Duke head coach David Cutcliffe did not have to hold out for any unexpected surprises on National Signing Day.
All of the Blue Devils' national letters of intent flowed into Durham by 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, completing the best class in program history.
Cutcliffe signed 21 players—including seven four-star recruits—to his Class of 2016, relying heavily on recruiting inroads made in North Carolina and Georgia in recent years. ESPN slates Duke’s group—which consists of six defensive backs, four offensive linemen, three linebackers, three defensive linemen, two running backs, one wide receiver, one tight end and one kicker—as the 28th-ranked class in the nation.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had as good a time realizing who they are, just what they’re made of,” Cutcliffe said. “You understand the ‘what’—heights and weights, all of those things that are out there are the ‘what’, but the ‘who’ is just that makeup.... Regardless of stars, I think they’re all pure gold.”
After winning 27 games in the last three years, Cutcliffe admitted that his program’s success on the recruiting trail might have surpassed even his own expectations. The Blue Devils had previously signed seven total four-star commits from 2011-15.
“You plan to win, and when you win, recruiting is lifting right over here at the same time,” Cutcliffe said. “All that goes hand-in-hand with winning, with upgrading facilities. I wouldn’t call us right on track—I think we’re ahead of where we thought we might get to, to be real honest with you.”
Four of Duke’s incoming freshmen are listed as ESPN 300 recruits, with two on either side of the ball. Defensive lineman Chidi Okonya originally committed to Tennessee, but the 6-foot-6 pass-rusher flipped to the Blue Devils, where he will join former Volunteer Daniel Helm, who redshirted the 2015 season. Dylan Singleton—the No. 10 safety recruit in the country—played everywhere on the field in high school, but will join his brother, Deondre, in the secondary in Durham.
Four-star wide receiver Scott Bracey—who became the first member of Duke’s class—will bring size and versatility to the Blue Devils on the outside. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Bracey spent his senior year of high school playing quarterback, throwing for 1,353 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushing for 1,112 yards and nine touchdowns on 114 carries to lead Benedictine High School to a second straight Virginia state title.
Bracey chose Duke in July 2014 over a murderer’s row of elite programs, including Ohio State, Clemson Florida State and Notre Dame—setting the tone for the rest of the class.
“Scott is such an impact person—he was a high-profile player in all sites and publications. I think that probably did help get the rhythm going for this class,” Cutcliffe said. “Often times that’s how it does get going. [If] you get an early commitment from a special player—not just us, anybody—there’s no question that can certainly parlay into a tremendous class.”
Tight end Mark Birmingham is listed as the No. 3 tight end prospect in the Class of 2016 and should team with Helm to offset the departures of veterans Braxton Deaver and David Reeves.
Offensive lineman Robert Kraeling joined Birmingham, Singleton and Okonya in the ESPN 300, highlighting a versatile group of athletes. Cutcliffe said that three of the four future Blue Devil offensive linemen play high school basketball—as do a number of other players in the class—with other members of the class adding wrestling, track and field and baseball to their schedules.
“So many sports now think that you can only play that sport to be successful, that you have to play year-round. I’m not a proponent of that. I think that number one it puts too much pressure on young people, physically and mentally,” Cutcliffe said. “I like kids that are well-rounded.... I will always look at that, I think those are your best athletes and best competitors.”
With Ross Martin moving on toward the NFL, the Blue Devils filled their need at kicker by signing A.J. Reed from Prattville, Ala. Reed participated in Duke’s camps, and Cutcliffe said he expects the 11th-ranked kicker in the country to step into a starting role right away. Redshirt freshman Austin Parker is likely to take over punting duties from Will Monday.
Cutcliffe simultaneously went through National Signing Day in the past, present and future Wednesday. He introduced his 21 newest Blue Devils, and because he did not have to wait for any sudden commitments or decommitments like other coaches around the country, he talked with more than 20 of Duke’s Class of 2017 targets.
But he also had a message on his phone this morning—a photo from Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who Cutcliffe coached at Tennessee.
“Peyton sent me a picture last night, a facial shot of himself on signing day in 1994. I got that this morning, and I got a little chuckle out of that,” Cutcliffe said. “February 2, 1994 wasn’t just yesterday anymore. That kind of gives you the perspective—and now he’s playing in a Super Bowl.”
With the strides Duke has made in recruiting in recent years, that could become the norm.
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