How this El Paso-Gridley football player became the nation's top college punting prospect
Even a little cold weather won’t stop Declan Duley.
The El Paso-Gridley junior can routinely be found on the Titans turf football field during the offseason months in freezing temperatures, practicing his kicking along with punting as many as 200 balls per session.
Duley is the nation’s No. 1-ranked punter in the Class of 2023 by Kohl’s, which is the country’s foremost authority — used by ESPN to exclusively rank athletes — on kicking, punting and long snapping through its professional camp services. He has a long line of Power 5 programs interested in his leg.
Drive like that for a high school kid, especially in chilly conditions, may seem unusual, but not to Ryan Hoffman.
“It’s one of those things that just shows the character he has and the determination of playing at the next level,” said Hoffman, who acts as Duley’s special teams coach through One on One Kicking. “I think he has all the skills, the tools and the abilities to be very, very successful at the college level.”
Beginning to kick
As a freshman, Duley was a goalkeeper on the Normal U-High soccer team. He was approached about kicking for the football team, took up the challenge and fell in love with the game. He didn’t see much progress during the fall months, but really began to take his training more seriously in the winter following football season.
His decision to only play football came in the summer prior to his sophomore season. Duley had made such significant development that his focus turned solely to being U-High’s punter and kicker.
Following an impressive display last summer at one of the Kohl’s showcase camps, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound lefty earned the No. 1 overall ranking for class of 2023 punters.
“I took that as a sign to say, ‘Hey, this is what I need to do. I’m good at this. This is what is going to help me in life,’” he said.
Hoffman coached Duley as an assistant on the U-High football staff. There, Hoffman says he saw a combination of Duley’s work ethic, grit and determination that has gotten him to this point.
Mix those attributes in with Duley’s general willingness to get better, down-to-earth demeanor and you’ll get a kid that’s not only immensely talented but comes with very high disposition.
“It’s been nothing but an awesome experience to see how he’s grown over the years,” Hoffman said. “He knows that he has a lot of potential, but the thing is that he brings himself, not a big ego. It’s about the team. It’s about just always getting better and trying to provide the most value he can to win football games.”
Duley’s world flipped upside down last October. His mother, Becky, went through some medical issues with her eyes, causing her to no longer be able to drive and not allowing her to substitute teach — a job she had held within the El Paso-Gridley school district for the last 15 years.
Immediately, Duley, who also swims and throws the shot, told his parents he would be transferring from U-High to El Paso-Gridley following the first semester of his junior year. Becky pushed back at the notion of her youngest son leaving the high school friends he had made over the last two-and-half years.
But Duley was insistent on making the move — even taking over the responsibility of driving his mom to work.
“I saw an opportunity to help out the family, that I come home,” he said. “… I made the decision to do that. As much as it was a little hard to do, it was also easy. It felt right.”
As much of a change it would be for Duley, there was a silver lining. He had attended El Paso schools through seventh grade and would be reuniting with his childhood friends.
Now, he’s back to wearing purple and black.
“It’s kind of a neat, homecoming moment,” Becky Duley said.
Touring the Power 5
Being the top-ranked punter in the country is a lot different than being the No. 1 quarterback, offensive tackle or defensive back. Duley has loads of interest from schools across the Power 5 conference landscape, but doesn’t yet have any scholarship offers.
In fact, less than 1 percent of nationwide prep kickers, punters or long snappers receive a college football scholarship, according to KickingWorld.com. Most are offered preferred walk-on spots. However, that isn’t discouraging Duley one bit.
He knows that all these schools will have great practice facilities and home stadiums. What matters to Duley is a situation where he not only feels wanted, but in which he also has coaches and teammates excited to have him.
A group of guys who have his back and he has theirs.
“It will be a nice process to go through,” he said of his recruitment, noting he’ll keep all his options open.
Baylor was the first school to reach out, inviting him to a game last fall. Duley then attended games at Michigan State and Memphis. A strong showing at a Kohl’s showcase over the winter really started to ramp up his recruitment.
This month he’s made unofficial visits to Illinois, Notre Dame, Wisconsin and just came back from Baylor this past weekend. Next month, he’ll go to Alabama, Florida and Arkansas and wrap his travels up in May with a visit to Oklahoma.
“(Making all these visits is) something that I genuinely never thought I’d do,” Duley said. “It’s amazing just to think, ‘Wow, this is happening.’”
‘They are a family’
Duley made the short trip to Champaign on March 11. There he was able to tour the facilities, meet with head coach Bret Bielema and try on an Illinois uniform. He admits that he was initially skeptical but ultimately amazed by what the Fighting Illini had to offer.
“I’ll be honest, Illinois, they weren’t really kind of a school I was too excited about at first,” Duley said, “but then after taking that visit, seeing all what they’re about, seeing what Coach Bielema's doing with that program and for that program, they really bumped up high on the list.”
A big factor in Duley’s comfort with Illinois came with him feeling very welcomed and wanted there. Illinois has adopted the mantra "famILLy," under Bielema, and Duley witnessed that firsthand.
He says that word doesn’t get thrown around lightly. Everyone he met, including the players, embodied that motto.
“They are a family,” he said.
Coming soon to Friday nights
El Paso-Gridley opens its 2022 season at home, facing Macon Meridian at 7 p.m. FAug. 26. The Titans are coming off a 5-5 season, losing to Farmington in the first round of the Class 2A playoffs.
Coach Tanner Benedict is excited to add Duley’s leg and leadership to the team.
“His transition back to EP-G has been smooth, so I’m thankful for that,” Benedict said. “His skillset in the kicking game is huge for us. Any team you play where they have a good special teams, you worry about, so I think it’s good on our end, too, just for our opponents to have to game plan for and worry about.”
More than anything, Benedict is thrilled to coach Duley again. He was the eighth-grade basketball coach when Duley was in seventh grade. Already, Benedict has seen growth in Duley’s assertive attitude in the weight room and friendliness to his classmates and teachers.
The first-year coach says Duley will be a weapon to potentially score. In the past, field goals weren’t normally in EP-G’s play calling. Putting Duley, who made a 43-yard field goal last season, out there will definitely be an option.
EP-G punted the ball relatively well last year, according to Benedict, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t always room for improvement.
“Seeing just how good he is already,” he said. “I think we’ll be much better in that area.”
Now, Duley is just excited and counting down the days to suit up.
“I can’t wait to play with all these boys,” he said. “I know they can’t wait to play with me as well.”
Adam Duvall is a Journal Star sports reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AdamDuvall.