Duke head coach David Cutcliffe must really want a commitment from Omaha, Neb. defensive end Harrison Phillips.
Recruiting pitches come in all shapes and sizes, but very few are the size of the pitch Cutcliffe sent Phillips earlier this week. Phillips tweeted out this picture last Saturday, showing the 115—yes, 115—personal letters that the 6-foot-3 defensive end received from the Blue Devil head coach.
Phillips then tweeted out one of the letters he received from Cutcliffe, which included a photoshopped image of Phillips in a Duke jersey on the scoreboard at Wallace Wade Stadium and another photoshopped image of Phillips’ head on Eli Manning’s body at the NFL Draft. Two things can be drawn from this pitch: Cutcliffe is not afraid to push the envelope and make a rather outlandish recruiting pitch, and the Duke head coach certainly still believes in snail mail.
The Millard West High School defensive end recorded 122 tackles, including 35 for a loss, and 11 sacks during his junior season. Phillips has received a number of scholarship offers, most notably from Kansas State, Florida Atlantic and Army, but has also received interest from Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska during his recruiting process. Phillips tweeted today that coaches from both Nebraska and UCLA were at his high school.
Cutcliffe already has nine verbal commitments from Class of 2014 players, which ESPN currently ranks as the No. 19 recruiting class in the country.
Four former Blue Devils spent their first days with new NFL teams this past weekend as organized team activities began with the teams’ rookie camps.
Wide receiver Conner Vernon made a splash at camp with the Oakland Raiders. Donning No. 16 for the silver and black, Vernon drew praise from a number of Raiders columnists and bloggers from his play this weekend.
Levi Damien, a lead writer at Silver and Black Pride, an Oakland Raiders blog powered by SB Nation, called the former Blue Devil receiver one of the standout performers at the camp.
“While [Brice] Butler was stretching the field, Vernon was having his way underneath. He was masterful as the slot receiver in this offense. He looked smooth and polished in individual drills and didn’t miss a beat in the team drills. He looks to be everything Raiders fans hoped he would be coming in as the ACC all-time career receiving leader and is officially on watch to be the next UDFA gem for the Raiders.”
The Raiders’ front office must have agreed. Oakland cut five undrafted free agents following the conclusion of its rookie camp, but Vernon was not among them.
Sean Renfree also participated in rookie camp with the Atlanta Falcons, which kicked off last Wednesday. Renfree is still not back to full strength after having surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle last December, but did appear to be throwing. You’ll also see that the seventh-round draft pick has ditched the No. 19 he wore at Duke for No. 12.
In addition to Renfree and Vernon, two other former Blue Devils participated in NFL camps over the weekend. Cornerback Tony Foster got a chance with the Kansas City Chiefs and long snapper Jackson Anderson went to rookie camp with the Houston Texans.
Duke NFL Free Agent Signees (3): Jackson AndersonLS, Texans; Tony Foster DB, Chiefs; Conner Vernon WR, Oakland Raiders
With the 2013 season still more than three months away, Duke has already racked up seven verbal commitments in its 2014 recruiting class. Although the Blue Devils’ 2013 recruiting class is 20 players, head coach David Cutcliffe revealed in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel that Duke’s 2014 class will be a bit smaller. After suiting up just 13 scholarship seniors in 2012, which ranked near the bottom of the FBS, the Blue Devils return three larger classes for the 2013 season, leaving fewer scholarships available for the upcoming year. Cutcliffe also said his recruitment efforts are ahead of last year’s pace, citing that at this time last year he had at most one verbal commit.
“We’re only going to sign 12 or 14 people this year. Our guys are doing well, and they don’t leave. You see what I’m saying. You do the math, eventually you’re going to have some small classes. Our guys are doing well. We don’t lose anyone academically, and people don’t want to transfer.”
With almost half of Duke’s 2014 class already filled out, let’s take a look at Cutcliffe’s six commits:
The Blue Devils’ first commitment of the 2014 class was outside linebacker Zavier Carmichael. The Mobile, Ala. product stands at 6-foot and 208 pounds and committed to Duke all the way back in June 2012. Carmichael is rated as a four-star recruit and the No. 25 outside linebacker in the Class of 2014 by ESPN.com. Duke was Carmichael’s first scholarship offer, though the linebacker also garnered interest from Alabama, Auburn, Vanderbilt and UAB. Carmichael recorded 88 tackles and five interceptions during his junior season.
Carmichael isn’t the Blue Devils’ only linebacker commit. Duke received a verbal commitment from Tinashe Bere, an inside linebacker from Cincinnati, Ohio, in April. The 6-foot, 209-pound linebacker received scholarship offers from Cincinnati, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Purdue, among others. Bere possesses a quick first step and excellent closing speed, which makes him a threatening pass rusher.
Duke’s second commitment from the state of Ohio is cornerback Alonzo Saxton. The Columbus, Ohio product stands at 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds and received scholarship offers from Cincinnati, Illinois, Indiana, Northwestern, Purdue, West Virginia and Wisconsin, among others. Saxton played offense, defense and special teams at Bishop Hartley High School, and is a strong tackler, has solid hands and speed that could help in the return game.
Duke’s last four verbal commits play on the offensive line. The current Blue Devil offensive line is very experienced, but Duke will have a lot of holes to fill up front by the time this 2014 class reports for training camp. Offensive tackle Kameron Schroeder is rated the No. 43 tackle in the Class of 2014 by ESPN.com. The Elk Grove, Calif. native held scholarship offers from Arizona State, Oregon State, San Diego State and San Jose State, among others. Standing at 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, Schroeder may be the first piece of Cutliffe’s initiative to get bigger and stronger up front.
Another offensive tackle, Trip McNeill, is the only North Carolina native to give Duke a verbal commitment to date. McNeill hails from Mocksville, N.C. and the 6-foot-5, 295-pound offensive tackle also received scholarship offers from East Carolina, North Carolina, N.C. State, Virginia and Wake Forest before committing to Duke in March.
A third offensive tackle, Jake Sanders, is Duke’s only commit from the state of Georgia thus far. The Carrollton, Ga. native received scholarship offers from West Virginia, California, Cincinnati, East Carolina and Kansas Sate, among others. The 6-foot-4, 314-pound tackle received limited interest Alabama, Florida State, Georgia and Georgia Tech.
Duke’s most recent verbal commitment came Tuesday evening, when offensive lineman Zach Harmon became the Blue Devils’ latest edition to their 2014 recruiting class. A Toledo, Ohio native, Harmon can play both guard and center, though it is unclear at which position he will be utilized in college. Standing at 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, Harmon also received offers from Toledo, Marshall, Akron and Buffalo.
Although Cutcliffe has chosen to address only a few positions thus far, the Blue Devils’ 2014 class is an interesting one in its demographics. Duke has secured just one commit from North Carolina, but has three from Ohio and one from Alabama, Georgia and California, states whose recruiting battles are often dominated by local powerhouses. Cutcliffe is taking risks by focusing his recruiting efforts on more competitive areas of the country, but with seven verbal commitments it appears the sixth-year Blue Devil coach is finding his footing outside of the state of North Carolina.
Tony Foster will compete for a spot on Kansas City’s roster this summer (Caroline Rodriguez/The Chronicle).
Foster revealed the news on his Facebook page, writing “Kansas City Chiefs Rookie Mini Camp!!!! My NFL Journey begins in May #Blessed.” The post had received 236 likes as of 11:51 a.m.
He recorded 36 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss and one interception during his senior season, suiting up in all 13 games for Duke. Foster spent most of his time last season on special teams before taking over as a starter on defense late in the year when classmate Lee Butler suffered a career-ending knee injury.
Foster put in a strong performance at Duke’s Pro Day, putting his footwork and hands on display for the 21 NFL scouts in attendance. Throughout the season, Foster was often regarded as one of the fastest players on Duke’s roster, and his speed and athleticism should allow him to be versatile at the next level.
The Chiefs’ rookie mini-camp is set to begin May 9.
With the third day of the NFL Draft set to kick off at noon with the beginning of the fourth round, former Blue Devils Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon both hope to hear their names called and become Duke’s first NFL Draft selection since 2004.
Vernon was Duke’s higher-rated prospect at the conclusion of the 2012 season, but appears to have lost some steam since. He is still expected to be selected sometime in rounds five through seven, but many pundits have projected him to fall toward the later end of that range. CBS Sports Senior NFL blogger Will Brinson said this morning that Vernon could be one of the Draft’s sleeper picks at the wide receiver position.
Pair of underrated Day 3 WRs who I think will ultimately contribute: Aaron Mellette of Elon and Conner Vernon of Duke.
Renfree has not only drawn praise from head coach David Cutcliffe and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, but also from NFL Draft gurus Mel Kiper Jr. and Mike Mayock. Jared Cohen, who covers Arizona sports for Pros2Preps, said that the Arizona Cardinals may have taken a particular interest in Renfree as well.
Mike Mayock: One QB to keep in mind today, Duke’s Sean Renfree. Charles Davis: A good comparison for Renfree is Chad Pennington
With the NFL Draft’s third day approaching tomorrow at noon, and two Blue Devils in Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon in contention to be selected, writers from The Chronicle sat down to predict where they believe the duo will land and why.
Duke wide receiver Conner Vernon hopes to be the program’s first NFL Draft selection since 2004.
Zac Elder—Seventh round, 217th overall to the Miami Dolphins. Although not listed at the top of anyone’s list at wide receiver, Vernon stands a good chance being selected in the late rounds. If teams can overlook his lack of physicality and 4.68 40-time at the NFL Combine, then Vernon might get scooped up in one of the later rounds by a team looking for a solid receiver who can also handle punt and kickoff return duties. Vernon, a local Miami product, has drawn a number of comparisons to former Dolphin receiver Wes Welker, who began his successful NFL career with this franchise.
Michael Schreiner—Fifth round, 149th overall to the St. Louis Rams. Vernon has been a sleeper pick of many in the lead up to the draft, and the upside he presents as a No. 2 receiver justifies the buzz. He does not have the quickness or size to be the big play guy, but he executes and will do well as a possession receiver. He is also polished and can make an immediate impact in the NFL, which is exactly what the Rams need with only three of last season’s receivers projected to be on this year’s roster.
Daniel Carp—Sixth round, 199th overall to the Baltimore Ravens. The defending Super Bowl champs have some holes to fill at receiver since the loss of Anquan Boldin, and with a bevy of picks in the late rounds of this year’s NFL Draft, Vernon would be a wise choice. Ravens head coach Jon Harbaugh will value the Duke receiver’s work ethic and route-running ability, leading him to use one of his picks at the end of the sixth round on him. You could see Vernon come off the board as early as round five, but some average workouts this offseason could cost him on Draft day.
Sean Renfree had surgery the day after Duke’s Belk Bowl loss, but still could be selected in the NFL Draft.
Zac Elder—Undrafted. Bad news for Renfree—only one quarterback (Florida State’s E.J. Manuel) was drafted in the first round of Thursday night’s NFL Draft. And with top prospects Geno Smith, Ryan Nassib, Tyler Wilson and Matt Barkley still left on the board, the former Duke star’s hopes of being selected are slim. After tearing a pectoral muscle in the Belk Bowl, Renfree has not had the opportunity to elevate his draft stock and impress NFL coaches and scouts as some other draft hopefuls have done.
Michael Schreiner—Seventh round, 240th overall to the Cincinnati Bengals. The pectoral injury he suffered in the Belk Bowl has hurt his chances of getting drafted, but his limited downside should still be enough to convince a team to spend its final pick on Renfree. Aside from a weak arm that will likely limit his upside, Renfree presents little risk to potential suitors. Duke head coach David Cutcliffe compared his work ethic to Peyton Manning, and as a reserve with Cincinnati he would push those ahead of him while also representing a viable second string option down the road.
Daniel Carp—Sixth round, 183rd overall to the New Orleans Saints. Four months ago, Sean Renfree’s chances of hearing his name called at the NFL Draft seemed miniscule. But despite not having thrown a football since late December, Renfree’s draft stock has only continued to rise thanks to ringing endorsements from the likes of David Cutcliffe and Peyton Manning. Renfree could come off the board as early as the fifth round and could be taken before his teammate Conner Vernon. In fact, I think he will. The New Orleans Saints will be in the market for a young quarterback in the late rounds of this year’s draft, and Renfree could be the guy they turn to. Renfree also would be a great fit with the New England Patriots, but they only hold three picks after the fourth round—all late in the seventh. A bold prediction could be the Pats package their three picks to move up into the mid-sixth round and grab Renfree, but all fake trades aside, New Orleans’ pass-happy offense would be a good fit for the former Duke signal-caller.