NCF On The Trail: Duke Blue Devils

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It’s been seven years since a team other than Florida State or Clemson won the ACC’s Atlantic Division, and after the Seminoles and Tigers each signed a top-five recruiting class this year, the balance of power doesn’t appear poised to shift any time soon.

That might be a problem for the ACC overall. With FSU and Clemson jockeying for command of a conference that has struggled to keep up appearances compared with the neighboring SEC, consolidating power at the top while the rest of the league picks up the scraps might not be the best way to convince the public -- or future playoff committees -- that there is more to the ACC than its top two teams.

But what if a great rivalry at the top also means a boon for the teams farther down the ladder? Consider it trickle-down economics for the college football set.

[+] EnlargeDabo Swinney, Jimbo Fisher
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsClemson coach Dabo Swinney, left, and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher lead elite programs that are forcing the rest of the ACC to keep pace.
The last time the ACC signed two top-five classes was in 2008, back when the playoff was a pipe dream, conference realignment was but a whisper, and Deshaun Watson was in the seventh grade. Miami and Clemson put together the nation’s two best signing classes, but neither program saw immediate dividends. An NCAA investigation unmoored any hope the Hurricanes could return to national prominence, and Clemson parted ways with its head coach just eight months after he signed the country’s No. 2 class.

At the same time, the balance of power was shifting in the SEC. Alabama had hired Nick Saban the year before, and by the end of 2008, the Crimson Tide were back in the national spotlight. Auburn, meanwhile, finished 5-7, and the gauntlet was thrown.

Over the next few years, the longtime rivals traded blows -- on the recruiting trail, on the fund-raising circuit, and on the field. The SEC was already the nation’s preeminent conference, but investment in maintaining that success grew exponentially. Alabama and Auburn paced the growth, but if Georgia and Tennessee and LSU and Florida wanted to keep pace, they had to go all-in, too. Cut-throat coaching changes, major renovations in facilities, bloody recruiting battles, huge pay raises for assistant coaches -- these became the norm. It was an arms race, and the two teams at the top set the pace.

The same groundwork isn’t there for the ACC just yet, but what Florida State and Clemson are doing could set a similar precedent. Just look at what’s happened in the past few months.

NC State had its best signing day in years.

Virginia Tech signed a solid class in spite of hot-seat rumors for head coach Frank Beamer. That group joins an already outstanding group of rising freshmen in Blacksburg.

Duke signed its best class under David Cutcliffe, too, while renovations to the stadium are ongoing.

North Carolina is still fending off its own NCAA black cloud, but to fix its disastrous defense, it brought in the same coach who engineered Auburn’s national title in 2010.

Overall last week, the ACC had six teams finish in the top 30 in ESPN’s recruiting rankings (the most by any conference other than the SEC), had 12 in the top 50, and saw Louisville, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest all jump at least 13 spots from the previous year’s rankings.

Meanwhile, FSU and Clemson keep chugging along, raising the bar again and again. The Seminoles will send more players to the NFL combine this year than any other program in the nation. Clemson just announced a $75 million investment in upgrading its athletics facilities. These two programs push the goal line a little further down the field, and everyone else is forced to keep pace.

That is not to suggest the ACC is poised to change perceptions on the national level just yet. The league signed 47 members of the ESPN 300 this year, which would sound pretty nice if the SEC hadn’t nabbed 116. Those six ACC programs that finished among the top 30 signing classes still represent just half of the SEC’s tally. North Carolina and Miami still must escape NCAA purgatory and build consistent winners, Virginia Tech must capitalize on its young talent to salvage Beamer’s job, and the young coaches at NC State and Wake Forest need to prove they can develop the talent they’re bringing in.

But there is a standard being set at the top, with Florida State and Clemson upping the ante in recruiting, player development and financial investment in their programs, and that’s good for everyone. It’s not Auburn-Alabama yet, and it probably never will be, but it’s a spotlight on a conference that has long coveted a bigger stage, and it’s a pace-setter for the second tier of the league that now needs to run a bit faster just to keep up.
"Signing day delivers usual intrigue and drama"

The headline that capped the madcap fun that is the first Wednesday of every February did not apply to the ACC this year.

That had to be a relief to coaches across the league.

While No. 1-rated ESPN 300 prospect Byron Cowart dawdled between Auburn and Florida, the SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12 each withstood their share of nationally televised signing day announcements, flips and flops.

In ACC country, nobody had to wait on a hat choice. Clemson finished up its No. 4 class by mid-morning with nary a surprise. Of course, it helps that 15 of its freshmen had already enrolled, including five-star offensive lineman Mitch Hyatt.

Florida State did not have to wait on pins and needles for wavering recruits, either. The Noles had eight early enrollees themselves, including elite players Josh Sweat, George Campbell and Derwin James.

As FSU reporter Jared Shanker wrote:
"A program once known for its signing-day surges had no surprises as all 20 commitments faxed their letters of intent by mid-morning. Even the signing-day addition of ESPN 300 safety Marcus Lewis was mostly expected, capping the nation’s No. 2 class at 21 signees."

The same went for Virginia Tech, which had nearly its entire Top 25 class ready to sign for weeks. The Hokies had seven early enrollees, but several commits withstood late offers -- including tackle Mike Arnold -- to hold firm.

"We had one guy make a decision to join our class in the last two weeks,” Virginia Tech recruiting coordinator Bryan Stinespring said. “The rest of them have been committed. We held on to this class, and I think we're really proud of that."

It was an unusual feeling, considering every coach is prepared for the twists and turns that come with 18-year-olds making big decisions about their future.

“You have those signing day moments every year,” Stinespring said. “That's what you expect. You hope they're to a minimum. This is one we really felt good throughout with this class. I like for it to always be that way, but we know it's probably not going to go that way often.”

Louisville may have provided the most drama not only on Wednesday but in the days leading up to signing day: first offering troubled defensive end Devonte Fields, then coming under scrutiny for asking long-committed back Matt Colburn to grayshirt.

On signing day itself, Louisville held on to commitments from defensive end G.G. Robinson and quarterback Lamar Jackson after late pushes from SEC schools (Auburn for Robinson; Florida for Jackson). The Cards lost just one player, defensive end Sheldrick Redwine flipped to Miami.

Still, Louisville finished with the No. 30 class in the ESPN RecruitingNation rankings, as 12 ACC teams finished in the top 50.
  • No. 2 Florida State
  • No. 4 Clemson
  • No. 23 Miami
  • No. 24 North Carolina
  • No. 25 Virginia Tech
  • No. 30 Louisville
  • No. 33 NC State
  • No. 41 Georgia Tech
  • No. 42 Wake Forest
  • No. 45 Duke
  • No. 46 Virginia
  • No. 48 Pittsburgh

"It's a celebration," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said after announcing his class Wednesday. "And no drama. That’s the way it ought to be.”

Completed class: Duke Blue Devils

February, 4, 2015
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Duke has announced its 2015 class:

ESPN 300
Keyston Fuller WR -- Griffin High School, Georgia

Four-stars
Ben Humphreys OLB -- Mater Dei High School, California

Three-stars
Reno Rosene OT -- Oaks Christian High School, California
Trevon McSwain DE -- Lanier High School, Georgia
T.J. Rahming WR -- McEachern High School, Georgia
Quentin Harris QB-DT -- Taft School, Connecticut
Aaron Young WR -- Murrieta Valley High School, California
Jeremy McDuffie CB -- Shiloh High School, Georgia
Zach Morris DE -- Ringgold High School, Georgia
Marquies Price DE -- Peach County High School, Georgia
Brandon Boyce DT -- Saint Thomas Aquinas High School, Florida
Jordan Hayes S -- Grayson High School, Georgia
Zach Baker OG -- Clay High School, Florida
Twazanga Mugala DE -- Ardrey Kell High School, North Carolina
Austin Parker K -- Mount Pleasant High School, North Carolina
Joseph Giles-Harris OLB -- Saint Joseph Regional High School, New Jersey
Brandon Feamster S -- Cheshire Academy, Pennsylvania

Midyear additions: Duke

January, 22, 2015
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Three players have joined Duke's football program, according to the school's official website, GoDuke.com:

Daniel Helm, TE
HT: 6-4 WT: 240
Positional Rank: N/A
Stars: Transfer

Marquies Price, DE
HT: 6-5 WT: 225
Positional Rank: #65 DE
Stars: 3

Reno Rosene, OT
HT: 6-8 WT: 344
Positional Rank: #48 OT
Stars: 3
ESPN 300 prospect Holton Hill is one of only three elite cornerbacks remaining on the board in the 2015 class, and that means coaches are doing all they can to land his commitment.

Recruit and return: Duke Blue Devils 

December, 27, 2014
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Under David Cutcliffe, Duke has transformed itself into a contender in the ACC and a real threat on the recruiting trail. Gone are the days when Duke fans only go to football games as something to do before the start of basketball season.


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Top sleeper commits: ACC 

December, 15, 2014
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Five-star and ESPN 300 prospects create the most buzz, but with more than a hundred FBS programs competing for talent, it takes more than just those top-rated prospects and rosters are built with mainly prospects that enter college with little fanfare, but their development and contributions are key to a program’s success. Every year we see prospects who flew under the radar, but developed into some of their conference's top players.

Throughout our evaluations we come across many players who show promise and based of their upside for development or scheme fit are great additions.

Here are five unheralded commitments in the ACC worth keeping an eye on.

OG Wyatt Knopfke, Boston College
While Knopfke is an ESPN 300 player, he’s not as well-known as other interior linemen in the rankings. The big man out of Florida is a physical, strong player with the tools to be a good well-rounded player. And while listed at guard, he could be a candidate to develop at center as well. With an Eagles line that was loaded with seniors this season, head Coach Steve Addazio, an O-line coach himself, has a player who can develop into a key contributor in Knopfke.

DE LaSamuel Davis, Clemson
Four-star prospects like OT Zach Giella and athlete Van Smith are talented prospects and still rated highly, but they could be overlooked in a Tigers’ class that features double-digit ESPN 300 prospects. Another prospect in that group is Davis who notched over 100 tackles and 16 sacks this season. A rangy defender with wiry strength, he can use his hands well, flashes a good first-step and displays the tools to at least develop into a productive edge rusher. He needs to work to fill out his frame and be more consistent with his motor, but among this great collection of talent, Davis could emerge in time as a productive defensive contributor.


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David Cutcliffe of Duke said young coaches should turn to Kenny Rogers for advice on how to get ahead on the recruiting trail. Plus, Florida's Jim McElwain has been busy since he was hired.

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The good news Thursday was that both Florida and Nebraska filled their open coaching positions in a timely manner, but the bad news is we’re less than 60 days until signing day. Plus, what type of recruiter is Nebraska getting?


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Duke has upped its recruiting efforts in ACC territory and that has helped reel in talented recruits such as ESPN Junior 300 TE Mark Birmingham. Plus, Arizona State already has three pledges from Louisiana thanks largely to the recruiting efforts of offensive coordinator Mike Norvell.

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Early Commit: TE Mark Birmingham to Duke 

November, 16, 2014
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While Duke didn’t get the outcome they wanted on the field Saturday in a loss to Virginia Tech, David Cutcliffe and staff scored once again on the recruiting trail in the class of 2016 following the game picking up a pledge from ESPN Junior 300 tight end Mark Birmingham. Birmingham becomes the third ESPN Junior 300 commitment for Duke joining No. 32 Scott Bracey and No. 238 Elijah Deveaux.


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Early Offer: Recruits responding to Duke 

October, 23, 2014
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Duke now has the ability to sell a winning program and new facilities to recruits, and prospects like what they're seeing. Plus, the nation's top 2016 quarterback was slated to be at Florida State for the Notre Dame game, but he wasn't able to make it and now is looking for a return date.

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ESPN 300: Five who could flip 

October, 22, 2014
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The Class of 2015 has seen more than 35 prospects in the ESPN 300 flip or decommit during the cycle. As many as 30 more prospects in the ESPN 300 could flip between now and national signing day. With that possibility in mind, here are five to keep tabs on less than four months away from national signing day.


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Early Commit: RB Elijah Deveaux to Duke 

October, 11, 2014
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The Duke Blue Devils are riding high on the recruiting trail. Not only does Duke have a Top 40 recruiting class in 2015 currently committed, but has the early look of a 2016 class that will follow suit. When ESPN Jr300 No. 32 Scott Bracey committed July 25, it was a first sign that the Blue Devils have arrived on the national recruiting stage. With No. 238 Elijah Deveaux committing Oct. 10, it’s a second sign that David Cutcliffe and staff can go toe-to-toe with any program in the state of North Carolina early, which has not always been the case.


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Help is on the way: ACC 

October, 8, 2014
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Each year on the recruiting trail, schools are met with needs that need to be addressed to shore up depth issues both immediately and down the line. With four months until national signing day for the class of 2015, many teams have addressed and met needs.


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