It’s way too soon for Dave Doeren to tell, but maybe 20 years from now, he’ll be able to claim the 2014 recruiting class was his best.
By the end of the weekend, Doeren might have two Super Bowl champions out of that group. The class already has a Pro Bowler, Raiders punter AJ Cole, and two first-round picks.
The 2014 recruiting class was Doeren’s first full group, one that was ranked 34th in the nation according to 247Sports, and No. 7 in the ACC. Doeren won’t rank his classes di lui, but he does acknowledge the impact the 2014 group had.
“That was an impressive class,” Doeren said. “You can’t debate that.”
Nine members of that group were on NFL rosters last season. Two of them, Germaine Pratt and BJ Hill, will play on the game’s biggest stage Sunday, part of a Cincinnati Bengals defensive group tasked with trying to slow down the LA Rams in Super Bowl LVI.
Bengals defensive standouts
Pratt, a starting linebacker, was a three-star safety coming out of High Point Central in 2014. Hill was a three-star, 260 pound defensive end. During the magical postseason run for Cincinnati, they’ve both been clutch.
Against the Raiders in the Wild Card round, Pratt came up with a game-clinching interception. On the road in the AFC Championship, Hill picked off Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the third quarter, turning the tide of the game. Down 21-13 at the time, Hill’s interception led to a Bengals touchdown. Cincinnati won in overtime.
Pratt is having a breakout season, racking up a career-best 91 tackles this year. Pratt arrived in Cincy the same time as head coach Zac Taylor and has played a role in the franchise’s turnaround.
“I know it means a lot to him,” Doeren told The News & Observer this week. “Not that it doesn’t to all the players on the team, but the guys who were there when it was bad, are now a part of this, it has to be a special feeling.”
Hill started his career, and the 2021 season, with the New York Giants, drafted in the third round in 2018. Hill was traded to Cincinnati in August, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise – the Giants finished 4-13, while Hill has a chance to win a Super Bowl.
“Like I tell our guys if you do things right good things come around, just a matter of time,” Doeren said. “BJ is one of those people. He does everything he’s supposed to do. He’s not a shortcut guy, he treats people with respect. So it’s not a surprise that something good happened to him that way. “
A unique group
Doeren won three games in 2013, his first season in Raleigh. That offseason he knew he needed some players. He signed 31 guys, including 16 from North Carolina, but even Doeren couldn’t envision how special that group was.
“Not right away,” Doeren said. “But as they started to grow up, yeah, you could see it. You could see the talent started to come out as they started to grow and fill in, but their desire raised the level of our program. It meant a lot to them, so there was a unique bond that those guys had. They stuck together, they pushed each other, held each other accountable. They hung together, it was a unique group. “
Along with Hill, Pratt and Cole current NFL players from that class include Kentavius Street (49ers), Justin Jones (Chargers), Will Richardson (Jaguars), Bradley Chubb (Broncos), Jaylen Samuels (Cardinals) and Garrett Bradbury (Vikings). Cole signed a four-year contract extension in December that made him one of the league’s top paid punters. That bunch has collected around $ 65 million in career earnings.
The first player to commit to Doeren in 2014 was Bo Hines. Doeren credits Hines for “stirring the pot,” and convincing other in-state guys to join him in Raleigh. Hines only spent one season at NC State before transferring to Yale. He led the team in catches (45) as a true freshman. In January 2021, Hines announced he was running for a seat in the US House of Representatives in North Carolina.
The highest rated player of the group was Street, a four-star recruit out of Greenville. Street has already played in one Super Bowl with San Francisco. He and the 49ers made it to the NFC title game again this season.
NC State culture change
It was around their second year at NC State that Doeren noticed his 2014 class starting to come into form.
“You started to see the full physical improvement take place on the field,” Doeren said. “And their confidence came out because of the success they had as younger guys playing.”
Samuels, a high school fullback, played right away. For others, it was a process.
Bradbury came to NC State as a tight end. Chubb arrived as a 225-pound linebacker. Neither grabbed major headlines when they signed. Chubb left Raleigh as a 270-pound defensive end and the all-time leader in sacks (26) and tackles for loss (60). His final season, Bradbury won the Rimington Trophy, awarded to the best center in football, and was a consensus All-American. Chubb went fifth in the 2018 draft, Bradbury 18th a year later.
“When we tell the developmental story of our program, those are players that we talk about,” Doeren said. “A lot of times people see the guy on the podium with the jersey (on draft day), saying, ‘I want to be like him.’ But you don’t know what he went through to become like him. Garrett had multiple surgeries his first year. He changed from tight end to defensive line, back to offensive line, guard and then center. The road to becoming the best version of you isn’t always as smooth as people think. Those guys deserve a lot of credit just for their perseverance. “
Stories of players like Pratt, Chubb and Bradbury are part of the reason why Doeren said the 2014 group outplayed its ranking.
“I was new to this league too, so it was hard for me to depict how prominent they would become,” Doeren said. “Jaylon Samuels, I thought he was a good player, I didn’t know he was going to do what he did. Didn’t think that he couldn’t, but didn’t know that he would. I just thought he was a really good player and we needed guys who could do things with the ball. “
When Samuels left Raleigh, the former running back, fullback, tight end and wide receiver was the team’s all-time leader in receptions.
“I think a lot of them exceeded expectations, not really mine, because I didn’t know that I had any,” Doeren said. “I just knew that we needed to get better and I thought these guys were the guys who could help us get better and they were.”
Doeren began sketching the blueprint of the Wolfpack program fans see now with that 2014 recruiting class. It was the core of Doeren’s first nine-win team in 2017. Some of them – like Bradbury and Pratt – were on the second straight nine-win team in 2018.
Sunday, Pratt and Hill have a chance to win pro football’s ultimate prize, adding to the legacy of Doeren’s first class, and the culture he’s tried to build.
“A lot of the culture that is here now started with those guys, turning this into a place that loves the work ethic piece,” Doeren said. “That loves the hand in the dirt part of what we do, the hard, tough, together. All of those guys embraced development and development’s hard, it gets hard and those guys embraced that. “
This story was originally published February 11, 2022 8:10 AM.