ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Laken Tomlinson had almost every major program in the Midwest recruiting him out of Lane Tech in 2009. Michigan State had offered, along with Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Stanford expressed interest, as did Tennessee. This was the challenge for coach David Cutcliffe as he started to recruit the future Detroit Lions' first-round pick to Duke. All those schools had something to offer, football-wise. They had been to Rose Bowls and consistently ranked in the Top 25. They were, at worst, good enough academic schools, and at best on par with some of the best universities in the country.
Cutcliffe could pitch an elite academic institution -- Duke -- and a dream. Cutcliffe took over a Duke team in 2008 that had not been to a bowl game since 1995. It had not won a conference title since 1989. But Cutcliffe had experience and a pedigree. He had a relationship with the Manning family, having coached future NFL quarterbacks Peyton at Tennessee and Eli at Ole Miss.
And the Blue Devils were coming off a 4-8 season in 2008 and a 5-7 season in 2009. Tomlinson was a three-star recruit in the Class of 2010, but for Duke, he was perfect. He turned out to be one of the most influential signings Cutcliffe made.
"When we beat basically the Big Ten five years ago, we didn’t have anything to sell but who we were going to be," Cutcliffe said. "Laken coming and Laken’s spirit, Laken’s leadership, he helped us recruit a lot of good football players.
"I mean, a lot of good football players. So he’s had an impact on the field and an impact off the field. You can’t even measure, actually measure, the real impact of what he’s done."
Tomlinson was a different type of recruit. Academics were a priority. He also believed in Cutcliffe’s vision -- it was all the coach could sell at that point -- and in the process of how he could get there. He thought Cutcliffe’s philosophies could also fit with his game and personality.
So he committed and became part of a group -- along with Detroit undrafted free agent quarterback Anthony Boone -- that helped revitalize the Blue Devils. With Tomlinson on the field, the Blue Devils made three straight bowl games beginning with the 2012 season -- something Duke had never done. They won the Coastal division in 2013.
And last week, for the first time since the 1992 supplemental draft and 1987 in the regular draft, the Blue Devils had a first-round pick.
"Everything that is happening for me right now is greatly impacting Duke," Tomlinson said. "Not only Duke University, but the Duke football program and all of Duke athletics. Everything that is happening to me and where the program has been the past few years and now having a player drafted in the first round this year.
"It means a lot for the program. It says a lot about what is happening at Duke University."