As Korey “KJ” Duff Jr. fires up his white Jeep Grand Cherokee for yet another 45-minute ride to St. Anthony’s High School in Melville, it’s a reminder of taking the road less traveled and the steps necessary to become the top football recruit in all of New York State.
While he was still at Riverhead Middle School — and having played just one season for the Blue Waves high school team — COVID-19 shut down everything. The Riverhead school budget vote then failed twice — slashing the athletics program along the way. Duff was already considering a transfer to get more visibility. His decision was made easier.
“Riverhead will always be my home,” Duff said. “But with all these schools recruiting me from a young age, I felt like it was the best decision at that point in my life.”
Duff eventually chose St. Anthony’s — a private Catholic high school and a perennial football powerhouse. He was offered the opportunity to attend without the strain of tuition payments. The wide receiver instantly impressed coaches and was offered the starting spot on the varsity team as a freshman — a first in the program’s history.
After a freshman season shortened by COVID-19, Duff set out to gain real traction the following summer by attending college prospect camps and meeting coaches.
“I had some game tape of my freshman year to show coaches and I just started reaching out,” Duff said. “I had to be proactive and have an Instagram and a Twitter page, give a means for these coaches to get hold of me.”
Duff was no stranger to the spotlight — he’d received national recognition for a one-handed catch he made in the youth leagues that was featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter and later in a Colin Kaepernick Nike commercial.
At only 15 years old, Rutgers University started recruiting Duff after a camp he attended, and he soon received the first of 27 Division I football scholarship offers — from Long Island University. The traction he gained that summer carried into the school season, and Duff set out to put on a show. In a preseason scrimmage against Chaminade High School, the wide receiver hauled in four touchdowns and followed up that effort by lighting up the scoreboard against Cardinal Hayes High School in the first game of the season with three touchdowns and over 200 yards receiving.
“That’s when things really took off,” Duff said. “My height, wingspan, speed and ability to catch and run really put me on the radar.”
By the end of his sophomore year, the 6-foot 5-inch, 207-pound wide receiver compiled 35 receptions for 682 yards and five touchdowns. His brand grew and more scholarship offers started pouring in: University of Pittsburgh, West Virginia and UConn.
But Duff wasn’t satisfied. He joined a local 7v7 team to play in tournaments in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Texas, Orlando and Miami against the country’s best high school players. His dominance caught the eye of Raw Miami, which recruits the top talent in the country, and Duff’s Instagram grew to nearly 10,000 followers.
“The 7-on-7 stuff is what got me in front of everyone,” Duff said. “Without that I can’t say I would have gotten the exposure that I did. And it all started with Instagram. I would post clips of myself and coaches started following me and monitoring my progress.”
His junior season, St. Anthony’s won the New York State Catholic High School Football League championship — the first in its history — with Duff racking up 43 receptions, 995 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“Me being 6’5” is definitely a plus,” Duff said. “There’s not many guys that can do what I can do at this height. It’s just the way I can move fluidly at this size and the way I can catch the ball is what attracts these schools to me and I hear it repetitively from all these coaches.”
More schools got in the mix, and Duff was rated a 4-star recruit by Rivals.com — making him the highest rated high school football player in all of New York State. Powerhouse schools started sending him offers, including Texas A&M in February, and then North Carolina and Miami in April.
“I always wanted to play for these big schools,” Duff said. “Seeing how I matched up against some of the other top talent in the country I was like, ‘I can really do this.’ Even though I was getting those bigger schools to offer me, I still felt under-recruited and that was mostly because I was playing in New York. If you ask people in the college world, they feel like I’m still under-recruited even now.”
Some schools were offering him playing time right away; others said he’d have to move up the ranks with strong production. Based on his size, some saw him more as a tight end at the college level. But Duff wanted to continue as a wide receiver.
“I’ll never be a hand-on-the-ground tight end,” Duff said. “I want to be in a position to consistently make an impact by catching the ball. I’m not being recruited to try to block a 300-pound guy every time because that’s not what I do best.”
Rutgers remained among Duff’s top choices. It was the first school to show interest, and Duff has visited the university eight times since 2021.
“Coaches always want to prove their message to you and show how they can develop you,” he said. “Coach John Perry at Rutgers used to coach the receivers for the Houston Texans, so he’s coached DeAndre Hopkins obviously, right? Him and DeAndre are close and [he] knows coach Perry made a tremendous impact on his career.”
Hopkins played for the Texans and the Arizona Cardinals during his career and was named to five Pro Bowls while being one of the best wide receivers in the NFL year after year.
“Coach called DeAndre Hopkins on FaceTime and he instantly picked up and talked to me,” Duff said. “I got a chance to ask him a bunch of questions about the coaching staff and that really resonated with me. On another visit, I got to FaceTime with Mohamed Sanu, who also played in the NFL and went to Rutgers.”
Not a bad recruiting pitch.
Ultimately, the decision came down to three schools: Rutgers, North Carolina and Miami. Last Thursday at The Main Event in Farmingdale, among friends, family and well over 1,000 people tuned into his Instagram live video, Duff chose Rutgers to continue his athletic and academic career.
“I feel like since Rutgers was not only close to home but also them needing help in their wide receiver room allows me an opportunity to make an instant impact there,” Duff said. “They’ve been recruiting me for over 18 months and it’s always been a great family feel. I believe in what Coach Greg Schiano is building over there, and the program is slowly turning around and I can help to continue to change that.”
Schiano coached at Rutgers from 2001 to 2011 before making the leap to coach the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012-13. He returned to the school in 2020 to rebuild the program. Before Schiano arrived, the school went 1-11 and 2-10. The last two years the Scarlet Knights have finished 5-8 and 4-8 while playing in the tough Big 10 Conference. Strong recruitment has led to the turnaround.
“You just have to get out in front of everyone you can,” Duff said when asked how younger players could try to achieve similar success. “You have to be your own biggest advocate. Go to those camps. Go talk to those coaches. You’re not going to get anywhere if you expect it to just come to you. My goal is to make it to the NFL and this is just my next step. I’m going to continue to put Riverhead on the map and make my hometown proud.”