Duke heads to Georgia Tech on Saturday in an important early-ACC-season game. The meeting highlights the changing nature of Duke football — the team that will play in Atlanta is heavy with players from Georgia, a state former coach Ted Roof focused on in recruiting.
But the Duke recruiting methods are changing fast under new coach David Cutcliffe.
GEORGIA ON THEIR MIND
Duke right tackle Fred Roland, a product of Hephzibah, Ga., says team meetings get a little loud when coaches invoke the name of the great state of Georgia.
They have the numbers to do it. The Duke roster has 15 players from the Peach State, more than any other state.
“We definitely rep for Georgia to the fullest,” said Jeremy Ringfield, a receiver from Lovejoy, Ga. “It helps us come together off the field as well.”
Players with Georgia roots are the backbone of a team that is 3-1 and 1-0 in ACC play going into its first road game.
Of the 15, seven start and an eighth is the holder on place kicks. Five underclassmen play regular backup roles.
“We’re family now; we’re not going to rub it in anyone’s faces because we’re all from Georgia,” said linebacker Marcus Jones, who is from Ringgold, Ga.
What do they put in the water down there?
Former Duke coach Ted Roof knew. A Georgia native and former Georgia Tech linebacker and assistant coach, Roof stockpiled Georgia players in building for 2008.
His pitch: Start a new football tradition. And play right away. That worked for Jones, who originally committed to Texas A&M, and Ringfield, who had offers from Louisville or Maryland.
Roland and Respress liked having common ground with Roof once they arrived.
“It’s great to have someone speaking country like me,” Respress said. “But Coach [Marion] Hobby now does too. The coaches are always saying, ‘Respress knows what I’m talking about.’”
FAMILIAR ON THE FIELD
Duke has not beaten Georgia Tech in four seasons. Saturday is the last shot for the Georgia contingent to prove Duke was the right choice.
Jones said it’s been difficult to find 15 tickets for his family but he didn’t have to make any raw deals. Respress promised his family would wield T-shirts and posters. Receiver Eron Riley warned there’d be trash-talking.
Respress also predicted both sides on Saturday would play the “rough and nasty” style, for which southern football players are known. Duke could earn respect in the process.
“If you go down South, against a team that people really like down there, you can start turning heads,” Respress said. “People will start saying, ‘What’s going on in Durham?’ because they came out and gave Tech a run. Hopefully, we can come out with a win.”
GEORGIA NATIVES LEAD DUKE
Tackle Fred Roland, Hephzibah, Ga.
Safety Catron Gainey, Hephzibah, Ga.
Linebacker Marcus Jones, Ringgold, Ga.
Nose guard Clifford Respress, Barnesville, Ga.
Receiver Eron Riley, Savannah, Ga.
Cornerback/kick returner Jabari Marshall, Atlanta.
Kick holder Ryan Wood, Buford, Ga.
Receiver Jeremy Ringfield, Lovejoy, Ga.
Receiver Austin Kelly, Mableton, Ga.
Defensive lineman Brandon Harper, Alpharetta, Ga.
Back Matt Daniels, Fayetteville, Ga.
Offensive lineman Jeffrey Cowart, Forsyth, Ga.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe joked Tuesday that he’d love to go recruit football players in Hawaii. He knows he’d probably have to fight off his own assistants to take over that territory.
Still, that idea is not far-fetched, what with Duke now looking farther and across the country for the fastest, smartest football talent it can find to build its program.
“I know we can,” Cutcliffe said when asked if Duke can recruit from coast to coast. “I’ve talked with kids already from California to Massachusetts to Texas and Florida. We’ve cast the net all the way out there.”
Duke did not regularly reach that far.
Cutcliffe’s background as a Tennessee assistant and former Mississippi head coach, with Duke’s national reputation as a university, are giving Duke more tools to use.
“Sure the pool may still be a little smaller than others but it’s much broader than it has been in the past,” said Mark Watson, of Duke football and basketball recruiting website BlueDevilNation.net. “The big reason is that Cutcliffe is not afraid. He’s knocked on doors that, in the past, they would not have tried at all.”
Watson said Cutcliffe, late in the game, went after Terrelle Pryor, a quarterback considered the top recruit in the nation last year and, perhaps, out of Duke’s league at the moment. Pryor chose Ohio State.
Duke football alumni, eager to help a program with some traction, have been pushing top kids they know about in the direction of Durham, Watson said.
It can take a full two years to develop the relationships and start bringing in the fleet-footed players Cutcliffe wants at every position.
But Cutcliffe still got some of that for 2008 in a three-week window he had this winter.
“We’re not going to miss on speed,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ll know they can run. We’re not going to miss on character. … We’re excited about the future in that regard.”
The staff had to show its own speed during its first frenzied foray into recruiting for Duke last December and January. Duke recruiting coordinator Zac Roper said the staff spent many long nights in long meetings figuring it out.
They closed on several players not originally targeted by the previous Duke staff.
Duke now has some leverage to force the issue as a team to watch in the ACC, for now.
Watson said Duke has about 20 players vying for two remaining scholarships for the 2009 class.