COACH CUTCLIFFE: Honored to be headed to Charlotte and representing the Coastal Division. Certainly excited about it. We are more than honored to be playing an opponent like Florida State, the No. 1 team in the country, and rightfully so. I've seen them on tape with common opponents, off and on this season, and truly you already know that this is one of the finest teams in recent memory in college football.
We're pretty healthy, which is always good when you can hit late November, December now, and have a fairly healthy football team. We've got a huge, huge task in front of us. The thing we've got to do is prepare as we've prepared every week and keep that focus, and it's obviously -- I've told them all along, if you keep winning, the next one gets even bigger, and now this one is the biggest of all. We're excited about the challenge and looking forward to it, and I'll take your questions.
Q. When was the turning point for you in being able to get more athletes to come to Duke? The kind of athletes that can make a difference in where the program was a few years ago and where it's been the last couple of years.
COACH CUTCLIFFE: Well, I think what we've managed to do is just progress each year. We've worked very hard at recruiting, like everyone does, but we've got a lot of great people here that are involved with the staff and certainly coaches, support group, and I think that after we had really -- the first class, which is these fifth year seniors, was certainly a quality class, and I think each year when we've kind of made a step in the right direction, people are saying us as what we are: A good program to be a part of.
I think the last three recruiting classes have been as good as we've had, or close to it anywhere. And so we're looking forward to the future, and we've got more speed and we have focused on that, and we've got people in both lines of scrimmage that have chance to compete. So that's been the biggest difference.
Q. And finally, since the Pittsburgh game, what's been the biggest turnaround?
What are your kids doing better in the last eight games since that one?
COACH CUTCLIFFE: Well, our defense just did not play very well, particularly the first half, and we have a lot of good football players over there that have played a lot of snaps, and I really think it embarrassed them. There has just been a determination, and I think we've prepared better than we have since we've been here, and as I've said we've remained more -- a little more healthy than we have in the past, and we have more depth, and we've started playing more people and benefitted from that.
And then our kicking game has steadily improved, as well. This is a team that the reason we've been able to win is that all three phases find a way to make critical plays at critical times in the game, and hopefully we can continue to do that.
Q. I remember a couple weeks ago you said that this season wasn't a flash in the pan for your program, and I was wondering, what is your plan to make sure that it's not?
COACH CUTCLIFFE: Well, recruit. I mean, it's really that simple. I think we have a realization -- we've been at this a long time, and the way you win is with great organization, a systematic organization, and then great people. We've got to keep our staff together. That's always a part of it. You're going to have some minimal loss. We lost Mike MacIntyre to a head coaching position. We lost Scotty Montgomery to the National Football League, and he's now returned. We've had good people, but we haven't had a lot of change, and I think that's really important, consistency there.
We're not going to have hopefully much turnover in our support staff. I don't see anything happening there. So I'm very pleased with that. And if you keep your people, and we've got a great systematic approach, I've been mentored by a lot of good people and we believe in how we do things, so we're going to continue to do things well, and if you do that, you're going to be successful.
Q. The other thing I wanted to ask you was just in terms of how important defense and special teams have been to you guys this year, do you see that continuing in this game and just where do you think you've made the biggest strides in those two areas?
COACH CUTCLIFFE: Well, we run better on defense. First thing you've got to be able to do is get to them to get them on the ground. You can't get them on the ground if you can't run. We run better. We'd better run better in this one because these guys have I think more weapons than anybody in the country.
Special teams are always going to be a big part of what we do. We work very hard at it. We spend a lot of time with it. It's the one -- I'm in every one of those meetings. It's the one thing I'm going to be a part of 100 percent of the time. I'm in and out both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively these days, but I am never going to walk away from special teams, and then Zac Roper, our special teams coordinator, has done a tremendous job. He took over for Ron Middleton when we lost Ron to the National Football League, and he has just been outstanding this year as a coach.
Q. Obviously Florida State's quarterback gets a lot of attention for the great season that he's had. Do their receivers get overlooked? Some of those guys are really good?
COACH CUTCLIFFE: No, they're not some of them good. They're all good. They've got size and speed. They've got quickness. All of them catch the ball extremely well from tight end to wide receiver. Their running backs are excellent receivers out of the backfield, which is a Jimbo Fisher trait. They're difficult. They're very difficult to match up with. I've been looking at that all morning, and they cause everyone problems in that regard, just the match-ups, because like I said, it's not just speed and quickness, it's also size that's such an issue.
We'll be working all week on that answer. We don't have anybody that can line up and match up physically with Benjamin. He's just a monster and with great skills. And then certainly the other guys are -- there's some of them with good size, but good gosh, they are quick, explosive, very athletic guys.
Q. Just curious if you had a chance to look through your book and see where winning the division came on your path to glory.
COACH CUTCLIFFE: Yeah, I did my evaluation of what we were doing or what I was doing, some of it obviously gets in the realm of personal stuff, but I did a 90-day, a three-year, and this was not quite three years ago, a 90-day, a three-year and a 15-year. I'm hoping I'm going to live a lot longer.
Anyway, in the three-year I did put down there to play in the ACC Championship game, so we're just making that right under the gun from when I did that, looking at this team or next year's team.
Q. Iwantedtoaskyou,Idugupa quote you said in summer of I think it was 2009 where you said your goal was not just to build it back to respectability but to play for championships, and then you said something like I don't care if people laugh at that, it'll just make it sweeter when it happens. When did they stop laughing?
COACH CUTCLIFFE: Well, probably not until this week, in some cases, and maybe they still are. These guys deserve more respect than what people have given them really overall because we're not just fortunate. We're a good football team. We wouldn't be where we were if we weren't good.
We were a good football team a year ago. We lost some games that got away from us.
You know, I'm very excited about what's happening to this team because it's going to help our program. Our guys have believed and have believed very strongly, and you know that. They've done what we've asked them to do as well as they can possibly do it. But this just strengthens that and we move forward, so I'm very appreciative to our senior leaders. The legacy they're leaving is going to make our younger players -- our freshmen, I just saw a bunch of them a little while ago that weren't-- that we're redshirting that weren't over at Chapel Hill in the locker room, and I had a conversation with them, and I congratulated all of them for winning the Coastal Division because you can't imagine how bought in they are to work as the scout team.
They're just beaming with energy, and that's a good thing for our program.
Q. You mentioned a couple games got away from you last year. One of them was the game with Florida State. Is there anything looking back at that game that gives you encouragement that it can be a different story this year?
COACH CUTCLIFFE: Yeah, I looked at the game today, and all of us, we make lessons. I'm not going to go into those because those would get into some of the game plan. We make really detailed lessons after a ballgame. If we can correct a few things on both sides of the ball, which are correctable, not dreaming, very correctable, we have a chance to play better. We can't play like we did a year ago and think we're going to be competitive in this game. But we're very capable of playing better, and we just have to -- it's a game where you've got to play every snap, and we didn't do that a year ago. We played intermittently pretty darned well, but you can't do that against the No. 1 team in the country. We've got to put together a complete ballgame, and it really goes against people's nature to be that focused and intense for that length of time, and we've got to -- we're getting better at that, and we have to master that to play against this quality of an opponent.
Q. I wanted to just ask you about from the standpoint of the physical conditioning, the strength and conditioning improvement from not only day one but maybe even from last year that your team has made to this season and how that's happened in these games, particularly in the fourth quarter?
COACH CUTCLIFFE: Well, Noel Durfey, our strength and conditioning coach for football, is incredible and consistent. Now you've got guys -- you've got to remember guys that have been in our system five, four, three years, and that's making a difference. We are a stronger, more fit, faster team. We practice -- we condition as we practice, and the way we practice, it's really continual motion, and then when Noel has them in the off-season, we train the same way. We don't take breaks.
So our theory is that obviously we believe we're a developmental program. We know that. We've got to develop people to be the best they can be, and given a four- or five-year cycle as to what we can accomplish with great things. I think these guys are starting to become the product of that. So wouldn't want anybody else in the country touching our strength and conditioning program but Noel Durfey. He had been with me at Ole Miss, he was with me briefly at Tennessee, and he's spectacular.
Q. The success this November versus some struggles in past Novembers, what has been the difference in finishing this season where maybe in past seasons you weren't able to capitalize on some early-season success?
COACH CUTCLIFFE: Well, I think the leadership of our team since January by our players. Our senior and junior leadership I should say has been very, very good, and it's been -- that's been the theme was finish. We've also stayed healthier. We've kept the same lineup for the most part, and we haven't been able to do that here, and one of the reasons is that we are deeper and we've played more people all year, so we don't get quite beat up as badly.
I would point at all of those things as the biggest difference.
Q. I saw you challenged your fans to show up by the thousands and thousands on Saturday. What kind of crowd are you expecting, and just what's the excitement been like there on campus?
COACH CUTCLIFFE: It's been incredible. Our last two home games have been full houses with people that were really cranked up, and I got a message earlier today from one of our administrators that we sold our allotment out today (NOTE: Duke sold out two of the price points). So hopefully people are finding a way to get them through Charlotte or through the conference office. I know that they were going really fast here, and I'm excited about that. It's obviously a great geographic location for Duke fans, and last year we had probably 25,000 mappable Duke fans at the Belk Bowl. So I certainly think we can certainly match that in this circumstance.
Q. Quick question I had in regards to it seemed like you caused during the last play yesterday when the interception was thrown, you paused before you celebrated. Could you just go into your thoughts at that moment?
COACH CUTCLIFFE: Well, I wasn't in a jump-up-and-down mood. I had a lot of emotions running through me. I wanted, first of all, DeVon to get on the ground, and then I wanted to see the guys that had either played at Duke or been at Duke a while and congratulate them. It was real important to me that Scotty and Re'quan and Jomar Wright and Jeff Faris and all of our guys that are former Duke players, and Hap Zarzour, our long time trainer, and I saw Sonny Falcone, who I think was born at Duke and has lived his whole life here. I wanted to see those people.
I felt a lot of emotion for all of those men that have put so much into this program.
I knew it was a good moment for them, and that's really all that was running through my mind, and then after that I finally got to see my family, as well, and I just didn't get much past that.
Q. How have you managed to make the two quarterbacks work for you when it doesn't work at so many places?
COACH CUTCLIFFE: You know, because of the quality of those two young men, it's been able to work, and then we've had some force-feeding as you know because they've both been hurt. Both played well independent of each other, and so we worked hard back in August with this system, also, because Brandon Connette can do so many things. We call him The Phantom. He could line up on the line of scrimmage as a tight end and block. I mean, he's a physical, strong guy.
If we could keep both of them healthy, and we hope that's what happens as we move into the future, there's a lot of fun things we can do with that, and we try to make it fun down there as opposed to make it turn into something that could be a negative circumstance. As I said, they are truly unselfish people, both from those types of families, and they're really quality young men.
Q. I was just looking at the stats, and I saw you guys on offense have had the fewest negative yardage plays of anybody in the conference this season. I'm just curious, is that more to do with the way the offensive line is getting that push off the line? Are your running backs hitting the hole a little harder this year to prevent those things from happening?
COACH CUTCLIFFE: It is experience, certainly. That always points to your offensive line. Lack of penetration, it's certainly the running backs, but it's the quarterback managing the line of scrimmage himself. We were able to make decisions at the line of scrimmage to keep you out of bad plays, and it's good play called by Kurt Roper, so it really is a combination of things, but an experienced offensive line and an experienced football team always helps that, and I think it's one of the critical factors in winning, so we make a huge emphasis of that as we start spring practice. We don't wait. I mean, that's a spring practice item that we really focus on on offense.
Q. I wanted to ask about Devon Edwards. What was it that made him a right fit for you when so many, I guess, coaches would see the 5'8", 5'9" and take a pass?
COACH CUTCLIFFE: You know, DeVon is -- I'll tell you how great a youngster. He had a 4.0 GPA in high school, but his coaches told me, let me tell you the kind of young man he is. He's real popular in school. He's quiet but really popular. So people are always stopping him in the hall, so as soon as the bell rings to end a class, he starts a stopwatch to make sure that he is not late for his next class.
Well, they didn't need to tell me much more of that. Then I started watching his highlights, and he had a knack of making big plays at big times, and that's kind of funny now to think about what he's done here, that knack has certainly continued, and I think a big part of that is just being a good player.
And then I went and watched him play basketball. You just mentioned his height, and not only was he the leading scorer but he was the leading rebounder on his team. He thought every ball that came off of a missed shot was his. I mean, he was incredible going after loose balls and rebounds.
That's just the kind of guy you want to associate yourself with. He simply is a winner.
Q. Was the football season over by the time you had a chance to start seeing him in person?
COACH CUTCLIFFE: Well, yes, it was at the end; that's why I only saw him in person play basketball. But we got started on him a little bit later than we normally do in recruiting, but we loved everything we were learning about him, and then when I went down there and then went to his home, I mean, I was just thrilled that he was going to -- he had already committed by that time but was thrilled that he was a part of our football family. He's an exceptional young man.
Q. I wanted to ask, next week was supposed to be a recruiting weekend. You had some kids coming in. How does that work logistically? Do you have to reschedule or can you invite them to Charlotte?
COACH CUTCLIFFE: No, we can't invite them to Charlotte, but we will reschedule the weekend. Kent is busy. As Art said last week on the radio, Kent was the most nervous person around last week, so you can only imagine flights, motel rooms, catering, meals. We've got a big meal that was planned out at my home, so my wife is involved in all of that change.
But you know what, everybody is smiling right through every bit of that.
Q. I just wanted to make sure I have my timeline right. Three years ago you made your timeline that had you guys in the championship game?
COACH CUTCLIFFE: Yeah, it was a little less than three years ago when I put that three-year plan into process. Probably I'm going to say 26 months ago is the date on it.