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AFM Subscribers Ask...with David Cutcliffe

by: David Cutcliffe
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After only 22 wins over the last 13 seasons, Duke turned their fortunes to new head coach David Cutcliffe last December. Coach Cutcliffe comes to Durham after serving the previous two seasons as assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Tennessee. His coaching experience includes a six-year stint at Ole Miss where the Rebels had a 44-29 record and went to four bowl games. Cutcliffe was named the SEC Coach of the Year in 2003 after leading the Rebels to a 10-3 record. He has participated in 22 bowl games over his coaching career and has tutored both Manning brothers: Peyton while OC at Tennessee and Eli while head coach at Ole Miss. He answers your questions…

After you arrived at Duke, were there specific areas within the overall football program that you felt needed immediate attention? Aside from building a new staff and recruiting quality athletes, what were your top priorities? Kyle St. George, Assistant Coach, Xavier High School, Middletown, CT. AFM subscriber since 2006.

Without question the number one priority was the development and conditioning of our current athletes. We also wanted to assess the overall level of player development. Our additional priorities included: 1. the development of a new staff; 2. the on-going recruiting process; and 3. addressing facilities in both short term and long term goals. Our video facilities became an immediate need for coaches in terms of both player evaluation and preparation for spring practice. But clearly the conditioning and development of our team was our primary concern.

What are your personal thoughts on the Spread offense? Do you think any team can run it or do you feel you need certain player types? Joshua Holt, Assistant Coach, John S. Battle High School, Bristol, VA. AFM subscriber since 2007.

We all look at our personnel and see what fits best. Like the Wing-T that centers its offense around a running back, the Spread does the same with the quarterback. The quarterback in the Spread relies on misdirection and play action but has to be able to deliver the ball. We’ve used parts of the Spread philosophy in our pro style offense over the years. But I think you have to have a quarterback that can deliver the ball consistently to make the Spread successful. He can be 5-8 or 6-5 but he has to be able to deliver.

Over the years, how has your special teams philosophy changed? How are you going to approach special teams at Duke from an organizational (staff, practice, etc.) standpoint? Justin Dixson, Assistant Head Coach and Special Teams Coordinator, Warren Central High School, Indianapolis, IN. AFM subscriber since 2006.

I was a disciple of General Neyland of Tennessee who was one of the first coaches to give special emphasis to special teams play. The overall philosophy has changed towards special teams where it clearly is an integral part of the game and is being given more attention. The kicking game is so important in every game and now there’s not enough time during the week to spend the time needed for special teams. I like to have two coaches involved with special teams but, as a staff, we all stay involved. I really believe in coaching special teams and the mechanics of punting and placekicking. But it’s also important to continue to learn about special teams by attending clinics like the one we have here at Duke. The punt team I feel is the most important phase of special teams because it can clearly lead to disaster. The mechanics of the snap, blocking and protection are so critical. Fourth down is not a bad down if you punt well.

Having used the Pro-style offense and finding success with it, how difficult will it be to bring this offense to one that has been a spread offense? Do you plan to use phases of both or do you do a complete conversion? Rob Hurd, Retired Coach, Arizona Youth Football, Phoenix (AZ). AFM subscriber since 2005.

A lot of your offense depends on the ability level of your players. We use parts of both – the spread and the pro set I – but the key is to have balance in your offense. Ideally you want a strong running and passing game and, while I love to throw the ball, having balance gives you the best chance of success. Quite often you see in the NCAA statistics a team that has a strong running game but a losing record. Or one with great passing statistics but also a poor record. For the best chance of overall success, you really need to have that balance.

As the head coach how involved are you in the day to day planning of the three phases of your team? Anthony Watkins, Head Coach, Shaker Heights High School (OH). AFM subscriber since 2005.

I stay very much involved in all three phases of the game. We have a saying around here, ‘None of us are as smart as all of us.’ I try not to slow down our coordinators and special teams coaches but we share lots of information as a staff. Communication with your coaches is the key – whether it is verbal or written. We are always interjecting with each other in planning sessions, reviewing film or on the field.

Over the years you’ve coached both Peyton and Eli Manning as well as Eric Ainge. What do you look for in evaluating a quarterback? What are the crucial qualities a quarterback must have? Alex Gordon, Assistant Coach, Blue Ridge High School (TX). AFM subscriber since 2006.

The first thing is that a quarterback has to be able to make the other 10 players better. That can manifest itself in a number of different ways: as a leader and decision-maker, as an overall field general, or making a clutch play. There’s a talent for that. He obviously has to be able to throw well and be a football player first and then a quarterback. He also has to be able to play fast, both mentally and physically.

In terms of intangibles, the two things I look for are toughness and decisiveness. Your QB has to be able to take a hit and be decisive in his decisions. You see those qualities in all the great quarterbacks – Favre, Marino, Elway. I like to go out to eat with a prospective QB and if he takes forever to order, I know he probably won’t be my quarterback.


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