Kicking off the Connette era for Duke football
When redshirt junior Brandon Connette trotted out onto the field midway through the second quarter Saturday against Memphis, fans and media were left scratching their heads, wondering why he had replaced starter Anthony Boone.
When Boone took his pads off and made an early exit to the locker room right before the end of the quarter, Blue Devil fans collectively held their breath.
When head coach David Cutcliffe announced after the game that Boone had broken his collarbone, Duke's road to a second straight bowl game got a whole lot tougher.
Very little of the conversation and buzz around the Duke football team following its 28-14 win over the Tigers revolved around their 2-0 start to the season, something the Blue Devils haven't done since 1998.
And now Duke has a chance to go 3-0 for the first time since 1994. But the loss of Boone, who Cutcliffe said will remain out of action indefinitely, remains the center of conversation about the Blue Devils.
Some fans and media are undoubtedly proclaiming that Boone's injury means the end to a winning season and Duke's bowl hopes. Maybe they are right, but there is a small problem with that logic—Connette rejuvenated the offense Saturday, throwing for 198 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 46 yards to lead the Blue Devils to victory.
Connette's performance wasn't perfect, but it is promising for Duke that he didn't fold under the pressure of a tight game. With that in mind, here are two reasons why Duke should remain optimistic despite the loss of Boone and two reasons why the Blue Devils should be worried.
The offensive line didn't miss a beat
When a team switches quarterbacks mid-game, the offensive line will often have issues dealing with the new cadence and different rhythm of the backup, but that was not the case Saturday. Duke's only two false start penalties both came before Boone left the game.
Connette looked comfortable taking snaps and directing the offense, and the offensive line had no problem adjusting to his signal-calling and tendencies. Since Boone and Connette are similar in many ways—both can make plays outside the pocket with their feet, for instance—the offensive line will not have to change its protection scheme or general game plan to accommodate a new starting quarterback.
Connette is back under center full-time
Connette was recruited and brought to Duke for his arm, but over time evolved into an offensive utility man for the Blue Devils. He started one game at quarterback in 2010, spent most of 2011 sitting out with an injured shoulder and played a combination of wide receiver, tight end, running back and wildcat quarterback in 2012. Connette was dubbed "the phantom" because no one ever knew where he would show up. He was one of just seven players in the entire nation to record touchdowns passing, rushing and receiving.
This year Connette has been slated as the second-string quarterback since the beginning of the offseason, when Duke's backup, Thomas Sirk, ruptured his Achilles. He spent the spring and summer taking the majority of the second-team reps, shifting his focus more towards the role of a traditional quarterback as opposed to his phantom role last year. Whereas offensive coordinator Kurt Roper could only use Connette as a quarterback in a few packages last season, this year Roper can feel free to make any play call he desires with Connette taking snaps.
The kid is tough, unfortunately
Connette has never shied away from taking a hit and is not afraid of getting roughed up if it means getting a first down. But as a starter, Connette's toughness could be a problem. Connette said he has never slid during his football career, and doesn't plan on starting anytime soon. If he cannot learn to avoid contact and protect his body, Connette might find himself sitting on the trainer's table next to Boone.
Cutcliffe's next option at quarterback is true freshman Parker Boehme, who has yet to take a snap at the college level. Although Boehme showed potential in spring and summer scrimmages, he is nowhere near ready to start at quarterback against ACC opponents.
It only gets harder from here
Although Connette led Duke to a win in a hostile environment against Memphis, he has yet to prove that he can effectively distribute the ball through the air for a full game. In 27 career contests prior to last Saturday, Connette had thrown the ball just 45 times. Compare that to nearly three quarters of play against the Tigers, when he threw the ball 21 times. Connette will now be asked to throw 20, 30 or even 40 passes a game, something he hasn't done since his high school days.