been before.
“What we’re trying to build simply is this: the best of both worlds. I mean ‘the best’ of both worlds,” he said.
“That’s the process. It’s not easy anywhere, but we are providing a football opportunity – from a facility standpoint, from a coaching standpoint, from a character building standpoint – that if I were out there as a prospect right now, I wouldn’t tell us no.”
To that extent, Cutcliffe will have graduating players like Canty and Vernon to back up his pitch to recruits and their parents.
“It’s a Duke family,” said Canty.
“When you graduate, you just don’t leave. You’re still a part of the family.”
Vernon concurred when describing his commitment to helping spread the message of what Duke football is about.
“I will be a Duke Blue Devil for the rest of my life. Duke has given me a lot these last four years. The least I can do is tell kids and tell people exactly how great that university is and what it actually does for you. It’s unbelievable the power of that university – just saying ‘I went to Duke’ – how many doors that opens for you.”
In the end, it will be Cutclifffe’s word that will seal the deal when incoming players agree to play at Duke.
“I don’t know how you consider (going) anywhere else,” Cutcliffe concluded.
“If we do our part and give them the quality of the football experience – there’s no question that the University is doing its part, and there’s no question that we’re doing our part from growing young men – that’s important to us. We’re going to do that regardless. That’s the staple of the program right there.”
Indeed, an offer that many would be hard-pressed to pass up.
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