In his first five games as Duke’s starting quarterback, Daniel Jones has experienced the highs and lows of college football.
Saturday marked another low for the redshirt freshman, and how he responds could determine how the Blue Devils’ final seven games turn out.
In Saturday’s game against the Cavaliers, Jones was intercepted five times, had several passes in key situations batted down at the line of scrimmage and faced consistent pressure from Virginia’s front seven.
With Duke down seven late in the fourth quarter, Jones did not see Cavalier linebacker Jordan Mack on an edge rush. Mack clobbered Jones on one of the biggest hits of the quarterback’s young career, and Virginia recovered for the game-sealing touchdown. The Cavaliers intercepted Jones one last time just for good measure on the Blue Devils’ final possession.
“I can’t remember one like that,” Jones said of Saturday’s 34-20 loss. “But that’s not what’s important. What is important is moving forward and learning from it.”
At the beginning of the game, it seemed like Jones was picking up up where he left off last week against Notre Dame, when the Charlotte native committed only one turnover and threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns. Jones was named the ACC Rookie of the Week for that effort, and began Saturday’s game by completing all five passes on his second drive of the game.
That drive culminated in a 23-yard strike to sophomore T.J. Rahming that gave the Blue Devils an early 7-0 advantage.
But that was one of the few highlights for the Blue Devil passing game.
On Duke’s third possession, Jones escaped pressure at the Virginia 42-yard line and rolled to his right. It looked like the 19-year old could have picked up a few yards on a keeper, but instead Jones forced a throw downfield—it ended up in the waiting arms of Cavalier safety Juan Thornhill.
“One thing I told him on one of the early [interceptions was], ‘You’re trying to make plays instead of executing plays,’” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “There’s a big difference.”
The first-quarter interception was only the taste of what was to come for Jones, who might have nightmares this week about Virginia cornerback Bryce Hall. The true freshman intercepted Jones twice in the second quarter, stalling Blue Devil drives that could have expanded a 10-6 lead—including a highlight-reel grab in the red zone.
From there, Jones would toss two more interceptions and cough it up in the end zone when he did not see Mack on the blitz.
“When you’re protected as a quarterback and you know you are, you tend to trust,” Cutcliffe said. “Unfortunately, [Jones is] going to be really sore too.”
Although Jones will want to forget today’s game, the setback will need to serve as an important building block for the redshirt freshman and the Duke offense if the Blue Devils are to reach the six-win threshold for a fifth straight year.
No one knew what to expect of the unit this season with its offseason losses and a season-ending injury to incumbent starting quarterback Thomas Sirk.
But despite Jones’ turnover issues, he has shown he can lead Duke’s offense. He is averaging 282.8 yards through the air per game—a total that was in the top 30 nationally entering Saturday’s game. Jones is among the best FBS freshmen in passing yards and passing touchdowns along with highly-touted players like Florida State’s Deondre Francois.
Although the Blue Devils’ leader under center has a long way to go, lessons from Saturday’s contest will likely be instrumental in the former unheralded recruit’s growth.
“I would hope that this is one of the most meaningful circumstances he ever faces as a player,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s happened to some really fine football players.”
Cutcliffe’s attitude and confidence in Jones should help the young quarterback bounce back from a five-interception outing next week against Army. When asked if he ever considered playing backup Parker Boehme, the former National Coach of the Year definitively said he never did.
Jones will likely throw more interceptions this season, but if the Charlotte native can bounce back moving forward like he did at Notre Dame, Duke could get its season back on track.
Following Saturday’s loss, Jones said he wanted to take advantage of all of the resources around him—the coming months will tell if lessons learned can help him eliminate the turnovers that have hampered his first year under center.
When discussing his plan moving forward, Jones responded, “Studying tape, learning, listening to the coaches, Sirk [and] Boehme.”