On April 25, 2004, the New York Giants used the 203rd overall pick in the NFL Draft on offensive tackle Drew Strojny, who was just months removed from a 2-9 season under head coach Ted Roof at Duke. Seven drafts went by without another Duke player being selected, but with the 2012 draft on the horizon, it looked as though there was one player poised to break the streak—safety Matt Daniels.
As pick after pick went by, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe kept Daniels posted on the phone calls he was receiving from NFL coaches, and it began to look like a postseason knee surgery might not deter interested front offices.
“Teams starting calling me around the fifth round, telling me that hopefully they plan on picking me up with their next pick or something like that,” Daniels said. “But a lot of people just see that as a recruiting tactic so that if they don’t end up picking you, you’ll consider them in free agency.”
In the end, Daniels took the free agency route to the NFL. After the draft, any college senior who is not picked becomes a free agent, eligible to sign with any team. And as soon as the draft concluded, every phone in the Daniels home began ringing off the hook.
“I was talking to one team, told them to hold on, talked to another, tell them to hold on, talk to another,” Daniels said. “It was just out of hand and ridiculous. You just have to make a decision so fast.”
Ten minutes after the draft, a deal was done. Daniels officially became a St. Louis Ram.
Not all of Duke’s NFL hopefuls were able to latch on with a franchise so quickly. Kyle Hill, a four-year starter at left tackle, had to prove his health in tryouts for several teams before getting an invitation to a training camp.
New England Patriots training camp had already been underway for more than two weeks when Hill received a phone call from the team saying he had a flight to Boston that night for a tryout the following day. On August 9, nearly two months after Daniels signed in St. Louis, the Patriots announced Hill’s signing. Training camp is a grind for veterans and rookies alike, but it is a whirlwind experience for new players.
“It’s not that bad,” Daniels said. “But then again it is that bad. We’re talking waking up at six and going back home about 10 o’clock.”
The long days were appreciated by a latecomer to camp like Hill, who donned pads for the first time since a November 14, 2011 matchup with Virginia in which he suffered an avulsion fracture of his right shoulder.
“We had a good schedule that allowed us to watch plenty of film and study the playbook and have independent sessions with the coach so he could help me with whatever he could help me with as quickly as possible,” Hill said.
Hill’s efforts during training camp ultimately did not translate into a permanent job with the Patriots, who released the 306-pound tackle on August 21, after their second preseason game. But Hill is undeterred by the first setback of his professional career. He said his experience at training camp only increased his confidence and that he has returned to Durham to continue training.
“Once I get back to where I know I should be for another training camp or tryout, I’m going to take advantage of that,” Hill said.
Two of Hill’s former teammates were also let go during the NFL’s final round of cuts August 31. Wideout Eron Riley, a class of 2009 graduate who had bounced around between several organizations the past few seasons, was cut by the New York Jets, and Cooper Helfet, a tight end from last year’s Duke roster, was shown the door by the Seahawks despite catching two touchdowns in three preseason games.
But five ex-Duke players remained on NFL squads as the deadline passed for teams to reduce their rosters from 75 players to 53. Patrick Mannelly, a 14-year veteran who serves as a long snapper for the Chicago Bears, and Patrick Bailey, a linebacker and special teams ace who signed a contract extension with the Tennessee Titans in March after five years with the team, will be the longest-tenured Blue Devils in the NFL. Class of 2011 linebacker Vincent Rey retained a spot on the Cincinnati Bengals roster after appearing in all 16 games on special teams last season. The Cleveland Browns released NFL veteran Seneca Wallace in order to retain Rey’s classmate Thaddeus Lewis as a developmental quarterback, and Daniels rounded out the quintet.
Although Cutcliffe will have to wait another year before he has a chance to break the streak of 12 NFL drafts without a Duke name called, the Blue Devils will maintain a presence in the pros until the class of 2013 hopefuls get to training camp.