DURHAM — When defensive coordinator Jim Knowles left Duke for Oklahoma State in the offseason, he left behind big shoes to fill, and only half as many as the team would need to replace him.
Blue Devils head coach David Cutcliffe decided that the best man to replace Knowles at the helm of the defense was actually two of them — defensive line coach Ben Albert and secondary coach Matt Guerrieri are sharing the job as co-coordinators this year.
Combined, Guerrieri, 29, and Albert, 45, have 30 years of college coaching experience, or one fewer than the departed Knowles.
On the surface, the arrangement seems to be an odd one. The old football adage says that if you have two starting quarterbacks on a team, you really don’t have any. The same would seem to be true of a coordinator.
It’s a growing trend in college football to split the job among multiple coaches, however.
Duke is one of seven ACC teams to have a shared coordinator spot: Clemson, Louisville and Miami have shared duties on offense. Boston College, NC State and Virginia join Duke with co-defensive coordinators.
There are 34 shared coordinator jobs among the 65 Power Five teams and 50 among the 130 FBS teams.
“The reason I was so convinced to do it,” Cutcliffe said, “is we have a saying as an offensive staff: ‘None of us, individually, are as smart as all of us.’ So two’s better than one, right?”
The tandem was in place for spring practice, and now, in the first week of fall practice, the early results are positive.
“Perfection,” Cutcliffe said. “I’ve said all along it would be, and it will.”
Of course, perfection doesn’t just happen. It took a great deal of design, with Cutcliffe first picking the right people to share the duties.
“It all starts with quality people,” he said. “There has to be an absence of ego, or an absence of selfishness, really. A healthy ego is important to all of us. Selfishness doesn’t involve ego. It starts there.”
Cutcliffe also needed to pick coaches that the players were comfortable with, to avoid any type of infighting among Team Guerrieri and Team Albert factions.
“We’ve known them for a long time,” linebacker Joe Giles-Harris said. “They helped recruit me, and they helped recruit most of our defense. It’s consistency.”
With any relationship, communication is key, and Cutcliffe has spent a great deal of time communicating exactly what each coordinator’s role is.
“First off, I’m really proud of how our defensive staff has handled this situation,” Cutcliffe said when he first announced the move in January. “We’ve had not good, but great conversations regarding staff organization and responsibilities, and I’m proud of how unselfish they have been throughout the process.”
By spring practice, the duties were ironed out.
“We’ve worked out a list of responsibilities that we’ll start out with during the spring,” Cutcliffe said at the opening of spring ball. “We’ll get more fine-tuned with that as we get finished with spring and head towards the fall. They’ve had a great start.”
And now, Cutcliffe continues to emphasize the need to define responsibilities.
“We’ve been clear and concise about what the roles are,” he said. “As long as we do that, and we have the discipline to maintain that, it will work to perfection.”
Cutcliffe has also added another coordinator to the mix, making sure that Kirk Benedict, in his first year running Duke’s special teams, attends the defensive meetings. “I put Kirk Benedict over there, because there are so many defensive players involved on special teams play. I wanted Kirk in that room. He’s also lending coaching and some help and some expertise — not necessarily in defensive scheme. It’s not the scheme. He’s got a lot of experience in effort, in discipline, in demanding and getting what we want out of our players.”
On the practice field, Guerrieri and Albert seem to be meshing well.
“They play off of each other,” Giles-Harris said. “They each have strengths and weaknesses, and they play off each other’s strengths. Coach G (Guerrieri) is the more vocal guy, out there on the field. He’s the one that gives the play call. Coach Albert will then hammer it into you. He’s kind of vocal when we’re in our sets, but he’s not going to be the flashy guy. Coach G’s not flashy either, but he steps into that role.
“They play so well off of each other, it’s kind of like seeing one person,” Giles-Harris added. We try to joke around and call them by the same name sometimes, to get them mad.”