Duke went to four straight bowl games for the first time in school history on the backs a lot of Xs and Os. Now, here come the reinforcements of Jimmys and Joes.
Excuse the banality, but most football coaches attribute winning to the players on the field rather than the polo-shirted posse on the sideline. But teams that routinely win on signing day routinely win on the field. The best players usually play for the best teams.
On Wednesday the Blue Devils, coming off their first bowl victory since 1961, signed their greatest class in the modern era. Just to be clear, we’re talking incoming football classes and not any of the dozens that departed Duke to launch companies and secure America’s economic infrastructure. Duke is on a plane just below the country’s premier academic institutions. On signing day, they were a plane just below the ACC’s premier athletic institutions.
Duke’s football class was No. 28 nationally and fourth in the ACC. Only Clemson, Florida State and Miami finished with a better class than Duke, which signed seven blue-chips, recruiting’s preferred marker for five-star and four-star recruits.
“We know after being in the conference for eight years is we need to beat those teams, and in order to beat those teams, we need to get similar or better talent than what they have,” assistant coach Derek Jones said. “And if you can’t get the talent Florida State or Clemson have, then you've got to go out and sign as close to it as possible.
“And I think we’ve been able to close that gap. The encouraging thing is if we can beat people with our talent level in the past, then it’s exciting to know the talent level is getting better. We feel we’re closer to winning an ACC championship.”
Duke was already developing NFL-caliber players, but last week Duke signed as many nationally ranked football players (four) as the basketball team did in 2016. To the killjoy who notes that Duke hoops signed only four players in 2016, you can sit back down after stating the obvious that there are far fewer players on a basketball court. But here’s the spark to blow your mind: Duke signed two ESPN 300 recruits -- total -- in the previous 10 classes, since ESPN started ranking them in 2006. Twice in that span, the Blue Devils’ top signee was a kicker.
Of Duke’s four ESPN 300 signees, all had an offer from at least one program that finished with a class among the top seven nationally.
“Going into this recruiting year, we targeted some guys we thought fit our profile academically and character-wise, but also some of the better players in America at their positions,” said Jones, ranked among the top 2o recruiters. “Each year we’ve been able to attract a little bit different type of athlete. We felt like this is the year for us to go after some guys, regardless of where they had offers from or what state they’re in and we weren’t going to back off.”
In the four years before David Cutcliffe arrived in 2008, the Blue Devils won a total of four games. Two were against FCS teams, and 2006 ended without a win.
Recruits in the 2016 class turned 8 years old that year. They were playing with legos rather than watching Duke’s uh-ohs.
By the time these recruits finished their senior seasons, Duke had completed its third consecutive season with a winning record. Two years earlier, the Blue Devils played for a conference title after winning a division championship.
“All they know about Duke football is they’re contenders,” Jones said. “We always had the sell of academics and life after football, but we didn’t have the sex appeal of playing big-time college football.”
For recruits, they’re worth the look now.