Brandon Connette is Duke football's phantom in the pocket
When Boone was hit by Tiger cornerback Bobby McCain and fell to the turf, the entire trajectory of Duke's season appeared to hang in the balance.
Boone was diagnosed with a broken right collarbone after the game. The injury will not require surgery, but Duke's starting signal-caller will be out indefinitely.
In stepped backup quarterback Brandon Connette, who has done just about everything for his team during his collegiate career—except line up at the position he was recruited to play. Used situationally during his first three seasons, Connette dropped back just 45 times before Saturday's game but led his team with the poise of a savvy veteran in a 28-14 victory to keep the Blue Devils undefeated in 2013.
"We're very fortunate to have a young man like Brandon Connette," head coach David Cutcliffe said. "There's a lot of programs that when you lose your starter in the second game in the first half, people struggle getting signals and operating their offense.... Brandon is a pretty special young man. He went in there and did a tremendous job running our offense."
Connette was not listed on the Blue Devils' two-deep depth chart before each game last season because he could not be labeled under a single position. This earned the redshirt junior the title of "the phantom"—opponents never knew where he would show up.
Appearing all over the field for Duke in 2012, Connette lined up as a short-yardage quarterback, a running back, tight end and wide receiver. He racked up 12 touchdowns last season—throwing three short touchdown passes to tight end David Reeves, running for eight and catching a touchdown pass from Sean Renfree.
It all started as an experiment during spring practice before the 2012 season. Duke's coaches had drawn up a trick play where Connette would line up at tight end and throw a pass on a reverse—the only problem was, the defense would be sure to see it coming if a quarterback lined up at tight end.
"Jokingly in the meeting room, they said 'let's just make it more permanent, then,'" Connette said. "So on the practice field, we started doing other stuff with it—having me run routes and block a little bit."
Connette said he was glad to play Duke's phantom last season, but his lone condition was that he remain in position meetings with the quarterbacks.
"Staying in the quarterback meeting room really helped me out a lot," Connette said. "You learn how to be a quarterback, but at the same time you have to know what everyone else is doing, so I had to know all the other positions too."
After a successful campaign as the Blue Devils' phantom, Connette was poised to take on a bigger role this season after Renfree graduated, and Boone's insertion as the starter gave Duke a bigger emphasis on the zone-read running scheme. But when redshirt freshman Thomas Sirk was sidelined with a ruptured Achilles during spring practice, Connette found himself the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart.
Now with Boone out of the picture for the near future, it appears Duke's hopes of a second consecutive bowl trip for the first time in program history will rest on Connette's ability to play under center full-time.
Connette has seen the other side of this story. Duke's new starter missed the 2011 season after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in the Blue Devils' third game. It was his freshman roommate, Boone, who helped him cope with his injury and rehabilitation process.
With Boone relegated to the sidelines, Connette will use that experience to help the injured Boone through his own injury struggles.
"He was one of the people that really helped me through that season—keeping me motivated, keeping me on top of things, making sure I didn't become depressed being out for the whole season." Connette said. "Seeing the way he helped me through that has really helped me know how to approach him when he's going through this."
Despite the loss of its starting quarterback, Duke's offense responded well with Connette under center against Memphis. The redshirt junior finished 14-for-21 on the afternoon, throwing for 198 yards and two touchdown passes. He said that as the Blue Devils head into their ACC opener against Georgia Tech this weekend, it will be business as usual for the offensive unit.
Part of that usual approach will be Connette's hard-nosed running style. Connette may be Duke's phantom no more, but that's one element of his game that he said will not disappear. Goal-line quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends don't usually slide at the end of a run. Even as Duke's new full-time starter, Connette said he will not be taking extra measures to preserve his health.
"I don't think I've ever slid in my football career, and I don't really see that happening in the near future unless Coach Cutcliffe forces me to," Connette said. "Even then, it'll be pretty hard to do it."