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Svelter Duke starting to turn heads in college football

Away game at Virginia Tech is key

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About 500 pounds.

That was the biggest thing blocking Duke football from turning around its program when David Cutcliffe took over after the 1997 season.

"I thought we were the softest, fattest team I had ever seen," Cutcliffe said Wednesday.

Cutcliffe said that the Blue Devils collectively lost about 497 pounds the first offseason after he took over for Ted Roof. Players said Cutcliffe emphasized two things before ever coaching a game.

"Discipline and conditioning, that's what his program's built on," senior defensive end Kenny Anunike said Wednesday. "We want to be the most conditioned team in the nation."

That wasn't the case when Anunike showed up at Duke as part of Cutcliffe's first recruiting class, he said, agreeing with his coach's assessment of the state of the Blue Devils.

"He's definitely right," Anunike said. "When I first came here in 2008, the team previously was definitely out of shape. It was in shambles."

Roof, now the defensive coordinator at Penn State, did not respond to a request for a comment. He was 6-45 in five seasons with the Blue Devils from 2003-2007.

A svelter Duke team (5-1, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) is one win away from becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 1994 as it heads into Saturday's game at slumping Virginia Tech (3-3, 1-1).

Cutcliffe's offense is scoring 37.8 points per game, fourth most in the ACC, and has developed a running game to balance the passing game for which the coach is known. Defensively, Duke ranks fourth, giving up 372.2 yards per game.

But it wasn't just a renewed focus on fitness that helped dig the Blue Devils out of the college football doldrums. Cutcliffe, with a lofty reputation after coaching Peyton Manning at Tennessee and Eli Manning at Ole Miss, needed players. And he looked everywhere.

Quarterback Sean Renfree, a three-year starter, came from Arizona. Wide receiver Conner Vernon, now the ACC's all-time leading receiver with 239 career catches, came from Florida. Anunike came from Ohio.

The nine redshirt seniors on this year's roster, Cutcliffe's first recruits, come from seven states.

"We all came for our own reasons," Renfree said. "The biggest one is the coaching staff."

And they came to be part of a turnaround, to help take an overlooked team overshadowed by Duke's marquee men's basketball squad, and elevate it to something that could excite people in Durham. Their work combined with a down year in the ACC has made that happen.

"I just wanted to be a part of what Coach Cut wanted to do with this program," Vernon said Wednesday. "I knew coming in it wouldn't be an overnight thing. To see it happen in front of my eyes is great. "

It certainly didn't happen overnight. Cutcliffe went 15-33 his first four seasons at Duke, and was 6-26 in the ACC. His teams finished 1-7 in the league three times.

And while the Blue Devils' players and fans believe this team is for real, they still have some persuading to do for the rest of the nation. Their ACC wins have come against Wake Forest and Virginia, not league powerhouses. They were drilled 50-13 at Stanford in the second game of the year. Cutcliffe is 0-4 against the Hokies.

A win Saturday at Lane Stadium could go a long way toward legitimizing what Duke is doing.

"I think a lot of people are realizing and respecting our play so far this year," Vernon said. "Obviously if you go into Virginia Tech and beat Virginia Tech at home, which is not the easiest thing to do, you'll definitely get respect for that. We'll definitely turn a lot of heads."

Read more about the Hokies at TimesDispatch.com

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