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From 3-star to first-rounder: Duke football's Daniel Jones peaking at just the right time

<p>Daniel Jones has emerged as one of the nation's best quarterbacks this season.</p>

Daniel Jones has emerged as one of the nation's best quarterbacks this season.

When it comes to first-round quarterbacks, “swag” is a fitting descriptor. Face-of-the-franchise signal-callers like Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes and Carson Wentz carry themselves with that confidence, and it translates to their play on the field.

Daniel Jones, however, seemingly embodies nothing about “swag.” From the outside, the redshirt junior is typically soft-spoken.

And yet, it didn’t take long for that very moniker to stick with Jones upon his arrival at Charlotte Latin back in 2011.

“We called him ‘Swag,’” said Larry McNulty, Jones’ high school coach. “No matter what happened to him, he always seemed to bounce back, and he was tough, so we knew he was coming along.”

Once a three-star grayshirt set to spend his first semester in Durham without a scholarship, Jones is nearing his peak. Most NFL Draft experts are pegging him as one of their top five quarterbacks the 2019 draft class, and there’s a possibility that Jones could wriggle his way into the first round, something that was beyond inconceivable when Jones finished his senior season without a single FBS offer.

So how did Jones, who is set to lead Duke into Death Valley Saturday evening with a shot—albeit slim—at knocking No. 2 Clemson from the ranks of the unbeaten, get to where he is now?

‘I felt like we had one’

After Jones was thrust into the role of starting quarterback for Charlotte Latin as a sophomore, he slowly began to earn some accolades. Jones led the Hawks to a state title game appearance as a junior and was named second-team all-state that same year.

But the Charlotte native also loved basketball—he played three varsity seasons at Charlotte Latin and was a co-captain during his senior year. And the hardwood was where Jones suffered an injury that nearly derailed his football career. He broke his right wrist as a junior, meaning he wouldn’t be able to participate in any recruiting combines or camps the following spring. 

Daniel Jones came to Duke without a scholarship, turning down his only other offer—one that would've seen him play at Princeton. Jim Liu

Jones had a cast on his throwing hand from April to July. Once it came off, he visited a few Ivy League schools in the late summer and early fall, but Princeton was the only school to offer.

Even a senior season in which Jones helped the Hawks to another state title game and set multiple program records wasn’t enough to garner more attention.

McNulty, who’d guided Jones all three seasons, was frustrated.

“We were sitting in my office one day, a couple of my assistants [and] were all shaking our heads like, ‘Damn it, this kid can play. What are we going to do here?’” McNulty said. “I finally got a hold of the coaches up at Duke and I got a hold of Coach Cut and I said, ‘Would you do me a favor? Let me send you Daniel’s highlight film. Please take a look at it. I trust and respect you as a quarterback analyst and a quarterback coach. What do you think of this kid and why isn’t there more interest?’ I sent him the link and he just about fell off his chair when he looked at the highlights."

“I watched maybe a quarter and a half, and I picked up the phone and said, ‘You’re right,’” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe recalled. “He had quick hands, he had great feet, he had height, he was accurate with the ball—the ball came off his hand clean time after time after time. Then obviously, I wanted to know a little more about him and when I found out everything about Daniel Jones as a person, I felt like we had one.”

Jones and his family needed only about a week to decide that Duke was the way to go, but he committed without a scholarship. The Blue Devils had already pulled together their entire 2015 class. It wasn’t until July, when linebacker Kelby Brown tore his ACL for a fourth time, that a spot for Jones opened up.

‘He is ripping our guys up’

The 2015 campaign was a landmark one for Duke. The Blue Devils won their first bowl game in more than 50 years, led by the strong play of quarterback Thomas Sirk. Jones didn’t even serve as an understudy that year—he redshirted his first season, instead serving as Duke’s scout-team quarterback.

Although Jones wasn’t playing in front of crowds, there was an audience of one that was impressed by what he showed in practice.

“I thought he had a great year against the defense, and so I was excited about that spring practice and I’ve watched him get better every year,” Cutcliffe said. “He was just so accurate with the ball, so quick under rush. Nobody treats a scout-team quarterback particularly well, especially a redshirt true freshman who hadn’t been here.”

Christian Harris, the Blue Devils’ current left tackle and Jones’ classmate, acknowledged that although Jones was quiet from the get-go, he flashed potential early.

“He wasn’t as assured of himself as he is now,” Harris said. “He’s developed into a lot better leader, a vocal guy, somebody who leads by example [but] from Day 1 we knew he was something special, and we knew [he was a] smart guy with good pocket presence, strong arm and just put the balls where they needed to be.”

Daniel Jones missed just two games despite suffering a fractured clavicle against Northwestern earlier this year. Likhitha Butchireddygari

By the time spring practice rolled around in 2016, McNulty visited Durham to check in on his former standout.

With Sirk still in the fold, the starting job didn’t yet belong to Jones. But Jones was still getting plenty of praise.

“An older coach came over to me and I introduced myself and he said, ‘Let me tell you something. Every quarterback that comes to Duke has to go through this ritual of being the look-team quarterback when they’re a freshman,’” McNulty said. “‘I’ve been here a long time, and nobody has stressed out the first-team defense the way Daniel Jones has done. He is ripping our guys up.’”In August 2016, Sirk ruptured his Achilles and Jones was quickly named Duke’s starter. 

Although the Blue Devils didn’t make a bowl game that year, there were some bright moments. Jones threw three touchdowns and helped Duke to an upset win at Notre Dame, and he rushed for a pair of scores against North Carolina to stun the Tar Heels and bring the Victory Bell back to Durham.

The next season got off to an even better start for Jones—the Blue Devils began 2017 4-0 and Jones racked up a passer rating of more than 112 in three of the four wins. Even after a six-game losing streak, Jones was a big reason why Duke bounced back to make the postseason and beat Northern Illinois in the Quick Lane Bowl.

What’s next?

Wednesday morning, Jones popped up on ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr.’s preliminary Big Board. Although it was once far-fetched, Kiper suggested that Jones could wind up the first quarterback to hear his name called in primetime during Round 1 of the 2019 NFL Draft come April.

Cutcliffe noted that while he isn’t a “soothsayer” and couldn’t have predicted this type of rise for Jones four and a half years ago, he thought at the time they “might have somebody that could be special.”

But Jones is quiet—when he speaks, he still seems like that timid kid McNulty coached back in Charlotte. Except the Blue Devil captain isn’t shy when he’s in the huddle or on the sidelines.

“Ever since I’ve known him, I’ve tried to work with him on developing a little bit more verbal leadership skill, but that’s not him,” McNulty said. “He’s a quiet, confident kid and here’s what his teammates would say: He loves football more than anyone.”

When Daniel Jones and Duke enter Death Valley Saturday, it will be by far the biggest game of the redshirt junior's career. Eric Wei

That calm focus is what has made Jones successful. In the most raucous of environments, such as the one he’ll be facing Saturday night at Clemson, Jones always manages to remain more level-headed.

“[It’s about] just focusing on what I have to do, what we have to do as an offense,” Jones said. “Talking to guys and just going through what you have to do mentally, I think that helps me stay focused on playing the game.”

Jones can graduate in December with his Economics degree, and it remains unclear whether he’ll return to Duke for his senior season or go pro.

Either way, the epic rise will only continue for a quarterback that has already made drastic leaps from his high school days.

Correction: A previous version of this story listed Harvard as the only school to offer Jones, not Princeton. The Chronicle regrets the error.

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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