Cutcliffe, Duke plan to continue using multiple quarterbacks

No one ever wants to get caught without a quarterback.Throughout his coaching career, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe wants to make sure that never happens to him.

Senior Anthony Boone accounted for 2,260 passing yards and 18 total touchdowns as the Duke Blue Devils' primary quarterback last season.

Daniel Shirey / USA TODAY Sports

No one ever wants to get caught without a quarterback.

Throughout his coaching career, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe wants to make sure that never happens to him.

"I'm real serious about trying to find a way to get our younger quarterbacks some meaningful snaps," Cutcliffe said. "I did it when I was (head coach) at Ole Miss. I did it when I was (offensive coordinator) at Tennessee. Always just wanted to stay aware of that depth situation."

It's easier said than done, of course. When you have a starting quarterback, it's convention that he get all the first-team reps, all the game action -- everything revolves around him.

Back in 2012, Sean Renfree was that guy. But both backup Anthony Boone and goal-line specialist Brandon Connette got in on the action from time to time, both in live games and in practice. That paid off, as Boone was more than ready to step into the starting job as a redshirt junior a year ago, and Connette was ready to take on a larger role in the offense.

Boone broke his collarbone early last season, and the dual-threat Connette stepped as the full-time guy without a hitch, finishing with half of Duke's rushing touchdowns (14 of 28) and passing touchdowns (13 of 26). While Boone finished with the majority of the passing yards (about two-thirds), Connette was invaluable during his three-game absence and continued to play a role even when a healthy Boone returned.

But in December of last year, Connette's mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Connette actually spent the weeks leading up to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl at his mother's bedside. He went through the spring with the Blue Devils, but announced earlier this month that he would transfer (and he announced last week his final destination would be closer to home at Fresno State).

"Going to be greatly missed as a young man and person, certainly as a player," Cutcliffe said. "But it was an easy decision to support Brandon in every way we could."

But Connette's replacement may already be on the roster.

Duke has a few promising young quarterbacks in redshirt sophomore Thomas Sirk and redshirt freshman Parker Boehme. And both have the skill sets that could be used to run Connette's package of plays in the offense.

"Well, Thomas Sirk did a lot of this this past spring. We were able to practice him full speed as you saw in the spring game. He's got great speed, a lot of the same attributes that Brandon had as a runner," Cutcliffe said. "Parker Boehme, who was hurt at the tail end of spring but is going to be fine, is that same kind of guy.

"We're starting the year with only one quarterback that's ever played collegiately, and that is Anthony. I think the big deal right now is that we are definitively looking at certain ways to use whoever ends the backup or maybe even a third team. I want those guys to get some meaningful playing time. That's one of the ways we've gone about doing it through the years."

But both Sirk and Boehme missed significant chunks of the 2013 spring as Sirk ruptured his Achilles tendon and Boehme had toe surgery in December.

Missing that spring put Boehme behind, and though he came an injury to Connette away from being forced to burn his redshirt last season, he got a lot of experience in practice during the season.

Then the injury bug hit again and he didn't get to finish spring football this year, either.

But the same thing happened to Sirk, who had to have a surgery of his own after spring football ended.

An Achilles injury is a tough thing to come back from, but Cutcliffe expects more from his quarterback that is now entering his third year in the program.

"He's a better player. I hate the fact he's been dealing with the surgery that came at the end of the 2013 spring," Cutcliffe said. "He got a lot of work there. "He's had a lot of meaningful reps, which has been good in practice. Our practices are intense. It's not game snaps. But he's gotten better. I expect more from him, to be honest with you.

"That's been my conversation with him. He's not a rookie. Whether he wants to look at it or not that way, you got to go play like a veteran. What you have to do is play like you've practiced. He's prepared very well in his times where he's been healthy enough to practice."

Sirk finished the spring game with 83 yards passing (12-of-23), but ran the ball 19 times for 30 yards and two touchdowns. Boehme didn't play. Early enrollee and dual-threat QB Johnathan Lloyd did, and didn't attempt a pass (but finished with 18 yards rushing on three attempts). Lloyd could be part of that mix as well, as could incoming freshman Nico Pierre.

Regardless, someone else -- at least one other quarterback -- is going to see game action during meaningful games for the Coastal Division champion Blue Devils.

Boone hadn't lost a start until the postseason last year, when the Blue Devils lost to Florida State (the eventual national champions) in the ACC title game, and then once again in a thriller of a Chick-fil-A Bowl (to Johnny Football and Texas A&M). Boone tore up the Aggies' defense in the loss, which was a significant step down from FSU's elite defense.

He's certainly used to being in and out of football games and having to find a rhythm, but Boone was often at his best when he was the primary quarterback. Three of his best games of the year came in Duke's final four games, including the A&M game.

And in those games, Boone had 108 of a possible 112 passing attempts between the two quarterbacks (not to mention 18 of 25 rushing attempts).

The real question is if anyone on the Duke roster is going to be capable of replicating what Connette did. It won't be easy. Connette was almost unstoppable around the end zone with his physicality as a runner, and he really developed as a passer throughout his time at Duke.

Sirk and Boehme had better have learned, even while injured, during their time under Cutcliffe. He's not going to play another quarterback just for depth's sake if that quarterback isn't ready, and if his quotes about Sirk were any indication, he expects more.