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Losing Players Early To The NFL Hurts Duke Football Short Term But Not In The Long Run

It’s actually likely to help recruiting

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NCAA Football: Duke at Pittsburgh
Oct 27, 2018; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Duke Blue Devils linebacker Joe Giles-Harris (44) looks on from the sidelines against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the second quarter at Heinz Field. PITT won 54-45. 
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Duke basketball fans have long grown accustomed to is-he-leaving-for-the-draft vigils. Beginning in 1999, 26 Duke basketball players have left early for the NBA, leaving 67 player-years on the table.

It’s not just basketball. Duke baseball lost four of their best juniors to the 2018 MLB draft. Tennis, soccer, golf, all have had early losses to the professional ranks.

Duke football?

Not so much.

Part of that is structural. The NFL can’t draft players after until three years after their high school graduation.

So, no one-and-dones. Or even two-and-dones.

But until recently, NFL teams haven’t been all that interested in Duke players who have completed their eligibility. Duke went almost two decades without a winning season on merit.

Flash forward to the 2018 season.

Within days of Duke’s 56-27 win over Temple in the Independence Bowl, Duke quarterback Daniel Jones and linebacker Joe Giles-Harris announced that they were going to forgo their final year of eligibility and enter the 2019 NFL draft.

Neither was a surprise. Duke expected this and thinks both are ready.

Jones and Giles-Harris both were healthy red-shirts as true freshmen, in 2015. Both were academic seniors this season but could have played next season.

Both announced their plans by Duke press release.

Jones said “these last four years have surpassed my every expectation. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to graduate from one of the most respected academic institutions in the world while growing and maturing through a football experience that taught me far more than the game itself.”

Giles-Harris said “The last four years of my life have been some of the best. It has been a blessing and privilege to wear Duke blue and represent this great university.”

Jones graduated last month, with a degree in economics. Giles-Harris has completed his course work and will graduate in May, with a degree in cultural anthropology.

In other words, both will be able to fully devote their spring to getting ready for their next job.

Jones figures to go first, perhaps in the first round. He’s big, smart, athletic and can make the throws.

It doesn’t hurt that Jones has been tutored by David Cutcliffe, a man with considerable credibility as a developer of quarterbacks.

Jones bears more than superficial similarity to Dave Brown, who was the last Duke player to go pro with college eligibility remaining. Brown went in the first round of the 1992 supplemental draft.

Brown was another strong-armed 6-5 quarterback. Brown played three seasons at Duke, throwing for 5,717 yards before giving up his final season. Brown lasted a decade in the NFL, throwing for over 10,000 yards but never overcoming a tendency to throw the ball to the wrong team; he had 58 interceptions against 44 touchdown passes.

Assuming he recovers from a knee injury that sidelined him for Duke’s last four games, Giles-Harris looks more like a fourth-or fifth round pick, a smart, aggressive and adept tackler just lacking the top-end speed of elite linebackers.

Short term, both departures leave holes.

Duke has only three recruited quarterbacks, of whom only Quentin Harris has much experience.

Harris will be a redshirt senior next season. He got two starts early in the 2018 season when Jones was out with an injury and won both. His three touchdown passes at Baylor show his potential, while his 40 percent (12-for-30) completion percentage in that same game shows some areas for improvement.

There are a number of grad-student options available in what is rapidly becoming a free-agent free-for-all. But Cutcliffe has only taken one grad-student transfer in his 11 seasons at Duke, offensive tackle Evan Lisle, from Ohio State.

Cutcliffe has stated that he doesn’t pursue grad-student transfers.

I get the strong feeling he finds the whole thing somewhat distasteful.

Then again, he also finds losing distasteful.

Having to replace Jones might change his mind. But I would be surprised.

Giles-Harris leaves at the same time as his roommate, Ben Humphreys, who played all four years at Duke.

That’s a double whammy for the line-backing corps. However, both were injured so much that backups Koby Quansah, Brandon Hill and Xander Gagnon all got at least one start.

But Giles-Harris and Humphreys were both top-tier ACC linebackers, Giles-Harris making first-team All-ACC twice.

Some work to be done here.

But if losing Jones and Giles-Harris is a short-term bump in the road it could be a long-term boost. Duke is competing against teams that produce NFL talent on a regular basis. In order to compete, Duke needs to be able to match that NFL talent with comparable NFL talent.

Despite what you may have read elsewhere, Daniel Jones was never a walk-on. He was recruited to Duke at a time when the Blue Devils were out of scholarships but with the understanding that he would get the next available one.

Kelby Brown’s career-ending knee injury provided that scholarship.

Still, Jones was a lightly-recruited prepster, ignored by the powers. He was all set to go to Princeton when Duke came calling.

Helping a two-star recruit become a first-round pick should resonate with high-school talent.

Giles-Harris was more highly-regarded, a consensus three-star recruit. Like Jones, who fixated early on basketball, Giles-Harris had to pick the gridiron over another sport, lacrosse in his case.

Duke tells recruits they are making a 40-year decision, not a 4-year decision. But Carl Franks, Ted Roof and others had those same academics to sell and we know how that turned out.

Cutcliffe has demonstrated an ability to find and develop diamonds in the rough, with Jones perhaps the best example. And Duke’s academic standards will always preclude recruiting everyone.

But the kind of recruits who win championships expect to hear their names called by the commissioner, expect to be analyzed by draft experts, expect to play in the NFL. Jones and Giles-Harris are the latest examples that Duke football can combine a world-class education and NFL development.

That’s a good thing for Duke football.

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