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Duke football's NFL hopefuls tackle 2022 Pro Day

Former Duke football star running back Mataeo Durant participated in Monday's Pro Day.
Former Duke football star running back Mataeo Durant participated in Monday's Pro Day.

Amid the inevitable chaos and attention that a first-ever Duke-North Carolina Final Four matchup brings, it’s easy to overlook the many other Blue Devil athletes pushing for the biggest stage their respective sports have to offer.

One of those sports is football.

Though on the dim side Duke’s fall season saw the first winless campaign in ACC play under former head coach David Cutcliffe, on the bright side it allowed a slew of Blue Devils to stamp their name on the college football landscape and catch the eye of professional scouts. Monday afternoon, those scouts got to see what these players were made of at the school’s annual Pro Day, in which players simulated the same drills and exercises performed at the NFL Combine.

Within a three-day span, Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest all held their pro days, allowing a convenient half-week trip for NFL representatives to assess potential picks before April’s NFL Draft in Las Vegas.

Nine former Duke players took part in the proceedings Monday, including star running back Mataeo Durant, cornerbacks Dominique Long, Josh Blackwell and Leonard Johnson, lacrosse midfielder turned running back Nakeie Montgomery, offensive guard Kade Parmelly, center Jack Wohlabaugh and long snapper John Taylor.

“I think the biggest piece of advice you can give these guys is [to] relax, soak in the moment,” said head coach Mike Elko. “You've worked your whole life for this opportunity and just go out there and perform at the level you can perform and just kind of let it take care of itself. There's nothing else you can do except [to] maximize your performance.”

No doubt the highest-profile player among the group was Durant, whose 2,562 rushing yards across his career earned him All-ACC First Team recognition in 2021 and the fourth-highest career rushing total in Duke history.

Given the competitiveness of the NFL's drafting and free agency processes, Durant did everything he possibly could in the drills to maximize his chances of occupying a professional roster next season. He sprinted an impressive 4.38-second 40-yard dash, a 4.43-second short shuttle and a 7.25 second L drill, all while scouts from 31 teams with clipboards and his family on the sidelines looked upon him anxiously.

And he performed.

“Mataeo [Durant] looked smooth, sudden and caught the ball very well,” said one such AFC scout. “He ran fast and looked the part. He did exactly what he needed to do.”

The occasion wasn’t lost on the senior, either. Hailing from Plum Branch, S.C., a town of just 82 people, the dream of the NFL likely once seemed just that: a dream. Now, with less than a month until the draft and an impressive Pro Day showing in the books, that dream may be a little closer to reality.

Making it in the NFL—as a running back, no less—is an immensely difficult task, of course, but the catching ability and flexibility of position Durant showed Monday will be eye-catching for prospective organizations.

“You just want to be able to make an immediate impact,” said Durant. “You get yourself in a situation where you’re a versatile player, not just a one-position player, that lengthens your ability to be in the league.”

Another player whose performance will be of interest to scouts was Blackwell. The cornerback dazzled with his running and put up a better mark than even Durant in the 40-yard dash, posting an incredible time of 4.33 seconds.

“We’ve been doing this for months,” said Blackwell. “Our whole lives, really. Preparing for this since we got to school.”

It can’t be understated just how significant the Pro Day process is in the professional dreams of these, and all, collegiate athletes hoping to play in the NFL. It gives tangibility to statistics for scouts and an example for the younger members of the team to follow. Even if these Blue Devils are no longer part of the practice squad or regulars in the weight room, they set the standards for their teammates who aspire to the same goal.

“I think it's the model of what our kids want to be and what we want our program to be about,” said Elko. “I think any time you have pro day and you have all the NFL scouts there just becomes this little buzz. Hopefully, it provides motivation [to] continue to work hard and continue to do the things they need to do to give themselves a chance to be able to be out here one day.”

We have a month to wait to see the results of Monday’s Pro Day on the big stage in Las Vegas, but either way—drafted or not—it was surely an experience these players will remember and carry with them into the league, into their careers and beyond.


Andrew Long | Blue Zone editor

Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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