Laken Tomlinson's journey from Jamaica to Chicago and then Duke and eventually the first round of this year's NFL draft has been well documented.
He was somewhat of an unlikely first-round pick of the Detroit Lions without the pedigree of some of his peers, but for Duke football he was a massive get when he signed with the Blue Devils. Ole Miss offensive line coach Matt Luke, who recruited him to Duke, recounts what recruiting Tomlinson was like. (Luke's comments were edited for space and clarity.)
Q: How did you find Laken?
Matt Luke: You know what, it was he was a very physically aggressive guy. It's starting to be a long time ago now but I thought, 'Man, for not playing football very long, he really has a chance to develop.' I remember his high school coach, Coach [Rich] Rio, and he was a very good student. He had tested into Lane Tech. The school he was zoned for either didn't have a football team or was a really rough high school. So he tested into Lane Tech. His grades matched up for what we were looking for at Duke at the time.
Chicago was part of my recruiting area at the time so you're looking for all the top players in Chicago and you're watching highlight videos. Lane Tech, usually you just went to the Catholic schools and while you're there you kind of check on all the guys. So you saw his tape online and are like, man, we've got to recruit this guy.
Q: What was his recruitment like?
Luke: He wasn't one of these guys where it was a no-brainer. He was just learning. He had another guy named Louis Trinca-Pasat, so they had two D-I guys and that probably helped him get some looks as well. If I recall, he had several offers. The ones he really took serious, he took at Illinois early and Northwestern and I think Ohio State offered him as a defensive lineman. I'm an offensive line coach so I was being selfish and recruiting him as an offensive lineman. Those were the main players in the recruiting process.
Q: Was it more difficult because his family isn't as familiar with football?
Luke: There were just a lot of people you had to talk to. The head coach. There was a social worker that was involved. His mom was involved. Bob Sperling was involved and you had his brother and an uncle in Texas. So there were a lot of people involved and you're trying to let those guys know you had his best interests at heart and if he wanted to be a doctor, Duke was the best place for him. So that was really the toughest part, just the amount of people involved. But the good thing was they are all genuine people and had his best interests. They weren't trying to latch on to the kid. This is a kid who came in from Jamaica. He wasn't a ready-made guy. Someone had to teach him the game so all the people had his best interests at heart.
Q: When you're recruiting Laken, do you think he would become what he is now?
Luke: I thought he had the potential. He's our really first big signee and when you beat Ohio State on a guy, it's a good get for us. We were excited and thought he had potential. Did we think 100 percent he was a first-round pick? No, but he had that potential and we had several of those guys at Ole Miss before. He's probably most comparable to Chris Spencer. That's who he is kind of built like. That's who we compared him to. So you thought he had that potential but he had a long way to develop because he didn't grow up playing the game.
Q: What's it like when you get him?
Luke: It was a big get. He's really a great kid, fun to be around. Great flexibility for his size. He really, really can bend and was really, really powerful. That was a big get for us. It was really, really exciting. In the end, the biggest competition was Northwestern because that was his mindset, to go to an academic school. That was one of my things. We got him up there, said he was coming and he stuck with it.