Duke head coach David Cutcliffe held a press conference Thursday morning as the Blue Devils' spring camp winds to a close. Duke does not have a typical spring game and will instead hold a Spring Showcase closed to the public Saturday morning at 10 a.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Duke delayed the start of spring practice, but the Blue Devils suffered an early blow Feb. 9 when starting quarterback Thomas Sirk ruptured his left Achilles tendon, sidelining the signal-caller indefinitely. Several questions Thursday centered on the three other Duke quarterbacks who have taken most of the snaps in camp—Parker Boehme, Daniel Jones and Quentin Harris—but Cutcliffe began one of answers by saying that "Thomas may be ready, just so everybody knows."
Asked further about a possible timetable for Sirk—who missed the entire 2013 campaign after rupturing his right Achilles tendon in April of that year—Cutcliffe offered the following response:
"You’re not really concerned about a timetable right now, and that’s the biggest mistake you can make, and I keep telling him that in rehab. You work to get well, then you start working to get back. You work to get back on a timetable, that’s often where you have setbacks. I’m more concerned…with setbacks than 'What time, what time, what time?'. Not to jinx it, but good gosh, he’s a month, month and a half ahead of where he was the last time. They’ve used a good protocol that’s out there that has had incredible results, and to this point that protocol’s had incredible results. We just hope that at the point of May, June, July that it’s still having incredible results."
Sirk is walking on two shoes without a cast, Cutcliffe said. The Glen St. Mary, Fla., native threw for 2,625 and 16 touchdowns in his first year as the Duke starter—in addition to a team-high 803 rushing yards and eight rushing scores—and was expected to give the Blue Devils continuity under center as Duke looked to answer several other questions at other spots on the field.
One of those position battles will come on the edges at wide receiver, where the most reliable of Sirk's options from last season—senior Max McCaffrey—will no longer be available. McCaffrey had an outstanding Pro Day last month in front of NFL scouts, and last year's in-season dismissals of Johnell Barnes and Terrence Alls leaves Cutcliffe looking for new faces to step up:
"Consistency’s probably the word. Max McCaffrey, his body of work on tough catches and catches that resulted in first downs were amazing. I think the NFL’s starting to figure that out. There was a reason he played as a true freshman.... Just a lot to be answered there, but those are good problems. It’s not trying to find somebody, it’s trying to see who’s going to step up and separate themselves."
Cutcliffe talked about wanting more consistency from his receivers last season as well and made a similar plea Thursday. Rising redshirt senior Anthony Nash had a breakout season last year—reeling in 32 passes for 475 yards—and has been impressive this spring, Cutcliffe said. Rising sophomore T.J. Rahming is expected to be one of the Blue Devils' top speed threats, and redshirt freshman Keyston Fuller and redshirt sophomore Trevon Lee will look to carve out larger roles for themselves, with four-star recruit Scott Bracey arriving on campus in the summer.
Duke also has a big hole to fill in the secondary, as ACC Defensive Player of the Year Jeremy Cash is expected to be one of the top safeties off the board in this month's NFL draft. The strike safety topped 100 tackles for the third straight season in 2015, but the Blue Devils got a glimpse at life without Cash late in the season after the Miami native was ejected for targeting against Virginia. He was disqualified for the rest of that game and the first half of the regular-season finale at Wake Forest, and he also missed the New Era Pinstripe Bowl due to wrist surgery.
"Corbin McCarthy’s had a great spring and has spent a great deal of time there. Brandon Feamster’s working in at that position, Alonzo Saxton can go over there. There’s a lot of people that can go over there, Jake Kite’s working there. It may take four guys to replace Jeremy Cash, but Corbin is comfortable with the position. He had played the weak-side safety more in his past, but we settled him in there last year, and he probably didn’t play as much as he would like but then he ends up starting two games for us. He’s got some game experience and he’s used that to his advantage."
McCarthy filled in for Cash at the tail-end of the regular season and seems ready to slide into that role full-time next season. Cutcliffe also said rising senior Breon Borders has been "incredible" in the spring for a secondary that brings back most of its talent, including All-ACC selection DeVon Edwards at cornerback and Bryon Fields, who missed last season due to ACL surgery.
Back under center, Boehme got some playing time throughout last season, primarily as a third-down, short-yardage specialist, though he did start against Pittsburgh while Sirk dealt with an upper-body injury. Harris and Jones have not seen any game action, but Cutcliffe said Jones—who is listed at 6-foot-5—is a threat with his legs just like the other three quarterbacks:
"I think Daniel is built differently—he’s big, he sees the field exceptionally well. They would argue over who’s the fastest. He can run, he’s really fast. I think he has shocked—I felt he was like that coming in—I think he has shocked teammates and even more so again this spring. He’s caught some defensive people way off guard. He is a dual-threat quarterback."
Here are some other notes from Cutcliffe's press conference:
- Cutcliffe chose to delay the start of spring camp to give his retooled coaching staff time to get its bearings. Former special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Zac Roper is the new offensive coordinator—replacing Scottie Montgomery, now the head coach at East Carolina—and Jim Bridge was hired from Purdue to take over Roper's old duties. After offensive line coach Jim Latina announced his retirement, the Blue Devils hired Marcus Johnson to replace him.
- Duke is dealing with some injuries on its offensive line. Cutcliffe did not give further details, but the Blue Devils will likely be young up front after losing Matt Skura, Lucas Patrick and Cody Robinson from last year's group. Cutcliffe hypothesized a freshman or two might end up factoring into the mix.
- Cutcliffe said that running back Joseph Ajeigbe has also been banged up. Duke is expected to rely on the tandem of Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson next season, both of whom overcame injuries suffered in last fall's camp to play big roles in 2015 alongside Shaquille Powell, who will graduate.
- Running back Zach Boden—who transferred from Harvard and sat out the 2014 season—will be on scholarship for his final season, Cutcliffe said Thursday.
- When Cutcliffe talked about Sirk's injury, he knocked on the wooden podium as he said "Not to jinx it..."
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