Blue Devils keyed by players bred in Tar Heel state
While Duke has clearly established itself as an international university, the Blue Devils increasingly successful football team is firmly entrenched in its home state.
Heading into the regular-season finale at arch rival North Carolina on Saturday (noon, ESPN2), Duke (9-2, 5-2 ACC) is a victory away from winning the ACC Coastal Division largely due to players from North Carolina.
On offense, seven of Duke’s starters are in-state players. On defense, Duke has three more starters who hail from North Carolina, including all-ACC cornerback and team captain Ross Cockrell, linebacker Kelby Brown and defensive end Justin Foxx, also a team captain.
That plethora of in-state players only makes the annual game with UNC all the more special.
“They talk about it more,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “Not that it’s not important to your guys from California. But these guys grew up with it. I hear them talk about it out of the corner of my ear.”
When Cutcliffe arrived at Duke in December 2007, he said he only found eight players on the team from North Carolina. He set about changing that with a strong commitment to recruiting the state.
His success is a big reason why the Blue Devils are having the best season of any of the four North Carolina schools that call the ACC home.
”I felt like we needed to do that,” Cutcliffe said. “This is the league that we are in. We’re right here with Wake, North Carolina State and North Carolina. If we are not going to recruit with them or against them, if we are running from that, what message are we sending? So I think it is important to our guys. They’ve got guys on their team that don’t like us now that are in-state guys. That’s what rivalries are supposed to do.”
Brown, from Charlotte Christian High School, is third on the Blue Devils in tackles. He said that UNC pursued his younger brother, Duke reserve linebacker Kyler Brown, but the same wasn’t true for him.
“They recruited my brother,” Kelby Brown said, “but they didn’t recruit me at all.”
Foxx, a redshirt senior, said UNC did recruit him. That was coach Butch Davis’ staff, which became embroiled in the NCAA sanctions that led to the Tar Heels being banned from playing in a bowl last season.
Foxx signed with Duke in February 2009, long before those issues surfaced at UNC. He said he simply felt better about joining the Blue Devils.
“I felt comfortable with Duke. I liked all that I saw. Also, I prayed about it; that’s why I felt good also.”
Cockrell, from Charlotte Latin High School, said UNC didn’t recruit him at all. But he doesn’t blame them.
“I was like 150 pounds coming out of high school,” Cockrell said. “I don’t blame them. I don’t blame them at all.”
Foxx and Cockrell aren’t the only Duke team captains who are North Carolina products. Duke starting quarterback Anthony Boone came to Duke from Union County’s Weddington High School in suburban Charlotte.
Boone received interest from UNC but said he wasn’t interested in heading to Chapel Hill. He signed with Duke in February 2010, prior to the NCAA scandal becoming public.
Boone’s most prolific target in the passing game, wide receiver Jamison Crowder, is from Monroe. Crowder has 83 catches for 1,077 yards and five touchdown receptions. After amassing 1,074 receiving yards last season, Crowder is just the second Duke receiver to notch consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (College Football Hall of Famer Clarkston Hines is the other).
UNC recruited Crowder along with Duke. The Blue Devils had an edge because Crowder’s cousin, Terrell Smith, played at Duke from 2000-03 and was an all-ACC defensive back as a senior.
“He was the guy who got me on the radar as far as Duke recruiting me,” Crowder said. “He was the guy who set everything up.”
At the same time, UNC’s NCAA scandal began to brew at the time Crowder was coming out of Monroe High. He signed with Duke in February 2011, eight months after the NCAA began investigating UNC.
“I had an offer from North Carolina but, at the time, that’s when Butch Davis was there and they were going through the trouble they were having,” Crowder said. “I came over here to Duke and, after talking with Coach Cutcliffe and the coaching staff, I just felt like here was the best fit at the time. That’s how I made my decision.”
Duke’s top three receivers, including Crowder, are in-state kids. Brandon Braxton, with 31 catches for 274 yards, is from Charlotte’s Providence High School, as is his prep teammate, tight end Braxton Deaver.
Protecting Boone are starting tackles Takoby Cofield from Tarboro and Perry Simmons from Raleigh.
In the running game, Charlotte Mallard Creek High School’s Jela Duncan (521 rushing yards) and Josh Snead (482 yards) from Smithfield-Selma High are Duke’s two leading rushers. Both have started at different times this season.
On Saturday, all those players from the Tar Heel State look to top UNC and earn the outright Coastal Division championship. That would earn them the right to play another game on N.C. soil – the ACC Championship Game at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium on Dec. 7.