Prior to Duke’s game against Miami last November, it became obvious that the perception of Blue Devil football among its ACC peers had changed dramatically.
“Those days of Duke being a pushover... are long gone,” said Hurricanes linebacker Sean Spence at the time.
Not only have current ACC players seen the Blue Devils’ improvement under head coach David Cutcliffe, but recruits have taken notice of the progress made on the gridiron too. And now many prospects view the Duke program in a new light, allowing it to be on the same playing field as its conference foes in recruiting.
“[Growing up,] I always thought Duke was one of the worst teams in the ACC,” said Jake Kite, an uncommitted safety from Virginia in the class of 2013, who is being recruited by the Blue Devils, N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Maryland. “But now it’s amazing how they are on the upswing."
Those familiar with Cutcliffe are not surprised by what he has accomplished so far in Durham—least of all Peyton Manning, who spent several months living with the Cutcliffe family throughout the winter, using the Blue Devils’ facilities to recover from four neck surgeries in the fall. As Manning weighed his free-agent options this spring, Cutcliffe, his former offensive coordinator at Tennessee, and Duke football were at the center of national attention for the first time in recent memory. The only four-time MVP in NFL history decided to work out for the Denver Broncos, who he ended up signing with, at Duke’s Pascal Field House.
Not only did months of throwing to former Blue Devil receivers under the eye of Cutcliffe help the quarterback get back to full strength, but it gave Duke national exposure that could pay dividends on the recruiting trail.
“[Cutcliffe’s] history of working with the Mannings is really, really big,” ESPN ACC recruiting analyst Dave Hooker said. “I think [those ties carry] a certain panache with some people that gets you into doors that otherwise might be difficult to get into at Duke.”
Perhaps even more valuable than his ability to mold elite quarterbacks is the close relationship Cutcliffe forms with his players as he develops them. Manning’s decision to work out in Durham under the direction of Cutcliffe speaks volumes about the bond between the two, as well as the level of respect Manning has for the man he told Sports Illustrated is “the best coach of quarterbacks in America right now, college and pro.”
“In terms of a quarterback, I think it’s only a matter of time before [Duke] lands a great one,” said Hooker, who co-hosted a radio show with Cutcliffe while the latter was out of coaching.
Cutcliffe’s close relationship with Manning is an example of the bonds he forges with all his players, a dynamic that has benefitted Duke already in recruiting. The Blue Devils possess three verbal commitments from the class of 2013—Evrett Edwards, Quay Chambers and Austin Davis.
Edwards—a 5-foot-11, lockdown cornerback from Woodbridge, Va.— committed last week. He chose Duke over Wake Forest, Boston College, Illinois and West Virginia largely because of his close connection with the coaching staff and the unity within the program.
“When I visited [Duke] and spoke with the coaches and players, I could sense they have a very strong sense of family,” Edwards said. “And that’s hard to find."
Along with Edwards, a handful of highly regarded recruits visited for the Duke-North Carolina basketball game Mar. 3. Notably, Peter Kalambayi—arguably the top outside linebacker in the class of 2013—was on campus. The Matthews, N.C. native holds offers from several major college football programs, but he is still very much considering Duke. Carrying a 4.3 GPA at Butler High School, Kalambayi strongly values academics.
“If they can land a guy like [Kalambayi] it would really mean a lot for the program,” Hooker said. “But I just don’t know if they’ll pull that quite yet.”
The fact that Duke is even in the mix for players like Kalambayi and competing on and off the field with the best in the ACC is remarkable considering where the program was five years ago. And even though the new height of Duke football looks very promising, its ceiling may be even higher.