In the middle of the program’s spring practice schedule, Duke football players, coaches and alumni assembled at the team’s indoor practice facility to support a select group pursuing their professional football dreams.
Pascal Field House was abuzz Monday afternoon as scouts and coaches from 21 NFL teams were on hand for Duke’s annual Pro Day. Seven former Blue Devils—Jackson Anderson, Jordon Byas, Tony Foster, Desmond Scott, Donovan Varner, Conner Vernon and Johnny Williams—participated in drills to display their strength, speed and abilities at their respective positions.
Leading the charge for Duke was Vernon, a wide receiver and the ACC’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards. He is widely projected to be the Blue Devils’ first NFL Draft selection since 2004.
“Watching him today, I went over to Kurt Roper and I said, ‘That reminds me of why you want him on your team,’” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “The way he accelerates to the ball, whether it’s a post or a dig, and everything he got his hands on, he caught it. You just don’t do what he did in a career without being a great football player.”
Vernon only participated in the field work after working out at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis last month. The wide receiver’s route-running ability was on display throughout the afternoon as he made cuts to the football with ease. Vernon did not drop a pass on the day, though his lone mistake came when he slipped on the turf and lost his balance during an out route, throwing off his timing.
The Miami native made up for it on the next set of routes when he made the play of the day. Running a deep corner route, Vernon fully extended to reel in a pass that was well out in front of him and held onto the ball after he hit the turf, drawing a number of cheers from onlookers.
“The quarterback put it out there, I just had to go get it and made sure that I caught it,” Vernon said. “I’ve made a lot of catches throughout my career, but to catch one like that was great.”
Vernon was not the only one running routes at Duke’s Pro Day—wide receiver Desmond Scott put on a show with his strength and footwork. Scott stands at just 5-foot-9 but impressed in the weight room, bench pressing 21 reps at 225 pounds, which would have ranked third among wide receivers at the 2013 NFL Combine.
Scott’s agility was on display during his position drills, and his route-running ability was impressive for a player who moved to wide receiver from running back less than a year ago.
“The stuff we did today was just the stuff I used to do in my backyard growing up,” Scott said. “So today was no pressure, it was just going out in the backyard and having fun.”
On the other side of the football, cornerback Tony Foster showed he has made significant strides since the end of his senior season. In addition to his 40.5-inch vertical leap, Foster showed off his quickness and natural hands during his position drills.
Foster lined up at wide receiver during the afternoon’s drills as well, showing off his versatility and athleticism that could translate to the next level.
Another bright spot of Pro Day came from Blue Devil long snapper Jackson Anderson, who took center stage when he showed off his ability to place snaps for punts and field goals with pinpoint accuracy. Anderson hopes to emulate the career of Duke alum Patrick Mannelly, a long snapper who was a sixth-round selection in the 1998 NFL Draft and will enter his 16th season with the Chicago Bears this fall.
“Jackson has had an incredible career. Four years and not a single bad snap—that’s about as good a test of time as you can have,” Cutcliffe said. “I was over there talking with a few friends and I said, ‘I don’t know who needs one, but that kid is a first-year starter.’”
After working out for scouts for the final time before April’s NFL Draft, Vernon noted that the number of scouts on hand was indicative of the Blue Devils’ growth as a program during his four-year career. Duke quarterback Sean Renfree was not among those working out for scouts, though Cutcliffe noted he is pain free and on his way toward a recovery.
Cutcliffe added that the best may be yet to come for Duke football’s NFL hopes.
“I couldn’t help but to look around the exterior, and we had a lot of our returning squad on hand. I’m looking at how many guys I think are draft choices and combine guys, and that number was in double digits,” Cutcliffe said. “We haven’t been able to say that since we’ve been here.”