DURHAM, N.C. — New Duke starting quarterback Brandon Connette has always wanted to play quarterback. But that doesn’t mean he was allowed to.
He started off his football career as an eighth grader and asked to be the signal-caller. Instead, the coaches made him a two-way player at left tackle and offensive guard.
“I wanted to play QB, I tried out for QB but they didn’t think I could do it, so they put me on offensive and defensive line,” the redshirt junior said. “I actually enjoyed offensive line a lot.”
Now, he won’t have the choice. Starter Anthony Boone broke his collarbone in the second quarter at Memphis last weekend, and Connette had to go in right away. He has played in most of Duke’s games when he’s been healthy over his career, but he hadn’t entered the game against the Tigers before being called on to replace Boone.
Connette struggled a bit early. In his first two series, he completed 3-of-7 passes for 16 yards and was sacked twice, running for a total of -3 yards. But in the second half, he completed 11-of-14 for 182 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, adding 34 yards on the ground.
How many Division I teams could lose their starting quarterback, on the road, and barely miss a beat? That’s the benefit of having a guy like Connette waiting in the wings.
“I can’t tell you how thankful I am to have a guy like Brandon Connette,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “He comes in and he leads us to 21 points in the second half and we don’t miss a beat. We don’t have any cadence issues or getting the signal from the sideline. There are a lot of college football teams that this early in the season, if they have to go to their backup, would have a struggle functioning.
“Brandon, he didn’t even think twice about that. He’s made of the right stuff.”
Much like his friend Boone, who is now sleeping in a chair and barely moving to try to heal his collarbone, Connette has seen spot duty at quarterback throughout his Duke career, so it’s not as if this is brand new territory. But unlike Boone, Connette has played almost every position on the Duke roster.
Last year, Cutcliffe just called him a “Phantom”. He played tight end (11 catches for 85 yards and a touchdown). He played as a Wildcat QB, generally in goal-line situations, and he has 146 career carries for 451 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Passing, however, was usually a bit dicier: he entered this season 16-of-37 for 198 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Not that anyone should be expected to complete every pass in spot duty, but it was not viewed as a strength. The knock on Wildcat quarterbacks, after all, is that they can’t throw.
Through two games this year, he already has more passing touchdowns (four) than he did in his previous three years combined.
“It really wasn’t something that I needed to prove to anybody. I knew what I could do,” Connette said. “I guess that’s just something that the media, if you will, has been wondering: is he just playing Wildcat because he can’t throw the ball, or can he just not play quarterback at all?”
“It wasn’t something that I’ve ever questioned or the team’s ever questioned. It was nice to be able to go out there and be efficient, but that’s something that the coaches and I would expect from any of the quarterbacks that step on the field.”
While he embraced his role as Mr. Do-It-All for the Blue Devils last year, he had one request for Cutcliffe: let him stay in the quarterbacks’ meeting room. He watched Sean Renfree, recently placed on injured reserve by the Atlanta Falcons to stash him away for later, break down tape. He learned Renfree’s system of looking at different parts of the game — first down, second down, third down, red zone, etc. — on different days.
He still uses that system.
When others say they prepare like they’re going to start the game, it’s usually lip service. But if you’re a Duke quarterback, you’re almost always going to get some playing time if you’re ready. Connette always made sure he was.
“Even (last year), I prepared as if I was the starting quarterback because even if you’re playing a different position if you prepare like you’re the starting quarterback, you know exactly what’s going on so you’ll never be confused with anything that you see out there,” Connette said. “That hasn’t changed for me at all. (In Week 1) against North Carolina Central, I prepared that way and going into Memphis, I prepared that way too. That style of preparation was what allowed me to just step in and just be comfortable in the offense.”
If there’s a potential problem for Connette, it’s that he doesn’t mind taking a hit. At times, he invites it.
He’s bigger than his height and weight (6-foot-2, 225) make him sound, and he can deliver a hit on a defender as well as he can take one.
Now that he’s the last line of defense from a true freshman (Parker Boehme) burning a redshirt and getting in the game, he has to be a little smarter. But he still can’t change who he is, and the coaches don’t want him to.
Connette said that Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper have just gently urged Connette to run out of bounds once he already has the first down. If Connette is running down the middle of the field, though, he is not sliding.
“One of the things that Coach Cutcliffe and Coach Roper have really told me is to not change who I am because there’s a certain mindset that I go onto the field with every single time I’m on the field, and that’s with a physical mindset,” Connette said. “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. Even then, it’ll still be hard to do it.”
Right now, his health is the least of his concerns.
As he sat in on the quarterback meetings over the years, Connette always held on to the dream that he’d be able to be Duke’s starting quarterback. Now — at least for one week, though probably more — he will be.
His patience and unselfishness have led him to this moment.
“It’s something that I’ve always worked towards, but my biggest thing is I just wanted to play,” Connette said. “I wanted to get out and help the team in whatever facet I could, whether it was at quarterback, tight end, running back, special teams. I really just enjoyed being on the field and being a part of the team.”