DURHAM (AP) — There’s tangible evidence of the transformation of Duke’s football program: Only a few players on the roster know what it feels like to miss a bowl.
Gone is that 17-year gap between bowls. The four winless seasons during that stretch. The status as a perennial last-place pick in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
It’s all ancient history to a group of Blue Devils who have known almost nothing but winning seasons, ACC relevance and bowl games.
The few upperclassmen who were around during those dark days say there’s no chance the young guys will take winning for granted.
“The only thing that’s changed is the athletes we’re getting in,” said fifth-year lineman Lucas Patrick, who redshirted during the 3-9 finish in 2011.
“I feel like we’re getting better players, but we’ve not changed how we’re doing it,” he added. “I feel as if we have more discipline among the team.”
After never having gone to bowls in consecutive seasons, Duke has made the postseason in three straight years. Now the challenge is to not only get to another bowl game — but to win it, something the Blue Devils haven’t done since 1961.
Some significant personnel losses will make that tough. Receivers Jamison Crowder and Issac Blakeney, lineman Laken Tomlinson and quarterback Anthony Boone have moved on to the pros. Sixth-year linebacker Kelby Brown’s college career ended with an offseason knee injury.
Discovering and developing their replacements will be the test for the program’s staying power.
“I don’t think you can sustain anything — your approach is always, you get better every day, and if you can maintain that, I don’t know if you call that hungry or you call that habits,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “I’m a big believer in great habits. … If you quit getting better, I know what happens — I’ve been on that side of it, too.”
Some things to know about Duke’s pursuit of a fourth straight bowl:
WILL SIRK WORK? Former short-yardage specialist Thomas Sirk takes over for Boone, the winningest quarterback in program history. Sirk was primarily a runner last year, rushing for 5 yards per carry with eight touchdowns, but Cutcliffe says he’s also a capable passer.
RUNNING QUESTIONS: The Blue Devils are dealing with injuries to their once-deep pool of running backs. Jela Duncan, the team’s No. 2 rusher 2013, returned after a yearlong academic suspension — but now is out indefinitely after tearing a pectoral muscle on the team’s first day in pads. Sophomore Shaun Wilson — who set the program’s single-game record with 245 yards against Kansas, then gained just 264 the rest of the year — is dealing with a lower body injury. Duke moved third-string QB Nico Pierre to running back to help with depth.
REBUILDING THE LINE: No offensive line in 2014 allowed fewer tackles for a loss than Duke did, and it will be up to Patrick and center Matt Skura to pick up and lead where Tomlinson — an All-American guard taken 28th overall by Detroit — left off.
CASHING IN: The focal point of Duke’s defense probably figures to be Jeremy Cash, a safety who opted to return for his redshirt senior season instead of jumping to the NFL. Cash has appeared on a handful of preseason All-America lists and is the nation’s only active defensive back with more than 200 tackles and more than 20 tackles for losses.
NEW HOME: Wallace Wade Stadium will have a new look both this year and in 2016. The track that once ringed the field has been removed, the playing surface lowered and several new rows of seats were added to bring fans closer to the action. A new press box and tower for luxury suites is under construction and will be ready for next season.