Construction Zone: Duke struggles through football transition period

DURHAM, N.C. – Duke football has taken a long and winding path to get to
where it is today. Thanks to construction in front of the Yoh Football Center, which forces visitors to the Blue Devils’ football offices to walk all the way around Cameron Indoor Stadium, past the practice courts, past the basketball museum and past the courtyard where Krzyzewskiville residents camp in the winter.

The pavement shared by Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Yoh
Building and the entrance to Wallace Wade Stadium is filled with heavy
equipment, workers and debris. Large barricades keep out anyone without a hard
hat and a contractor’s agreement.

“The thing you don’t realize,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said,
“is just how loud a construction site is, until you’re trying to do work in
your office, and they’re right outside your window.”

The fact that it’s inspired the relentlessly positive Cutcliffe
to complain shows just how much the renovations to Cameron and Wallace
Wade upended things for the program.

Cutcliffe tried to stay positive as Duke went through its
spring practices, culminating in a spring game that, for the second year in a
row, was closed to the public due to the construction project.

“The good thing is we’ve learned a lot about our team,” he
said. “Natural adversity and challenges are good in that they make us better.
It doesn’t mean that every day’s a pleasant day. It doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“You’ve got a different path to go to practice. The next
uniqueness is that we don’t have a practice field. It’s under construction.
We’ve been indoors a lot. We’ve been on the game field some.”

Then, there are the normal challenges that teams face, even
when they can easily walk to practice without dodging earth movers. Duke is
breaking in four new assistant coaches, and the Blue Devils lost starting
quarterback Thomas Sirk to an injury threatening his 2016 season.

“It’s been the greatest amount of change that we’ve had
since we’ve been here,” Cutcliffe said. “It was a lot of change for our players
when we came in, but we came in as a staff. We were very familiar with each
other. We just hadn’t had much change here.”

Almost immediately after the Pinstripe Bowl win over
Indiana, the changes began. Offensive coordinator
Scottie Montgomery left to become head coach at East Carolina. Offensive line
coach John Latina, a 35-year veteran with Cutcliffe at Ole Miss and Duke,

Cutcliffe promoted from within to replace both. He elevated
Zac Roper from special teams coordinator and tight ends coach to offensive
coordinator and made former quality control assistant Marcus Johnson the
new o-line coach.

In addition to moving people around to fill voids in Roper
and Johnson’s old spots, Cutcliffe replaced some of the non-coach staff
members that followed Montgomery to ECU.

“So you’re transitioning in more places than we’ve had, and
then Thomas’ unfortunate injury occurred. Suddenly, you’re going from a
returning fifth-year starting quarterback to someone else,” Cutcliffe said.

“With all of that said, I’m not trying to paint a negative
picture,” he added. “It’s change. As I view change, you have a chance to grow
from it. … I like that we’ve just continued to move forward.”

Duke is moving forward with maybe its most talented roster
ever. Cutcliffe was able to redshirt a majority of the 2015
recruiting class, noting that 41 percent of this year’s roster will be freshmen
expected to play key roles.

The offensive and defensive lines are two areas where young
players may get to play earlier than expected.

“It’s going to be a challenge on both lines,” he said. “You
just think, over the last two-year span, what we’ve lost there. It’s hard
because the experience level is not going to be the same. There’s some talent,
yes, but it’s not too far-fetched – we don’t know this yet – we may have a
freshman or two coming in that gets into the mix.”

This includes redshirt frosh Keyston Fuller— a candidate to separate himself from the pack.

Another redshirt freshman, linebacker Joe Giles-Harris,
stepped up in the spring game with four scholarship linebackers available
during spring practice, joining Ben Humphreys as the potential leaders of the

The Devils aren’t all
young, though.

Duke has experienced depth at running back and tight end. On
defense, Cutcliffe said that the secondary is the deepest it’s been since he came to Duke, even with the loss of ACC Defensive Player of the Year Jeremy
Cash. Redshirt freshman Brandon Feamster appears to have the inside track to
replace Cash.

At quarterback, junior Parker Boehme got starter reps in
spring ball. He’s the only healthy Blue Devil quarterback who has thrown a
college pass.

“We’d give anything to have Thomas out there, but when you
don’t, you’re getting people reps. We have two redshirt freshmen (Daniel Jones
and Quentin Harris) who are getting a lot of reps,” Cutcliffe said. “There’s
still the possibility that Sirk will be able to contribute, as he’s currently a
month and a half ahead of schedule in his recovery.”

Like everything else around Wallace Wade Stadium these days,
that spot will remain under construction for a little bit longer.