The Washington Times - October 23, 2009, 09:11AM

Earlier in the week, I asked Bryan Strickland of the Durham Herald-Sun (who has watched more Duke football than pretty much any reporter I’ve met) for a little help on breaking down the Blue Devils heading into Maryland’s game tomorrow.

Strickland obliged by helping a lot.

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Here’s five questions with the Duke beat writer (whose work you can read at this link), and much thanks to him for lending his insight this week.

1. Let’s start with the obvious – how dramatic a difference has David Cutcliffe made in less than two years in Durham?

BS: Cutcliffe has made a major difference in every area imaginable, making it hard to imagine how he went four years between head coaching jobs. He immediately ignited a dormant fan base with his down-home but down-to-business message at his introductory press conference and then went to work, first whipping the team into condition, then quickly landing a big-time quarterback prospect in Sean Renfree (no surprise there) while also showing Duke can recruit in the state of North Carolina (a surprise to many).

Duke’s gameday execution improved overnight, and its facilities seem to improve monthly. There’s still so much to do, and others deserve credit as well: a remarkable set of assistant coaches (not just by Duke football standards); and a school administration making the first significant financial commitment to football in forever.

But Cutcliffe gets some more credit in those areas as well, having landed every single assistant coach he tried to hire and then not losing any of them after last season, and having created a level of excitement that recently resulted in a $10 million gift to the program.

2. What’s behind Thaddeus Lewis’ surge over the last month, and when was the last time Duke received this level of quarterback play?

BS: Lewis was the second-team all-ACC quarterback last season, but it briefly looked like he might become Duke’s second-team quarterback after Renfree rallied Duke to a victory at Army. Lewis mostly struggled over the first three games of the season, but they were more like the first three weeks of preseason for him after an ankle injury and a swine flu scare shattered his prep time. Lewis got things cranked up against overmatched neighbor N.C. Central in the fourth game – which also served as a confidence builder for a young offensive line – and both have been rolling since. Lewis’ 40-for-50, 459-yard, five-touchdown showing two weeks ago at N.C. State far and away exceeded anything I’ve seen from a Duke quarterback in my 10 seasons on the beat.

3. I remember the problem past coaches (like Ted Roof) encountered was the need to plug in true freshmen prematurely, ensuring a nasty cycle of never having as much veteran depth as the Blue Devils would like. Is Cutcliffe facing the same problems, or has he found a way to avoid those headaches for the most part?

BS: Cutcliffe actually inherited a team relatively rich in seniors from Roof, allowing him to redshirt the majority of his first class of freshmen. It was a solid start but still not enough to truly end the cycle. This year’s roster features just nine seniors and 38 true and redshirt freshmen, but the Blue Devils redshirted enough in 2008 that they likely will be able to redshirt 15-plus this season. Cutcliffe could face another hurdle next year, with this year’s small senior class cutting down on the size that his 2010 class can be, but he’s still well on his way to digging out of the hole.

4. On the flip side, the two-deep on offense features only three seniors (Lewis, tailback Re’quan Boyette and right tackle Jarrod Holt). How much of a chance is there for Duke to emerge as a consistently above-average offense going forward under Cutcliffe?

BS: Given how things have gone the last month – and especially in the last game – it now seems like a distinct possibility. Some considered Cutcliffe to be college football’s top offensive coordinator when he came to Duke, and as his players have learned his system and how to perform to the college level, most signs have pointed upward. And it’s not all about game experience either: Wide receiver Conner Vernon and running back Desmond Scott already are shining as true freshmen.

All that being said, the jury is still out on whether the Blue Devils can get it done over the long haul. The offensive line has improved immensely over the last month but still is inexperienced and thin, and the running game (though boosted by an effective short passing game) still isn’t there. There’s reason for optimism to be sure but no way yet to reasonably predict the state of the offense two years from now.

5. With half the season to go, how doable is securing a bowl berth for the first time since 1994? More importantly, will it register as significant on a campus usually well into thoughts about basketball season at this stage?

BS: There’s a decent chance that the Blue Devils will look back at their season-opening loss to Richmond as the game that stopped them short of a bowl trip. That loss, combined with the fact that the victory over N.C. Central doesn’t count toward bowl eligibility because the Eagles aren’t yet a full-fledged Division I program, means 3-3 Duke must finish 4-2 to go bowling. The Devils should be big underdogs against Miami and Georgia Tech while looking capable of beating Maryland, Virginia, UNC and Wake Forest, but the Richmond loss leaves no margin for error.

If they do pull it off, it’s hard to predict how fans will respond. Duke had four 30,000-plus home crowds for the first time in school history in Cutcliffe’s first season but hasn’t consistently drawn this season (again Richmond no doubt hurt). But back in the day, once Steve Spurrier’s teams showed over time that they were going to be consistently competitive and entertaining, students and the Durham community responded in kind.

Local fan support is a daunting numbers game for Duke – it’s such a small school and has such a relatively small alumni base in the Triangle – but if anyone not named Spurrier is ever going to get it done, it will be Cutcliffe.

Much thanks once again to Bryan Strickland for taking the time to share his insight on Duke football.

Patrick Stevens