DURHAM, N.C. — Usually by now, Duke has put away the helmets and pads and moved on to basketball. The Blue Devils are still using that football gear this year.
Duke is getting ready for the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati next week in Charlotte.
The Blue Devils' first postseason appearance since 1994 gives the underclassmen a chance to pick up some valuable extra practice time for next year and beyond while the seniors are embracing their final chance to go out a winner.
"Just to get that taste of victory in the postseason, I think that's huge," center Dave Harding said Tuesday. "I think just getting to a bowl game is big. So far everybody has really realized the huge advantage that it can have on developing next year's team and making everybody better."
Coach David Cutcliffe doesn't expect his players to simply be happy to be in a bowl game because Duke (6-6) has lost four straight since qualifying for the postseason.
Beating the Bearcats would lock up the Blue Devils' first winning season since that last bowl season — and give them their first bowl win since beating Arkansas in the 1961 Cotton Bowl. This is just their third bowl appearance since then.
"I can't imagine that anybody around here's real satisfied right now," Cutcliffe said. "This is an opportunity to end our season on a positive note, and it's an opportunity to kick off 2013."
Those extra practices — something Duke hasn't had in nearly two decades — can't help but pay off in future seasons because the Blue Devils finally escaped their vicious cycle of losing: Because they never won enough until now to reach a bowl game, they couldn't get that extra practice time, and without that practice time, winning became more difficult.
Cutcliffe often cites Virginia Tech as the standard because a typical four-year player for the Hokies, who have reached the postseason every year since 1992, winds up with roughly 45 additional practices over three years than a Duke player who never got to a bowl.
"Last year, we'd be on break right now, just pretty much relaxing," receiver Jamison Crowder said. "Football pretty much would be the last thing on your mind. Getting these extra practices in kind of keeps us football-minded throughout the year."
The Blue Devils are using that bonus time to make some tweaks to their injury-riddled depth chart.
Cutcliffe said several players have switched positions: starting defensive tackle Nick Sink is moving to tight end, linebacker Britton Grier is headed to defensive end, and receiver Nick Hill and running back Shaquille Powell will get looks at safety.
"It's something that gives us some options to look at," Cutcliffe said.