For the greater part of the modern era Duke football and the NFL were seldom mentioned in the same breath. Slowly but surely, since the arrival of head coach David Cutcliffe, the NFL has seen an increase in former Duke football players on NFL rosters. Two Blue Devils in particular have become important parts of two Super Bowl contenders this season.
Juwan Thompson began the 2014 preseason as a long shot to make the Denver Broncos. It didn’t take long, however, for coaches and staff to notice of the strength, intelligence, and hard working nature that made Thompson a vital piece of Duke football during his time in Durham. By the time final roster cuts were made Thompson had done enough to prove his worth to the Broncos franchise. Thompson’s versatility, he was a special teams leader and even started one game at linebacker his senior season, was a major factor in the Broncos signing him. While his value to the team was a definite, it was hard to predict what kind of role Thompson would actually play when the season got underway. Along with CJ Anderson, Juwan began the season as a reserve runningback behind Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman, as well as someone who they could count on in special teams.
Recently, an injury to starting running back Montee Ball brought some uncertainty to the Broncos’ offense. Thanks to solid effort and performances by the rest of the runningback rotation, including Thompson, Denver hasn’t missed a beat. Thompson has seen his role in the backfield continue to increase as he gets more and more comfortable with the transition from college football to the NFL. Thompson earned some playing time early on based on his abilities to pick up blocking assignments in passing formations, but in recent weeks he has begun to showcase his running ability. Thompson scored his first career touchdown against Arizona and has been consistently producing in the three games since, averaging 4.5 yards per carry on the season. Juwan scored two touchdowns in Thursday night’s win over San Diego.
Earlier this month the Denver Post had a great article on Thompson, where they talked with him about his journey to the league. You can read it here.
Former Duke tight end Cooper Helfet has had a little different journey to relevance in the NFL. Upon his graduation from Duke in 2012 Helfet was signed by the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent. He was waived that same year and dealt with injuries before signing again with the Seahawks following the 2012 season. Helfet was released after the preseason and immediately signed to the Seahawks practice squad, where he remained through their Super Bowl winning season.
When Seahawks starting tight end Zach Miller went down in the preseason with an ankle injury, Helfet had a better chance to make the 2014 active roster based on his knowledge of the Seahawks system that he had learned in his previous two years with the franchise. Helfet did in fact make the Seahawks 53 man roster as the backup to former backup Luke Wilson. Helfet notched his first career catch in the NFL in a win against Washington in week 5, but it was his performance in last weeks game against the Rams that caught the attention of many. Helfet received his first career start when it was announced Wilson would miss the game with a groin injury. Helfet did not disappoint. His acrobatic touchdown catch in the fourth quarter was almost enough to bring Seattle back from a surprising defeat. The News Tribune in Seattle touched on the trust between Helfet and quarterback Russell Wilson. Injuries are an unfortunate factor of football, but in this instance they gave Cooper Helfet the chance to showcase the talent we saw in Durham years ago.
If the football program at Duke continues on its current trend, we will be seeing even more former Blue Devils in NFL headlines in the near future.