Photo: Pro days at Duke's Pascal Field House
DURHAM, N.C. – Duke coach David Cutcliffe surveyed the Blue Devils’ recent pro day at Pascal Field House. The pride was palpable. His smile could have bridged the gap that is the school's program before-and-after Cutcliffe’s arrival 10 years ago.
Pre-Cutcliffe, Duke won 10 games in eight years, including winless seasons. Under Cutcliffe, who turns 63 in September of his 11th Duke season this fall, the Blue Devils have been to five bowl games the past six seasons. He has been twice named the ACC Coach of the Year, 2012 and 2013. The winning records and bowl trips are a run of unprecedented success in Durham.
When the pro day drills wrapped up, Cutcliffe met with the media. He said something that shed light on what has kept him at Duke despite his success that attracted overtures from schools like Michigan and Tennessee. His answers included nodding toward Jamison Crowder and Anthony Boone, two former Blue Devils with pro experience. They were on hand to help guide Duke’s latest NFL prospects with the drills. It makes a Duke a program.
“One of the things that make me happy about being here for 10 years is seeing our guys come back, and the smiles on the faces,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t think it can get better than that.”
Crowder, a wide receiver, has been on campus all winter preparing for his fourth season with the Washington Redskins. He has shared his time to guide Duke’s returning players.
"I’m very appreciative of him," Cutcliffe said. "He’s taken an interest in our players. I see him talking to receivers all the time and coaching them. He’s gone into some of their meetings."
Boone, a quarterback, signed in 2015 as an undrafted free agent with the Detroit Lions. He was waived but was picked up to play with the Montreal Alouettes. Boone returned for pro day to throw passes to Duke’s latest crops of pro prospects drilling for the scouts.
The athletes included former Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk, who played with Crowder when he was Boone’s backup in the 2014 season.
“It was fun to get with Jamison and learn things from him,” Sirk said. “He’s been in the league three years. He’s one of most talented wide receivers in the league. For me, it was about learning how to run routes. I’m thankful for his help.”
Sirk spent last season as a graduate transfer at East Carolina, where he worked out for scouts as a quarterback during the Pirates’ pro day. But the Duke pro day, thanks to Cutcliffe’s blessing, was a chance to display his potential to transition to tight end. He ran pass routes and caught all the balls Boone threw his way.
“I love how you’ve got former players coming back here,” Sirk said of his homecoming. “That’s the environment I like. I learned a lot about playing quarterback from Boone (as his backup), and now he comes back to throw to me today. That was something special. It was Boone that showed me the Duke offense.”
Among the other Blue Devils working out at the April 3 pro day were defensive tackle Mike Ramsey, who is considered the team’s top prospect as a late-round pick. The other players participating were running back Shaun Wilson, cornerback Bryon Fields, center Austin Davis, running back Jela Duncan, running back Quay May and punter Will Monday.
Duke isn't Alabama, but plenty of schools envy the stability Cutcliffe has established. One school is Ole Miss, where Cutcliffe spent six seasons before he was unceremoniously dumped one year after sharing the SEC West title with a 10-3 record and No. 13 national ranking. He was named the SEC Coach of the Year in 2003. Giving Cutcliffe time to bounce back from 4-7 season in 2004 might have ultimately spared the school the scandal and impending NCAA penalties that former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze brought to Oxford.
Duke also has been more stable than Tennessee, where Cutcliffe was the offensive coordinator in two stints -- before leaving for Ole Miss and after he was fired.
But Cutcliffe is happy looking forward. He says he always nervous for his players on pro day, but he also mentioned the pride he feels when NFL coaches comment on his Duke athletes. The scouts, who attend pro days across the nation, tell him how professionally focused are his players.
“I hear this constantly from coaches and scouts about how well our guys work,” Cutcliffe said. “They go about their business.”
His nervousness concerns his players turning in a strong showing on their pro day opportunity. Otherwise he’s confident he and his staff have done their jobs to send their players off into the real world.
“The best part of it is they all have their degrees,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re prepared for whatever falls their way. We’ve got more NFL people than we’ve ever had -- we recruit good football players. When they talk about the NFL, it’s about a chance to play at the next level. Our job is to make sure they’re prepared for that chance but also for a career -- whatever that might be.”
And just like the Pascal Field House that opened in 2011, the current state of Duke football didn’t exist pre-David Cutcliffe.
Follow my stories on Twitter @shanny4055