- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2006

DURHAM, N.C. — They go to work quietly early each day in a cranny of campus just beyond Wallace Wade Stadium, surrounded by far more trees than people and unfettered of some of the more garish trappings of Division I-A football.

It’s a brisk autumn morning, one that would dissuade many visitors from taking a peek at a team just days removed from nearly upsetting one of the sport’s superpowers of the last quarter-century. Duke’s football players are there, though, hustling through drills and trying to improve.

It’s an ongoing experience for the Blue Devils, seemingly one under way for decades. Duke has long been college football’s version of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, constantly under repair and stuck in a rebuilding process with no end in sight.

Yet as the wind whips around, it is clear there is still plenty of enthusiasm, even as Duke searches for its first victory. Some of it comes from coach Ted Roof, some from a rapidly improving talent base. It’s not hard to see, so long as it’s viewed through a wide-angle lens rather than a disposable camera.

The Blue Devils are 0-8 and owners of the nation’s longest losing streak at 16 games heading into Saturday’s meeting with Navy (5-3) — figures no one tries to run from (or could if they wanted to). But for the first time in more than 10 years, there’s reason to believe Duke’s future could be much better than its forgettable past.

“We play it and we coach it to win, and at the same time, to invest as much as these young men invest — really all of us invest — to just solely focus on the negative, that would be a mistake,” Roof said. “The way our players respond and continue to get better kind of states that they understand where we’re going and not getting bogged down in where we’ve been.”

The past

Duke was an ACC power in the conference’s first decade, but the last 40 years have yielded only eight winning seasons. The numbers are especially brutal since 1990: One bowl berth, 42-144-1 overall and 18-113 in ACC play.

The line of demarcation coincides with Steve Spurrier’s decision to leave and take over at Florida. Since then a string of coaches — Barry Wilson, Fred Goldsmith, Carl Franks and Roof — have attempted to win at Duke without success.

It became tougher when the ACC added Florida State in 1992. Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech have arrived in recent years to further decrease whatever margin for error Duke enjoyed.

“I don’t think you could pin that all on one thing,” Roof said. “It’s a combination of things. Certainly the league is part of it. There are some other issues we’re in the process getting worked out, and we’re making sure we have all the things we need to run a successful Division I-A Atlantic Coast Conference football program.”

A new football complex completed in 2002 coupled with a revamped practice facility helped Roof improve the program’s traditionally shaky recruiting.

One particularly strong coup was redshirt freshman nose guard Vince Oghobaase, a Houston native who was one of the top recruits in Texas his senior year. Both Miami and Oklahoma wanted the 6-foot-6, 310-pounder, but he opted to be part of a turnaround at Duke.

Friends in his football-crazed hometown were stunned by his decision.

“The first thing they said to me was ‘You’re going to Duke to play basketball? Does Duke even have a football team?’ ” Oghobaase said. “Some were like ‘Stop playing, I know you’re joking around, I know you’re not going to Duke. They haven’t won a game in X amount of years.’ Just ignorant reactions like that. It definitely lights a fire in my behind.”

The present

Duke’s prospects for a fine 2006 dimmed before camp convened when quarterback Zack Asack was suspended for the year for plagiarizing in a class. With converted wide receiver Marcus Jones starting in his place, the Blue Devils were shut out by Division I-AA Richmond in their opener.

Roof then turned to true freshman quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, who would have led Duke to a victory at ACC contender Wake Forest in his first start were it not for a blocked field goal on the final play.

It wasn’t the Blue Devils’ last near-miss. Duke trailed 16-14 with five minutes left at Alabama last month before the Crimson Tide scored a pair of late touchdowns. Two weeks later, Lewis nearly rallied the Blue Devils from an 18-point deficit against Miami, only to throw an interception on the goal line on the final play of a 20-15 loss.

In the past, those outings might have qualified as moral victories. Oghobaase remembers veteran players laughing after losses last season; a year later the giggling is gone after a loss, with frustration and helmet-slamming in its place.

“It was prevalent when I first got here, and it disturbed me because if it means anything to you, you’re going to get upset,” sophomore linebacker Michael Tauiliili said. “That’s how it was. I feel we’ve taken a major step forward. There’s a lot of emotion and that’s mainly because people understand we’re right on the verge.”

If the attitude has changed, so has team unity. In the past, senior defensive tackle Casey Camero watched some players give up on a season and others vastly more interested in securing a degree from an elite school than exerting themselves on the field.

He doesn’t see those traits anymore, but it doesn’t assuage the toll constant losing can exact on the mind and body.

“It’s extremely frustrating to put in so many hours and so much work and so much of your time,” Camero said. “It’s basically our life right now. We balance it with academics, but football definitely overshadows everything we do. It’s very demanding and to have it not pay the dividends we want, it’s definitely tough.”

Yet the progress — in everything but the win column — can be seen, even with some ugly losses sprinkled in. Lewis notices a change in the program’s perception from friends back home in the Miami area, and he knows what just one victory would mean to his team.

“It would bring more,” said Lewis, who has thrown four touchdowns and 11 interceptions while adjusting to the college game. “There would be a snowball effect. Once you get that victory, you can’t be satisfied, but you get that winning taste in your mouth and you’re still hungry, and you want some more.”

Added Roof: “We’re a lot closer than a lot of people realize. At the same time, there’s a lot still left to be done.”

The future

A bowl game is out of reach for this season. Nine true freshmen have played this year, although no one uses inexperience as an excuse for losing.

There are also other obstacles to overcome. One curious dichotomy Roof faces is the value of a Duke education. It is one of his biggest selling points on the recruiting trail, yet unlike many schools where a five-year trek to a degree is the norm, most students at Duke — including athletes — graduate in four years.

That leaves the Blue Devils facing the curious problem of watching potential fifth-year guys go off to Wall Street or medical school rather than exhaust their eligibility. Persuading some of those players to return is just another part of changing the program’s culture.

“It’s not an overnight process,” Oghobaase said. “A lot of people want to see an instant, quick change. We have to know it’s going to take time. We’re just not going to go from 0-10 to 9-1 and go to a BCS bowl just like that.”

Days like those won’t arrive until after Camero departs. However, the three-year starter who has celebrated seven victories in four seasons points to Lewis’ maturity and Roof’s passion for the program as reasons to believe change is near.

“There should be [optimism],” Camero said. “When I got here, there were still guys that really shouldn’t have been ACC football players, maybe even Division I-AA guys, and they were in the ACC. Now there’s a lot of talent on the team and there’s a lot of depth and the program is definitely going in the right direction.”

Turning around a longtime punching bag was part of Roof’s recruiting spiel to Camero when Roof was still Duke’s defensive coordinator. It’s the same concept Roof sold to Lewis, Oghobaase and Tauiliili.

It’s a pitch with great appeal, and one the Blue Devils believe they can fulfill in the coming years.

“I see it as an opportunity to be one of the forefathers of Duke winning again,” Tauiliili said, “And 20 or 30 years down the line be able to come back and say ‘I helped start this.’ ”

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