DURHAM – When we talk about the nation’s best recruiters, we usually talk about guys such as Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher and Les Miles – the coaches who land the top prep prospects year after year.
But there’s another kind of recruiting success, too – the coach who can build a successful program with lower-rated talent, one who is able to consistently find undervalued gems in the prep ranks.
Duke’s David Cutcliffe belongs in the second category. He proved that last fall as he guided the Blue Devils to 10 wins and an ACC Coastal Division title with a roster that was almost entirely built on two- and three-star recruits. None of Cutcliffe’s first six recruiting classes was ranked among the ACC’s top 10 classes, yet in 2013, Duke was clearly the ACC’s third-best team.
Cutcliffe’s 18-man 2014 recruiting class isn’t going to be ranked very high either – ESPN ranked the Devils 51st nationally and 12th in the ACC. Duke ranks even lower according to Scout and Rivals – both services rank Duke dead last in the ACC.
Yet, on paper, this is unquestionably the best class that Cutcliffe has assembled at Duke.
Consider that, according to ESPN, Cutcliffe’s first six recruiting classes included no five-star and just two four-star players – running back Desmond Scott and punter Will Monday. Cutcliffe landed a third four-star when safety Jeremy Cash transferred to Durham from Ohio State.
This year’s Duke class includes four four-star recruits and 14 three stars … for the first time, no two-star prospects.
Is that a good thing? Two-time All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell was a two star, according to ESPN. So was All-ACC offensive tackle Perry Simmons. Scout listed quarterback Anthony Boone (10-2 as a Duke starter) as a two star. Starting tight end Braxton Deaver and starting DT Jamal Bruce also rated two stars. Scout listed David Helton (the ACC’s leading tackler) as two star, along with true freshman corners Byron Fields and Breon Borders (who intercepted Heisman trophy winner Jameis Winston twice in the ACC title game).
Everybody rated freshman defensive back Devon Edwards as a two star, and he earned All-American honors as kick returner in his first season and was a solid defensive back.
The point is that Cutcliffe has made a living in his profession by finding undervalued recruits – dating back to his days at Ole Miss when he landed a two-star prospect named Patrick Willis, who became a first-team All-American linebacker and an NFL all-pro.
But now, thanks to his success over the last two seasons, Cutcliffe is able to recruit higher-rated talent. His 2014 class was largely lined up early, based more on his 6-win bowl season of 2012 than last year’s 10-win division-championship team.
Cutcliffe has suggested that Duke’s 2013 success will show up in next year’s class, but he admits that it may have helped with the last two targets in the 2014 class. Those may be the two most important signees in the class, at least in terms of immediate impact.
The next-to-last recruit was three-star defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord out of Miami. The 300-pounder was a first-team all-state performer in Florida and had 17 BCS offers (including two from the SEC and three from the Big Ten). He’s the highest-rated defensive line recruit in the Cutcliffe era, and he fills a real position of need for the Devils.
But the last recruit may be even more significant.
Four-star wide receiver Trevon Lee from Plantation, Fla., is the first ESPN top 300 prospect that Cutcliffe has landed at Duke. He’s regarded an explosive playmaker – very much in the mold of current Duke star Jamison Crowder. Lee, who had offers from programs such as Stanford and South Carolina, picked Duke over Vanderbilt less than 48 hours before signing day.
Cutcliffe pointed to the balance of the class. Even though it was small, it includes two quarterbacks, a four-star running back (Charlotte’s Shaun Wilson), a strong crop of defensive backs and five offensive linemen to go along with Cerenord and two more defensive line prospects.
“We’ve got some linemen with some size and mobility and range on both sides of the ball,” the Duke coach said. “We have helped ourselves again on the back end defensively at linebacker and safety, very active people. I think we’ve helped ourselves offensively with some really good prospects as playmakers, very versatile athletes in that regard.”
Rivalry Week Matchup
Duke’s annual February headliner against North Carolina may have lost some of its luster in the wake of the Blue Devils’ classic overtime thriller with unbeaten Syracuse on Super Bowl weekend. And Maryland’s visit to Cameron later in the week will definitely be touted as the Terps’ last-ever visit to Durham (at least in the foreseeable future).
But beyond the two games, the story at Duke is the vast improvement the Devils have made since opening the ACC 1-2 with disappointing performances at Notre Dame and Clemson. Mike Krzyzewski’s team has rebounded to win seven of eight (most in impressive fashion), while losing only that overtime heartbreaker in the Carrier Dome.
What’s turned things around for the Devils?
One major factor has been the revival of sophomore guard Rasheed Sulaimon. The 6-4 Texan was one of the most promising freshmen in the ACC last season, averaging 11.6 points as a starter for a 30-win Elite Eight team. He was projected to be one of the ACC’s best players this season.
Instead, Sulaimon started the season out of shape and out of sorts. He rapidly lost confidence and soon lost his starting job. More than that, when Duke faced Michigan in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, a healthy Sulaimon never got off the bench.
“I could have come up with a million excuses of why I didn’t play,” Sulaimon said. “The reality of the situation is I put myself in that situation. I had to get back to playing like myself. I felt embarrassed. I knew I never wanted to feel like that again.”
Sulaimon’s recovery was slow, but it came just in time to give Duke a jolt when it most needed it. He came off the bench against Virginia to score 21 points, including the game-winning three-pointer in the final seconds. He almost saved the Syracuse gave with a game-tying three at the buzzer. Against Wake Forest in Cameron, he was the best player in the floor – even running the point as starting playmaker Quinn Cook hobbled on two bad ankles.
Over the last eight games, Sulaimon has averaged 12.8 points, while shooting 55.6 percent from the three-point line (15 of 27), while passing out 4.4 assists a game. He’s also the team’s best perimeter defender.
Over the last month, Duke has shored up its defense a bit and improved on the boards, but the return of Sulaimon to form might be the biggest reason that Blue Devils are finally living up to the preseason hype.