DURHAM, N.C. — The best football coaches, at any level, like to say they are teachers first.
What they mean is we, the public, view them as “coaching” athletes. They see themselves “teaching” their players fundamentals, schemes and game plans. If the message doesn’t get across on Saturday afternoon, they failed to explain it in a way their “students” absorbed the information.
Nobody fits that profile better than Duke head coach David Cutcliffe. He cut his teeth as a high school teacher and coach at Banks High in Birmingham, Ala., on his climb to becoming a Division I college head coach. At Duke, a development program to keep up with schools that can recruit elite talent, teaching skills to “coach up” players are essential.
The veteran coach getting his message across to his students is best exemplified by Peyton Manning, the retired NFL quarterback on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Cutcliffe was Manning’s offensive coordinator at Tennessee, but Manning relied on him throughout his NFL career.
Cutcliffe, as is his weekly custom, met with the media Tuesday to discuss the Blue Devils (1-2) losing last week at Northwestern (1-2) and preparing for Saturday’s game at Notre Dame (1-2).
One of Duke’s problems has been turnovers committed by redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones — interceptions and fumbles — in losses to Wake Forest and Northwestern. The losses followed an encouraging season-opening performance to beat North Carolina Central.
Rather than snapping answers, as is the habit of some coaches (think Saban, Nick), Cutcliffe explained his answer. The decision-making process behind center has to be quick without hurrying. Otherwise the quarterback’s quickly spinning mind skips a vital step. That’s crucial in the attempt to find the high-percentage pass or an opportunity to throw the ball away instead of forcing a play.
Cutcliffe used a Christmas morning simile to simplify it.
“You know how you get something for kids and you’ve got the directions and don’t use them?” he said. “If you don’t follow the directions, when you get finished there are three pieces missing and it all falls apart. That’s a little bit what the process is.”
If he can get reporters to understand, imagine him working with his players.
Cutcliffe added Jones is improving each week, but the turnovers are bringing down his overall performance. Through three weeks, Jones leads all freshman quarterbacks in completions (68), passing yards (800) and total offense (851), but the two interceptions and fumbles kept Duke out of the win column and him left him out of ESPN highlights.
Regarding another struggling Duke player, Cutcliffe used a baseball simile to explain leaving in the game true freshman kicker A.J. Reed despite problems with field goals and extra points the last two games.
“You treat kickers like you treat relief pitchers,” Cutcliffe said.
“You don’t snatch the ball out of the hand of a relief pitcher when he struggles. The manager pats him on the back. You know he might have to win one tomorrow night. With kickers, if they miss one in the first quarter, they might have to make one in the fourth quarter.
“I tell them they have to be diligent in practice. They have to earn their confidence. Nobody is going to give it to them. If they’re smart, they’ll work hard and they’ll be fine.”
The media session is a window into how Cutcliffe teaches his players to help them improve. When you hear the same message from his players, you know he has their ear. The win-loss record is influenced by experience and talent in matchups, but the teaching continues week to week, year to year.
“We’re trying to find the right balance of approach, teaching and drawing up what we’re asking our personnel to do,” Cutcliffe said. “When you study personnel you do two things: One, have you got the right people in place; two, are you’re asking them to do things they will succeed at rather than struggle with.
“It’s pretty complex but at the same time the solution might be right under your nose. We need to take that approach. We want to see me more consistency on the practice field. Tuesday and Wednesday will show up on Saturday.”
Cutcliffe also has explained the 2.8 seconds that Jones must process information. He described it as an art of football.
“In all fairness to him – to all quarterbacks – when you’re standing n that pocket it’s all moving so fast,” Cutcliffe said. “You’re thinking you’ve got to take care of the ball but also I’ve got to make a play. It’s all going through your head (to make a decision) in 2.8 seconds or you’re sacked. That’s how hard it is to play quarterback.
“I have to do a better job of programming 2.8 seconds for him to make it easier for him. That’s the bottom line.”
Cutcliffe said he had Peyton Manning recently discussed the magic 2.8 seconds.
“It’s a unique part of football; it’s a conversation Peyton Manning and I still have, and he’s retired. It’s that important. It’s an awesome part of football. It’s a challenge.”
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055