Much ink has been spilled detailing how David Cutcliffe raised Duke football from the dregs of the FBS into a competitive ACC program.
But with Laken Tomlinson’s first-round NFL draft selection Thursday night, it’s a good time to remember that the process didn’t happen overnight.
Duke went from 3-9 in 2011 to 6-7 in 2012 to 10-4 in 2013 and then 9-4 last year. Just looking at the win totals suggests something major changed in between 2011 and 2012, but, in reality, the turnaround began in 2009.
That August, Tomlinson, who was coveted by college programs such as Ohio State and Michigan, committed to Duke.
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“He knew after he was around us that we were going to be good,” Cutcliffe said last fall while talking about Tomlinson’s recruitment. “We knew it, too. Nobody else did.”
Tomlinson started at right guard for the Blue Devils every game of his career — 52 in total. The 6-foot-3, 323-pound lineman was called a “phone-booth guy” by NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock during the Draft broadcast.
“He is a big, powerful people-mover,” Mayock said. “He is a finisher.”
Tomlinson was the first Duke player drafted in the first round since 1987, when linebacker Mike Junkin went fifth overall to the Cleveland Browns. His selection also gives Duke draft picks in three consecutive years for the first time since 1998-2000 (Atlanta took quarterback Sean Renfree in the seventh round in 2013, and Buffalo chose cornerback Ross Cockrell in the fourth-round last year).
Most mock drafts projected Tomlinson as a second-round pick, but a few had him going late in the first round. The NFL invited Tomlinson and his family into the green room in Chicago, but Tomlinson, known for his intelligence, wasn’t expecting to go in the first round. He was loose backstage — until his phone rang.
"I was speechless," Tomlinson told the Detroit Free Press. "I was just so overwhelmed that they thought they lost me for a second. They were like, 'Hey, are you there? And I was like, "Yes, sir.' And I said, 'Yes, sir,' for another five minutes."
The reaction at Tomlinson’s table was one full of surprise and overwhelming joy. His mentor, Bob Sperling, stood up and gave him a big bear hug and a kiss on the check. Tomlinson then hugged his mother, burying his head in her shoulder. Tomlinson squeezed his eyes and lips together, trying to hold in his emotions, and he turned and gave Cutcliffe a hug, too, before heading to the stage.
The walk across the stage to meet NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell marked the end of an incredible journey that took Tomlinson from Jamaica to Chicago and then to Duke. When he came to the United States in elementary school, he had never seen snow or played American football. He had a 90-minute commute — each way — to his high school in Chicago. And then after an All-American career at Duke, he returned home for the draft, his biggest moment playing out on the grandest stage.
“Walking across that stage (in Chicago) has deeply impacted my life, not only my life but my family's life and everyone that I've been connected to since I've been here in the United States and everyone back home in Jamaica," Tomlinson told the Detroit News. "So it's really been a tremendous night, and I'm just so happy."
Tomlinson was part of Cutcliffe’s grand rebuild at Duke. Now it’s up to the players still on campus to continue the upward trajectory.