Rewind to about this time last year, when Daniel Jones was merely an afterthought on the quarterback depth chart. As a redshirt freshman working behind presumptive starter Thomas Sirk, Jones was battling for the third-string job behind veteran Parker Boehme.
That was until August 25, 2016.
Sirk ruptured his Achilles tendon in practice, and the injury completely changed Duke’s outlook at quarterback—not just last season but for the future. Jones stepped up, jumping past Boehme into the starting quarterback role. As the Blue Devils’ primary signal-caller, Jones had his growing pains in his first season and he was often buoyed by his running attack to move the ball down the field, but head coach David Cutcliffe never lost trust in his young quarterback.
Now, with Shaun Wilson as the only returner from the backfield group and a deeper receiving corps for Jones to throw to, this is unquestionably Jones’ team. There is plenty of excitement surrounding his improvement heading into the season, and according to everyone around him, Jones has taken all the right steps in the offseason.
“In spring practice, Daniel was significantly different, and his teammates knew it. It’s funny when offensive linemen—they do a lot of work together on their own—come to me and say, ‘Hey coach, wow, you ought to see Daniel,’” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said at ACC media day in July. “That’s a great thing to hear because a year ago, I’m not even sure they all knew him as well as you might think. It had been Thomas Sirk and Parker [Boehme] and that was it, and here’s this guy that no one knew a lot about.”
For a player that arrived at Duke as a walk-on out of Charlotte Latin School, Jones has taken an unlikely path to conversations about his NFL potential.
Much of Jones’ rapid rise was simply about taking more repetitions under center. Last season, his performance saw a clear upward trajectory, as Cutcliffe continually challenged him to limit turnovers. By season’s end, Jones had amassed a streak of 173 consecutive passes without tossing an interception, a mark that leads the nation heading into 2017.
His development continued in the spring and summer, when he attended the Manning Passing Academy and spent time with NFL stars Peyton and Eli Manning, Cutcliffe’s two most famous protégés.
“That was kind of a surreal experience to be honest, to be hanging out and spending time with Peyton and Eli, hearing them tell stories,” Jones said at ACC media day. “Since I was old enough to comprehend football, Peyton and Eli were kind of the guys of football, so that was a lot of fun.”
All of his experience last season has not just helped build chemistry with his pass-catchers, but has bolstered his own confidence as well. To challenge Jones, Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Zac Roper have added more elements to an offense that finished 11th in the conference in total scoring offense and ninth in passing yards.
The deep ball has been a major emphasis this offseason, especially with the impending debut of highly-touted wideout Scott Bracey—who was forced to redshirt due to lingering hamstring issues last fall—and returners like T.J. Rahming and speedster Chris Taylor.
“He’s not quite as gun-shy with certain things,” tight end Daniel Helm said earlier this month. “This might be bad to say, but he might try to fit it in a little more than he did before, which I like, personally. The offensive coordinator might not, but then recognizing blitzes and stuff like that, he’s just grown a lot, so it’s good to see him so confident.”
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Duke hopes that an effective quick-strike offense can open up opportunities for the running game, something Jones excelled in last season as he led the team with seven rushing touchdowns.
“He’s got the arm. He’s got all the tools. One of the reasons in his mind is this is a very gifted group of fast receivers,” Cutcliffe said in July. “A year ago, [often times], when we threw it deep, if you’re not real sure, if you don’t have pre-snap thoughts, then you just start chucking the ball.”
Jones’ growth in year two has also helped some of his wide receivers. They have been able to run different types of routes, knowing that Jones can make the throws in game situations. Whereas the redshirt sophomore spent a lot of time adjusting to a college-style offense with pre-snap reads in 2016, Jones has been able to spend more time working on timing with his receivers this year.
“I’m just able to understand a whole lot more and able to focus on more specific things. You don’t have to worry about some of the things that you had to worry about last year because they’re kind of ingrained in you,” Jones said. “I’ve developed into a point where they’re not as much of a cognitive thought process.”
Although Jones had a decent statistical season in 2016, with a completion percentage of 62.8 percent and 16 touchdowns to go along with nine interceptions, the Blue Devils hope that Jones’ growth is the key to getting them back to a bowl game after a disappointing 4-8 season.
Drawing comparisons to current NFL players and former Duke stars Sean Renfree and Thaddeus Lewis—who also worked with Jones during the summer—certainly helps to boost Duke’s confidence.
“All of the things that we’ve seen—guys we’ve had not only at Duke but previously, the reasons they were successful collegiately and on in the NFL—Daniel has a lot of those attributes,” Cutcliffe said in July. “He will reach his potential in my opinion, and he is right in line from an ability standpoint, and in some ways beyond because of his size, to have an opportunity to have an incredibly successful career as a college quarterback and potentially beyond that.”
Hank Tucker contributed reporting.