Upgrade in recruiting hasnt changed Dukes personality

As Duke brings in four-star recruits, David Cutcliffe makes sure the team keeps the hungry two-star attitude

Jeremy Brevard—X02835
Jul 21

DURHAM — Recruiting used to be so easy for Duke’s David Cutcliffe.Each year, on national signing day, he dropped the same line to sum up his approach to the recruiting trail.”We’re looking for two and three-star recruits that play like four and five stars,” he said.DeVon Edwards, an unheralded high school player who has become an All-American return man and starting defensive back with the Blue Devils, was the perfect example of the Cutcliffe method.Edwards wasn’t merely a diamond in the rough. The two-star recruit was virtually ignored by all FBS programs. Cutcliffe was convinced after watching the 5’9″ 170-pounder lead his team in rebounding at a basketball practice.At the time, Duke wasn’t winning on the field, and Cutcliffe didn’t have much to sell recruits on, other than a vision.”My roommate and I talk about it all the time,” fellow defensive back Breon Borders said. “He came into both of our houses and told us we’d have a chance to be a part of something special. We believed in it, and we believed in Coach Cutcliffe.”A few years later, things have changed in Durham. Duke signed its highest-rated recruit ever in 2015, when Ben Humphreys, rated No. 164 in the nation by 247 Sports, decided to come to Duke. The four-star prospect is now getting ready for his sophomore season as a Duke linebacker.A year later, Cutcliffe broke his own program record by bringing in freshman wide receiver Scott Bracey, ranked No. 139.Just as preseason practice opened, Cutcliffe made waves by landing his highest-rated quarterback in school history, four-star Jack Sears, who tops a strong 2017 class. Sears will be the fifth four-star recruit to come to Duke in the last three recruiting cycles.Suddenly, Cutcliffe doesn’t have to settle for two stars that play like four. He can get the genuine article.Still, that raises a potential problem. Instead of being surrounded by what Borders calls “hungry two and three stars,” who have faith in the Cutcliffe vision, Duke can now bring in elite talent — players who might not have taken a call from Cutcliffe and his staff a few years ago. They don’t want to build something. They want to play for a winner.”When I first got to Duke, I was a little freshman and I thought everybody was really good,” Edwards recalled. “Then, when I saw the guys that we played against, I was like ‘Wow!’ (The veterans) would tell me the stories on the guys they used to have that were never in shape and were just really smart. You look now, and there are guys that are four-star guys that look spectacular before they even get into the weight room.”Done without care, the sudden upgrade in recruiting can cause a powder keg in the locker room, with a hard-working, hungry older generation clashing with the hot-shot prospects crashing the party.As the team keeps winning, the roster has evolved quickly. This year’s fifth-year seniors have had every college season at Duke end with a bowl game. Gone are the players that remember being home for the holidays, let alone anyone who can recall a one-win season.As the talent level rises, Cutcliffe has to work hard to make sure the team doesn’t forget where it came from.”It’s something you have to be aware of and very careful with,” Cutcliffe said. “You need to make sure that you’re bringing in players who fit in with what we’re trying to do here.”The fact that Cutcliffe already has to say no to plenty of talented players who aren’t a good match for Duke’s academic requirements makes it easier to also reject potential players based on personality — something Cutcliffe says has happened.”Nobody knew who we were signing a few years ago,” he said on signing day in February. “We did. I think there are some special athletes in here. “But the lesson is we can’t forget why we’ve been able to win here.”The result is that the more things are changing on Duke’s roster, the more they remain the same.”I don’t think the culture has changed,” quarterback Thomas Sirk said. “I think when Coach Cut came here, he set the standard for what we’re expecting, every year. Every year, you have to have the guys buy into the culture we started building this program on in 2008, when coach got here.”That means that the veteran players still tell stories of the dark days of Duke football, even though they didn’t live through them.”The guys before me,” Sirk said. “I still talk about them, when we have meetings with the new guys. I give credit to the guys who were here before me and helped build this program and built the foundation for the work ethic we’re going to have.”Cutcliffe’s attention to personalities doesn’t stop when he chooses a recruit. He makes sure the new Blue Devils continue to fit the mold of player he’s used to rebuild the program.”Athletically, obviously, four and five stars are going to be better, but it’s the mindset,” Borders said. “Coach Cut has done a good job of not letting them get away, if they don’t come in and play immediately, for instance. He’s definitely informing young guys of where we came from.”So are the players.”I feel like it’s tough for them,” receiver Anthony Nash said of the freshmen. “When the recruits come in now, they’re used to winning. With me and my class, we came in after a 3-9 season. We knew what it took just to get to six wins to be bowl eligible. I feel like it’s up to us to keep hammering down that it’s not all sweet. We have to work for what we want. We may not be a talented team, but we have to be the hardest working team.””We punish them,” Borders said. “We don’t show empathy. I’m sort of a trash talker, and I don’t discriminate. Especially with the freshmen, when they come in. I make sure they know, ‘You’re not as good as you think you are.”The result is a team of talented players with the underdog hunger of the classes that helped lift Duke from laughing stock to perennial bowl team.It’s almost as if Cutcliffe planned it this way.”You understand the ‘what’ — heights and weights, all of those things,” Cutcliffe said. “But the ‘who’ is just that makeup. Regardless of stars, I think they’re all pure gold.”