The future of Duke football is riding on the signatures and verbal commitments from some of the nation's most talented players, some of whom have not even graduated high school.
And the future is bright.
The Blue Devils declared their re-entrance into the football world in 2013 after a 10-2 season and an appearance in the nationally-televised Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Despite the team's success, a blowout loss to eventual national champion Florida State showed that Duke football lagged behind the nation's best in terms of talent.
But what might have been more important was head coach David Cutcliffe's demonstration in February that the Blue Devil's winning ways would translate into success on the recruiting trail. Cutcliffe and his staff reeled in a quartet of four-star recruits that included ESPN300 wide receiver Trevon Lee.
According to ESPN, the last time Duke signed a four-star recruit was punter Will Monday in 2011 and the Blue Devils had never signed an ESPN300 recruit in program history since that ranking system was created. Ohio State transfer Jeremy Cash was also a four-star recruit in 2011, but was not originally recruited by Cutcliffe and his staff.
As the program's success has run its course, recruits have been taking notice and Cutcliffe no longer has to explain to recruits that Duke does indeed has a football team. What he does most likely explain, is that his football team knows how to win.
"[Potential recruits] see the quality," Cutcliffe said. "Two bowl games in a row where both of them were the only college football games being played on national television. That’s been a great gift to us. Across the country, we’ve got two generations, two classes, that have seen us in that regard. And that kind of stirs interest."
The interest has began to flow outward from the state of North Carolina, which has traditionally been the Blue Devils' strongest territory for recruiting.
The coaching staff has also found South Florida to be a hotbed for talented players across all positions. The same region that had previously produced record-setting receiving duo Connor Vernon and Donovan Varner has now transformed into a steady flow of solid football players to Durham.
Four players, wide receivers Trevon Lee, Chris Taylor, quarterback Nicodem Pierre and defensive lineman Edgar Cerenord will represent the sunshine state in Duke’s incoming recruiting class. Even with a number attractive in-state options, the Blue Devils clearly separated themselves from the competition.
As Duke has become an option for the some nation’s top football players, its competition has changed from traditional recruiting foes Wake Forest, Virginia, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt and Virginia to perennial powers like Clemson, Notre Dame and even Alabama.
Pierre committed to the Blue Devils even though Clemson was highly interested in him, and quarterback Johnathon Lloyd, who enrolled in January, was offered by Notre Dame in addition to Clemson. Cutcliffe isn’t intimidated by who else is chasing a recruit or how many stars appear next to his name.
He knows he can identify people, top-ranked or not ranked, that can excel on and off the field.
“We’re not in a business where we can go seek people that aren’t talented,” Cutcliffe said. “But then after that, they’ve got to be fits. They’ve got to be our kind of people, not just in the classroom but also off-the-field.”
During the past month, Cutcliffe has not only sought talented recruits, but has successfully lured them into his program. In the month of June alone, he has received verbal commitments from seven three-star prospects, according to 247sports.com. He already has a total of 12 verbal commitments, only six fewer than he signed to the Class of 2014 this past February.
There are indicators that the class could get much better. Four-star recruit Rashad Roundtree delayed announcing his top five schools earlier this month, but assured a Georgia television station that Duke would be on it.
When Roundtree did announce the top five schools he was considering, the Blue Devils appeared next to Georgia, Auburn, Alabama and Ohio State. Although it is likely that Roundtree will stay in his home state and become a Bulldog, it is notable that he considers Duke a viable option at the next level.
“[The recent success] opens up more doors, more people,” Cutcliffe said. “I think people understand who we are, what we’re doing. I’ve never paid attention to the number of stars by a guy. If they have five stars, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to recruit them. What it means is we make our own evaluation and look at talent, it all starts there.”
Despite the rise in interest from the nation's top recruits, players who flew under the radar in high school have made the biggest impact on the program during the past five years.
All-ACC and now Buffalo Bill defensive back Ross Cockrell was only recruited by one other FBS team, Virginia. Jamison Crowder, now considered one top 10 receivers in the nation, was the 1,203rd best prospect in 2011 according to 247sports.
All-American defensive back DeVon Edwards only had one FBS offer—it was from the Blue Devils.
The incoming class of 2014 will combine some of the nation’s most talented players in Lee, Pierre and Lloyd with fifteen other recruits that will put Duke in a position to sustain its recent success. The class could even have the best chance to lead the Blue Devils to an ACC Championship victory and a bid to the new college football playoff.
And although the exact impact of the incoming class may not be known, Cutcliffe has a good feeling about the team’s newest members.
“The transition to freshman, you don’t know until you deeply get involved in [the program],” Cutcliffe said. “Sometimes even the first year is not an indicator. Some will play, some will redshirt. That is not an indicator of who is going to succeed. We feel good about the class and I think they’re outstanding young people.”
Expect to see Duke continue to sell its program, a blend of top-notch academics and a winning mentality, to a higher quantity and better quality of recruits in the upcoming years. Even if Cutcliffe's team does not match last season's win total, the foundation for a powerhouse football program has been set.
Staunch recruiting helped build this foundation, but now we are seeing the state of the program give recruiting a boost.
"All while [the incoming class] is coming, we are having these camps and we are actively recruiting," Cutcliffe said. "That’s one of the beauties of what we do. A lifeblood of the program is just constantly talking. Whether are dealing with guys that may enter in here in 2015. We are already dealing with guys that may enter in here in 2016. "We’re just getting the 2014’s in here. So it’s an interesting process."