Top candidates to replace David Cutcliffe at Duke

There is a long list of intriguing coaches available to the Blue Devils

East Carolina coach Mike Houston is one of several candidates Duke could consider to replace David Cutcliffe. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

David Cutcliffe has shown that it is, in fact, possible to win at Duke, which means that the job he is leaving is much more desirable than the one he inherited.

As Duke begins its national search to replace the man who rebuilt the program, it does so in the shadow of Wake Forest — another small private school that is competing for an ACC title. Potential candidates for the job will be looking to replicate the success that Dave Clawson is enjoying at Wake and the heights that Cutcliffe reached before Duke’s recent tailspin.

So, as some of the biggest names in coaching are on the move in what promises to be a postseason coaching carousel for the ages, new Duke athletic director Nina King will need to find the right person to take over Duke football.

Here’s a look at some of the candidates that should merit strong consideration.

Coaches with Duke connections

Bill O’Brien, offensive coordinator, Alabama: The former Penn State and Houston Texans head coach was offensive coordinator at Duke from 2005 to 2006. In addition to his Duke experience, he’s coached at the highest levels in college and the pros, and he’s currently a coordinator with the Tide, a job that seems to be a landing spot for future head coaches. He has a reputation for working with quarterbacks, which may allow him to retain several of the talented young passers on Duke’s roster who came to work with Cutcliffe. That includes starter Gunnar Holmberg, who has already entered the transfer portal.

Scottie Montgomery, running backs coach, Indianapolis Colts: A former Duke standout who went on to play in the NFL, Montgomery had two stints as a Cutcliffe assistant at Duke. His first foray into head coaching, at ECU, didn’t go well, but his familiarity with the program would allow the Blue Devils to keep some continuity for the players on the roster while still taking a new direction.

Jim Knowles, defensive coordinator, Oklahoma State: A former Duke defensive coordinator, Knowles has head coaching experience at Cornell. His departure from the Blue Devils in 2017 coincided with the program’s recent struggles.

Matt Luke, offensive line coach, Georgia: Coach Cut’s first line coach at Duke, Luke left for Ole Miss, where he eventually took over as head coach. He’s been at Georgia the last two years.

Current college head coaches

Will Healy, Charlotte: Programs generally hire someone that’s the opposite of the coach that just left, and the 36-year-old Healy would provide that after the departure of the longest-tenured coach in the ACC. Even after Cutcliffe rebuilt the program, Duke still struggled to attract student and community members to follow the team and attend games. Healy will provide an infusion of energy into the program and has the best chance of any of the candidates to fill the house at Wallace Wade. He’s an up-and-coming coach and could be looking for a different steppingstone than Duke, but from the school’s perspective, his hire is all upside.

Jeff Monken, Army: With Duke’s admission requirements making recruiting difficult, as many of the top prospects are immediately taken off the board, service academy coaches are always at the top of the candidates list for the Blue Devils. Monken has won consistently at Army and coached running backs and special teams at Georgia Tech. So he has ACC experience. The last time a Duke team hired an Army coach, in 1980, things didn’t turn out too badly. Troy Calhoun, 110-75 at Air Force, and Ken Niumatalolo, 104-75 at Navy, are also likely on the list.

Mike Houston, ECU: He’s been speculated as a candidate by many outlets. He found success at Lenoir-Rhyne, showing that he can win at a private school, although clearly at a far different level. East Carolina is reportedly busy working on an extension and raise for Houston and his staff to try to head off any interest from the outside.

Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina: Like Healy, Chadwell is a rising star and could be looking to make a bigger jump than Duke. Still, the success he’s had with the Chants should make him worthy of a feeler from the Blue Devils.

Current college assistants

Warren Ruggiero, offensive coordinator, Wake Forest: He hasn’t appeared on many lists, but with the Demon Deacons locking down head coach Dave Clawson to a new contract extension, the man in charge of one of football’s most explosive offenses could be worth a look. He might be a tough get, but it would be a coup for King to land an ACC rival’s key assistant.

Marcus Freeman, defensive coordinator, Notre Dame: With Brian Kelly leaving for LSU, Freeman may be ready to jump to a head coaching job. He was a finalist for the Broyles Award — given to the top college assistant — last year, and he obviously has experience recruiting at an elite private school. And, at 36, he would bring energy and youth to a program that needs it.

Mike Elko, defensive coordinator, Texas A&M: Like Ruggiero, he’s covered with the Dave Clawson fairy dust, having served as Wake’s defensive coordinator for three years. He’s also been coordinator at Notre Dame.

Dan Lanning, defensive coordinator, Georgia: Another young, up-and-comer, Lanning is 35 and a strong recruiter. Like Freeman, Healy and Chadwell, he’ll have plenty of suitors, but Duke should at least try to get into the mix.