Duke's Daniel Jones ready to be Cutcliffe's best quarterback

Posted August 30

— Duke’s Daniel Jones is the only quarterback to play his entire career under head coach David Cutcliffe without post-season experience. Though his focus will be geared more towards short term goals like losing that distinction, long term, he might end up being the best quarterback Cutcliffe has ever had.

Perhaps you ask: But Ben, didn’t Cutcliffe coach Eli Manning for his entire college career? Yes. Yes he did. You may have heard that mentioned once or twice before, but Eli Manning was in fact Cutcliffe’s first start-to-finish quarterback at Ole Miss. And Daniel Jones is already way ahead of him at this point in his career. Eli had a shaky start in Oxford, only appearing in six games and attempting 33 passes his freshman season. Manning didn’t really take off until his sophomore year as QB1 when he threw an incredible 31 touchdowns against only 9 interceptions. While the rest is now legend, Jones essentially has a full year head start on Eli based on the rookie season stats.

Eli Manning’s cumulative stats heading into his junior season: 275 completions, 441 attempts, 62.4% completion percentage, 3118 yards and 31 touchdowns.

So who else started for Cutcliffe at quarterback? Well, he was lucky enough to inherit Thad Lewis, for starters. Lewis blew up in Cutcliffe’s offense, turning in Duke’s second best single season by a quarterback with 3,330 passing yards. That’s a jaw-dropping 1,000 yards better than any of his previous three seasons as a starter at Duke. That senior campaign, highlighted by a 459-yard, five-touchdown performance against Russell Wilson’s NC State, was good enough to make Lewis Duke’s all-time leading passer and their first member of the 10,000 yard club (joining only Philip Rivers, Tajh Boyd and Deshaun Watson in the ACC).

How did Lewis do during his freshman year under Ted Roof? Jones is already ahead of his pace too.

Thad Lewis’ stats heading into his sophomore season: 180 completions, 340 attempts, 52.9% completion percentage, 2134 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Sean Renfree overlapped Lewis by a season and still nearly topped his record anyway. Renfree only saw spot duty in his freshman season before turning in an incredibly consistent three-year run of performances that left him 500 yards shy of the 10,000 yard mark. Each of Renfree's three seasons are among the top 10 single-seasons in Duke football history, and while “Duke football history” doesn’t typically raise eyebrows, there’s only one quarterback on that list who isn’t (or wasn’t) an NFL quarterback. Who’s the lone quarterback? Nailed it. Daniel Jones, who put in the ninth-best performance in Duke history during his freshman season.

Sean Renfree’s stats heading into his junior season: 319 attempts, 514 completions, 62.1% completion percentage, 3461 yards and 18 touchdowns.

Taking Jones’ first year stats and simply multiplying by four puts him on a track towards 11,344 yards, which would shatter Lewis’ school record by more than 1000 yards. The truly scary look into Jones’ future, however, lies in the improvements that each of the above quarterbacks made throughout their careers.

North Carolina talent surge hits ACC football rosters

Eli Manning threw for 3600 yards his senior season. Sean Renfree completed 67 percent of his passes his senior year. The most notable statistic that Cutcliffe seems to help his quarterbacks improve is yards-per-attempt. Each of the three quarterbacks listed above, including Anthony Boone who is Cutcliffe’s other multi-year starter, increased yards-per-attempt from one year to the next. Jones, by the way, has the highest jumping-off point of all of Cutcliffe’s quarterbacks with a 6.6 yards-per-attempt average in 2016. If Jones increases his career average by one yard per attempt, he’s on pace to pass Philip Rivers’ ACC passing record.

Here’s what Cutcliffe, Jones and offensive coordinator Zac Roper have to do to get DJ on the top of that list:

1. Run the dang ball (with someone who isn’t Daniel Jones)

Jones was Duke’s second leading rusher last year, only 10 attempts behind running back Shaun Wilson. Jones runs the read option game very well, but being able to hand the ball off and run effectively between the tackles will let Duke use the run to set up the pass the way read option can’t. Duke’s offensive line is less experienced than it was a year ago, but that can’t be a bad thing given how shaky the line was in 2016. The addition of freshman Brittain Brown should help as reports out of camp have been off the charts. If Duke can run inside with Brown and let Wilson be the speed guy that he’s intended to be, there will be holes between and behind the secondary that Jones didn’t have last year. The Blue Devils HAVE to improve on that mere 3.9 yards per carry from 2016.

2. Y’all wanna win? Put DJ in. (Shout out to Boobie Miles)

Jones played three games last year with 21 or fewer pass attempts per game. He sat the second half of last year’s blowout win against NC Central, he played keep-away from Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, and unlike some other area coaches, Cutcliffe and Roper wisely allowed Jones to only throw 15 times in a hurricane. Duke opens up with Central again this year.

There’s no way Cutcliffe tries to embarrass the Eagles in a game meant to celebrate Durham, but looking at Jones’ Week Two performance against Wake Forest in 2016 shows that maybe it wasn’t the best idea to let the freshman QB sit for an entire half in last year's opener. And while Duke’s schedule is tougher this year, there isn’t a player anywhere on the schedule who’s even close to Lamar Jackson, so there’s no need to chew up clock three yards at a time. Duke’s best chance of winning games is letting their best player be their best player, and there shouldn’t be a game in 2017 where Jones isn’t throwing 30-plus times.

3. Leave the drops to the (alleged) other DJ

Two concerning rumors have emerged from Fall camp: One, there are rumblings about a student section DJ, which whatever … I’m not going to go full “that’s not college football,” in my first post... Two: evidently receivers have been struggling to hang on to the ball.

On paper, Jones is surrounded by the deepest talent Duke has had at the wide receiver position. But all of the speed, size and route running doesn’t mean a thing if players can’t catch the ball. The complete package is what made players like Conor Vernon, Donovan Varner and Jamison Crowder so great in Durham. Duke has the guys to get open downfield, and they’ve got a quarterback who can hit them in stride, but when the margin for error is as razor thin as Duke’s will perpetually be, a dropped first down here and a dropped touchdown there is the difference between 10-2 and 4-8.

The drops are certainly the difference between a school record and a league record, too.

4. We want Bama

The NFL just made Matthew Stafford the highest paid player in league history this week, and there’s no way there isn’t a franchise out there willing to hitch their wagon to a quarterback like Daniel Jones if he continues on this track over the next two seasons. It’s difficult to turn down money any time, but for potential NFL quarterbacks, it’s almost foolish to risk that kind of future for a redshirt senior year. If Daniel Jones has any chance of being the best college quarterback to play for Cutcliffe, he’ll need to play for four seasons unless he’s putting up Deshaun Watson-like 4,000-yard seasons. And if Jones needs a reason to justify coming back, how about a shot at Alabama in the opening game of the 2019 season in Atlanta as an incentive?


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