There is unprecedented anticipation for Duke football to return, but there was one final event from last season before the Blue Devils could officially turn the page to 2023-24.
The school’s annual Pro Day was held Monday, in which Duke standouts competed for a chance to impress NFL scouts from all 32 teams. The primary prospect was two-time All-ACC selection and team captain Shaka Heyward. In addition, running back RaShawn Allen, long snapper Evan Deckers, wide receiver Eric Gallman II, offensive linemen Andre Harris Jr. and Chance Lytle and defensive backs Darius Joiner, Dominique Long and Datrone Young participated in the event.
Heyward, a linebacker who ran an impressive 4.53 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, chose only to participate in the positional drills portion. Nevertheless, he still showcased his immense skill set, with his speed and agility on full display.
“I felt really smooth, I was really fluid in the drills … I showed myself with some good tape,” said Heyward. “If scouts had any kind of second guesses about me, I just proved to them right out here that I'm a fluid linebacker.”
Joiner, who received third-team All ACC honors a season ago, was an anchor to Duke’s defense and is an appealing player due to his quickness and finishing ability.
“Going in, I tried to get at least a 35, I tried to get at least a 10 and I wanted to run at around 4.55, 4.58,” said Joiner.
Although his 40-yard time was 4.69, Joyner impressed in the broad jump and vertical jump, recording 10.1 feet and 36 inches, respectively.
Two offensive linemen, Lytle and Harris Jr., both performed admirably during Pro Day. They were essential in the Blue Devil rushing attack last season and part of a line that gave up an ACC-low in both sacks allowed and tackles for loss.
Both transferred to Duke last season, demonstrating head coach Mike Elko’s effective use of the portal. There is a strong bond between the two players, and this moment was special as they were able to push each other, literally and figuratively, during positional drills.
“[Harris Jr.] and I on our official visit, we were talking about being in the league together and playing against each other in a Super Bowl,” said Lytle. “These big dreams and these moments are finally here, so it was really wonderful to be able to share that with him.”
Unfortunately for Lytle, he pulled his hamstring at the end of the 40-yard dash, but he was pleased with his other numbers on the day.
“I had fought through the drills, even with a [hamstring injury], and I did a great job, honestly,” said Lytle.
This opportunity is immense for these players who have worked all of their lives to get to this moment, and it is important to underscore the hard work that it has taken for every one of the prospects.
“It's just a relief getting out here and just getting it over with … I’ve been working at it for a whole three months now,” said Joiner.
“I’ve been waiting for this day ever since I started in college. I went to every single Pro Day,” said Lytle. “It's kind of surreal to finally be a part of it … it's a dream come true.”
Following a successful 9-4 season capped off by a Military Bowl victory, new life was injected into Duke’s program. This year's Blue Devil prospects were uniquely eager to establish respect for the team which they felt has been underappreciated.
“I feel like a lot of people don't respect Duke like they should,” said Joiner. “[Heyward] and I and everybody else here, we're just trying to go into the NFL showing that Duke has talent and we can play with anybody.”
There were many younger players who came to support their teammates during the drills, and it was clear that this support reflects the widespread positive culture around the program.
“It means a lot,” said Heyward when asked about the attendance of fellow teammates. “[The younger guys] look up to me as they have all year and it was good for me and all the other NFL prospects out here to put on a show, and show them that it's gonna be them next year and the years to come.”
After a roller-coaster career marred by instability at Colorado, Lytle admitted that he had decreased his love for football due to the sheer exhaustion of not having the opportunity go how he envisioned. However, the San Antonio native was grateful for the chance to reset his career and sent an important text to his position group the night before the combine.
“Thank you for making this moment possible for me, for making me fall in love with football the way I have once again, and I'm honored to be able to go out there with all of your support and be able to represent y'all,” Lytle said.
The NFL draft begins Apr. 27 in Kansas City, Mo.
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Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity first-year and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.