Better late than never: Duke football returns to campus

The Blue Devils were the last Power Five team to come back

Duke coach David Cutcliffe is counting on his players to police each other to avoid a possible virus outbreak. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

Duke’s football team began arriving back to campus on Sunday as the Blue Devils became the last team in Power Five to report back.

“I have mixed emotions about the late coming back,” coach David Cutcliffe said.

Many teams, including Clemson, LSU, Ohio State and UNC, have had to quarantine players or postpone workouts when members of the team tested positive. With some of those teams reporting almost a month earlier than Duke, there’s a buffer to allow for that. The Blue Devils won’t have that luxury.

“Obviously, if our guys don’t do a great job (of avoiding infection), we’re starting to move in toward camp,” Cutcliffe said. “It can affect you a great deal if others can put it behind them.”

Still, Cutcliffe prefers to have other teams’ mistakes to learn from.

“I still believe waiting until after the Fourth of July was key for us,” he said. “I think sitting back and letting these guys see what’s occurred gives us a better chance for them to understand the seriousness of this.”

Cutcliffe plans to have his players police themselves when it comes to following guidelines.

“I actually told our players this,” Cutcliffe said. “This may seem naive. I’m putting them in charge of that mitigation. I’m not going to follow them around. I told them, ‘We’re not putting a chip under your skin to GPS you.’ There has to be responsibility on some 22- and 23 year-olds to help. They know what each other are doing. Don’t kid yourself. They know. They know what their other buddies’ habits are. If they choose not to mitigate themselves, then we’ve got a problem.”

Still, Cutcliffe and the coaches will do their part to make sure the players stay socially stimulated.

“I’ve dealt with young people for 45 years professionally now. This is the biggest challenge that we have faced,” he said. “I was kidding, but for our over 21-year-old guys, I said, maybe I need to open up a bar with players only down on the practice field, where they can gather and put the tables and seats at a safe physical distance, because — I get it — they want to socialize.

“I think we can do some gaming in the stadium,” Cutcliffe added. “How about some Madden on the Jumbotron? I think we’ve got to be creative. We can play home run derby. We’re going to do some of that. I realize they’ve got to have some fun. So we’re just thinking through this thing. My brain’s tired and it’s hurting a little bit, but I’m going to push through it.”

The staff is also getting creative when it’s time to work in order to ensure social distancing.

“We’re going to be all over the facility, wherever we can physically distance,” Cutcliffe said. “We will have some meetings outside. If you see a projector running down on the practice field, that’s us, out there having a meeting where we can physically distance safely.”

It also might mean going without film work at times.

“Walkthroughs become a real premium,” Cutcliffe said. “Our high school coach taught us to play, and we won, but he taught us to play without film. He would coach on the grass. He was one of the early guys on the walkthrough. All of our scouting reports were done out there physically.”

Clearly, it’s a new world, but Cutcliffe is confident that the Blue Devils can adjust.

“I told our coaches, ‘Don’t panic, guys. Just because you’ve always done install with film in a tight-quartered meeting doesn’t mean it can’t be done (another way),’” he said.

Duke’s delayed start to resuming workouts also means the Blue Devils are returning just as cases are spiking and the season seems less sure than ever. Still, Cutcliffe is holding out hope.

“I am very optimistic still,” he said. “I was extremely optimistic maybe six weeks ago, to a month, but one, we all thought hot weather would help us, and that has not been the case. Two, as we have reopened, seeing how difficult it is for the general population to live strictly into mitigation. It makes you a little less optimistic. I think that there’s a lot of things on the table.

“One week at a time as to how you do this. I believe we can do this. I don’t think our world is going to have to stop, but I think our world needs to become more disciplined. I do. Hopefully, we’re disciplined enough to play some football.”