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Duke football taking on-field success to the recruiting trail

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ARMANDO BROWN - THE REGISTER
Mater Dei wide receiver Ben Humphreys catches a pass during a drive late in the second quarter as the Monarchs try to extend their 21-0 lead over Santa Monica during Friday's game, which was played at Santa Monica College on September 20, 2013.

Tyler Petite is a four-star, 6-foot-6, 223-pound tight end who will play in the Under Armour All-American game this winter. He is from Moraga, Calif., across the bay from San Francisco. He’s also a high-achieving student. So one would think …

“I’m going to be honest with you,” Petite said, “Stanford was a dream for me, and when I picked up that offer, I almost thought it was a done deal. I would take a few more visits just to see other places, but I thought I’d be going to Stanford.”

But …

“And then my dad convinced me, he said, ‘Hey, why don’t we go out to Duke? It’s a great program, I’ve heard great things about coach Cut.’

“We went out there and instantly fell in love with it. Coach (Jeff) Faris and all the people there are just so great. Obviously there are great coaches everywhere, but I don’t think you could find a guy like coach Cutcliffe, especially what he’s been doing there.”

Yes, Petite surprised many who follow recruiting closely when he committed to Duke over Stanford and Southern California. But he’s not the only four-star recruit who picked the Blue Devils recently. Duke’s 2015 football recruiting class, with 19 commitments, is ranked No. 23 in the nation by ESPN. The 247Sports composite rankings, which take into account all the major sites’ rankings, has the Blue Devils’ class at No. 20.

Duke has never finished above No. 51 in either list.

“It’s been my experience in this crazy world of recruiting with kids and social media and readily accessible information, it’s all about perception,” Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s national recruiting director, said. “How do you change the perception of your program in the eyes of the prospective student-athlete? The one answer to that is winning.”

For the past two years, Duke has played its bowl game on ESPN in a time slot that featured no other football games. And the Blue Devils also got to hold bowl practices in December, making unofficial visits during that time much more attractive to recruits. While the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati and the New Year’s Eve Peach Bowl against Texas A&M didn’t result in Duke wins, both were highly entertaining offensive affairs.

“Duke is a good brand because of its basketball program. People know where Duke University is, they know it’s a high academic school,” said JC Shurburtt, the national recruiting director for 247Sports. “That national exposure put the football program on another level, from a visibility standpoint. With that visibility, you can attract kids from California to come visit your campus, talk to your coaches, and you can get in the game.”

The Blue Devils recruit in California and nationwide out of necessity. Not every prospect will qualify for Duke academically, so that necessitates a wider search area. That’s the approach fellow private schools such as Stanford and Boston College have taken as well.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe has said on multiple occasions that he considers Duke’s academic standards a benefit in recruiting, not a hindrance.

And Petite agrees.

“It’s easy to recruit Duke,” he said. “You want a great education, we’ve got that, we’ve got top 10 in the country. You want ACC football, a big-five conference, we’ve got that. It will be easy to recruit guys as Duke gets better and better, and I just want to be a part of that and a new, up-and-coming program.”

Or, as Shurburtt put it: “If Stanford can come over to the East Coast and get players, then why can’t Duke go to the West Coast?”

Faris, Duke’s receivers coach who recently was promoted from a graduate assistant role, is responsible for making contact with kids in California. There are three other Duke commits from California: linebacker Ben Humphreys, who is set to play in the Army All-American game, 6-foot-8, 344-pound offensive tackle Reno Rosene and 6-foot-4, 3-star wide receiver Aaron Young.

Griffin, Ga., receiver Keyston Fuller is the Blue Devils’ other four-star commit. He is one of Duke’s five Georgia commitments, the most from any state. Trevon McSwain, a Georgia defensive end, is one of Luginbill’s favorites in the class, based on his ability to fill out his frame (6-foot-6, 220 pounds – Luginbill projects him at 260 entering his redshirt freshman year) and room for development.

“It’s a premium position,” Luginbill said of defensive end. “And there are four of those, really. There’s offensive line, defensive line, quarterback and defensive cornerback. If you look at Reno Rosene, the offensive tackle out of California at Oaks Christian, Trevon McSwain, Quentin Harris at quarterback, Zach Morris at defensive end, Marquies Price at defensive end, these are all players at an area within your football team that separates the good from the great.”

It’s early in the recruiting cycle – classes won’t be finalized until signing day in early February – and Shurburtt projects Duke’s class to finish somewhere in the 25-40 range, depending on who else commits (and assuming no major prospects decommit). And the Blue Devils have a track record of developing talent, regardless of stars or rankings.

Duke has never out-recruited Virginia Tech, Miami and North Carolina from a raw talent perspective. But they beat all three on the field last year, and the Tar Heels for the second season in a row. And that success has allowed them to start fishing for recruits in better water, so to speak.

“Credit them for finding the fish that could turn into a gourmet meal out of the pond they were fishing in,” Shurburtt said. “Now, obviously, that pond is a lot different and a lot bigger and has a lot better looking fish when you reel them in on the hook.”

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley
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