Duke plays for the ACC football championship Saturday night in Bank of America Stadium, the second time in two years the Blue Devils have played a postseason game in Charlotte.
But Duke’s football presence in Charlotte has already been established in another, equally as important, way. The Blue Devils have become perhaps the most dominant college football recruiting force in the Charlotte area.
The 20th-ranked Blue Devils have 15 players from the region on scholarship. Several play key roles in Duke’s recent success, most notably cornerback Ross Cockrell (Charlotte Latin), linebacker Kelby Brown (Charlotte Christian), receiver Jamison Crowder (Monroe) – each a first-team all-ACC selection this season – and quarterback Anthony Boone (Weddington). Running back Jela Duncan (Mallard Creek) is the team’s rushing leader. Tight end Braxton Deaver (Providence) and receiver Brandon Braxton (Providence) are 2-3 behind Crowder in the team’s receiving stats. Defensive end Justin Foxx (Victory Christian) has four sacks.
“A lot of us played with and against each other in high school,” Cockrell said. “One thing we had in common was we wanted to do something a normal high school player from North Carolina couldn’t do: Go to Duke and help establish the program. That’s why we came.”
Duke’s appearance in the 2012 Belk Bowl and Saturday’s ACC title game are evidence that coach David Cutcliffe’s rebuilding of the Blue Devils’ program is, if not complete, well underway.
Much of that’s happened with a recruiting philosophy that stresses in-state players (11 from North Carolina start for Duke, more than any other Football Bowl Subdivision team in the state). And Charlotte has become a rich recruiting vein for the Blue Devils.
Cutcliffe has been at Duke since 2008, but he’s recruited the Charlotte area since his days as a Tennessee assistant from 1982-1998. In 1993, he helped the Volunteers land Concord’s Jay Graham, who went on to become one of Tennessee’s all-time great running backs. Graham will be across the field Saturday from Cutcliffe as Florida State’s running backs coach.
“I just have a lot of relationships and good friends here,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve made an emphasis on in-state (recruiting) and the (Charlotte) area itself, because we believe geography is important. We’ve tried to recruit (Charlotte) as hard we possibly could, and it certainly has paid off big for us.”
The Blue Devils assign two assistant coaches – Scottie Montgomery and Derek Jones – to the Charlotte area as recruiters.
“We came into this area and have established our brand, which we also think goes a lot to what the city of Charlotte is about,” said Montgomery, a Lawndale Burns High grad who is the team’s associate head coach and offensive coordinator. “What I tell the kids is, we’re progressive, like Charlotte. We’re choosing science over tradition. We’re clean, new and fresh: like the city of Charlotte.”
Duke usually doesn’t go up against high-octane college football programs like Alabama or Clemson for players. Instead, it pursues a certain kind of high school player, one who can improve in Duke’s system and also handle the rigors of the school’s academics.
“Charlotte is one of the metro areas that has really begun to turn out these kinds of prospects,” said Mike Farrell, a recruiting analyst at Rivals.com. “Duke’s not going after the 5-star kid, the kind Alabama or Florida are going to offer. They’ve got to pick and choose and what they want are kids who fit their specific academic and character standards. That’s what Cutcliffe wants to do.”
Cockrell paid little attention to Blue Devils football when he was at Latin.
“I’m actually a little surprised I ended up at Duke,” said Cockrell, whose family lived in Detroit before moving to Charlotte. “I was never a Duke fan growing up. I didn’t know much about Duke football until they recruited me.”
Cockrell was lightly recruited coming out of Latin. He heard from a few FBS schools, such as Virginia. Duke was the best fit.
“Coach Cutliffe talked about building something from the ground up,” Cockrell said. “We’re doing that.”
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