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With Daniel Jones Gone To The NFL, Who Will Take Over As Duke’s Quarterback?

Fortunately there are some promising candidates

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NCAA Football: Duke at Pittsburgh
Oct 27, 2018; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Duke Blue Devils quarterback Quentin Harris (18) runs on his way to scoring a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the first quarter at Heinz Field. 
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Does a great quarterback guarantee a great season?

Conversely, does a great season require a great quarterback?

David Cutcliffe is beginning his 12th season at Duke. Assuming an asteroid doesn’t hit the planet and end life as we know it appears that Daniel Jones will begin his NFL career in about five months.

Jones will be the third NFL quarterback of Cutcliffe’s Duke tenure. Thad Lewis had a decent NFL career, while Sean Renfree’s was more of the hold-the-clipboard variety. Lewis, Renfree and Jones were Duke’s starting quarterback for eight of Cutcliffe’s first 11 seasons. None of these NFL guys ever quarterbacked Duke to a winning ACC record and only Jones’ last two seasons--2017 and 2018-produced overall winning records.

Duke’s best seasons in this time frame were quarterbacked by some combination of Anthony Boone, Brandon Connette or Thomas Sirk.

All of whom were pretty good college quarterbacks. But not NFL-level quarterbacks.

Which suggests that the other 50 or so guys also matter.

That brings us to 2019.

Duke has three quarterbacks vying to replace Jones. Quentin Harris will be a redshirt senior, Chris Katrenick a redshirt sophomore and Gunnar Holmberg a redshirt freshman.

Three recruited quarterbacks isn’t a lot. It should be enough, barring injuries. But Duke football hasn’t been very good recently at barring injuries.

Fingers crossed.

There’s no doubt that Harris is first among equals.

Coming into the 2019 season Harris has 78 career rushes, 81 career pass attempts, not a common quarterback ratio.

That’s not immediately disqualifying. Both Connette and Sirk established themselves first as runner, then as passers.

Harris got two starts last season when Jones was out with a collarbone injury. One was against North Carolina Central, perhaps not an accurate indicator of what we might expect from Harris against ACC competition.

But the other was a road game at Baylor, a Power-5 conference team good enough to go bowling.

Harris threw for 174 yards and three touchdowns, without an interception. But he also missed on some short, timing patterns, going only 12-for-30 overall against the Bears.

Offensive coordinator Zac Roper says Harris was “very explosive against Baylor but needs to be explosive and efficient. He had a great spring and scored really high on drills and played well in scrimmages.”

After the Spring Showcase, Cutcliffe gave Harris high marks for “command of the offense. Quentin did a good job. He did a good job running the ball, a good job completing passes, a good job running the team.”

Harris says he benefited from those two starts.

“Having two starts last year helps. It’s one thing to prepare each week knowing you’re going to be a backup but still having to prepare like a starter. But it’s something else getting the 1s reps and getting the exotic looks the defense will give you and really understanding the game plan. Daniel helped me navigate those two starts, helping me with game film, what to evaluate, what to look for. Having those two games under my belt has helped me craft the pregame process each week.”

Harris adds an interesting angle. Duke lost all three of its starting wide receivers from last season, along with two of its top-three tight ends. But Harris rarely practiced with the starters, instead practicing with many of the backups projected to move into bigger roles.

“It’s a blessing and a curse losing all those guys, skill players, because I’ve been playing with these guys pretty much since I’ve been here, Scott [Bracey], Aaron [Young], [Jake] Bobo, Noah [Gray], the running backs as well. So, it’s been a smooth transition for us this spring. The work in the summer will be invaluable, timing and reps and building chemistry.”

Bobo agrees.

“I definitely have a sense of comfort. That makes the transition [from Jones] easier. Quentin brings a different skill set. He can definitely move around. He can put pressure on a defense that way.”

Is there a clear backup?

Roper says Katrenick and Holmberg are competing hard but neither has separated himself. He also notes that both graduated from high school early and have thus participated in one more spring practice than their class would suggest.

But neither has played much. Katrenick was five-for-12 passing last season, with two rushes, all in mop-up duty against NC Central.

Holmberg played only against Temple in the Independence Bowl, reeling off a 19-yard run late.

Cutcliffe evaluated his backups following the Spring Showcase.

“Chris can throw the football. He had a little more trouble with the rush than Quentin or Gunnar did. Gunnar ran the ball real well and made a couple of really nice plays. I’m pleased so far with where we are now.”

Roper adds that Holmberg brings “a level of athleticism to the position. He can do multiple things.”

Bobo has some thoughts. He says Katrenick can “drop the ball in a basket from 40 yards out,” while Holmberg can “make plays on the ground but he’s a dude who can throw it down the field. I’m 100 percent comfortable and confident with any of them.”

Roper praises walk-on Robert Nelson. “We like his athleticism.”

Roper says that Duke did not pursue any of the grad-student quarterback-options available this off-season because Duke feels confident in the players it has.

A schedule that includes Alabama, Notre Dame, Syracuse and the usual Coastal Division suspects will show whether Duke is accurate in that assessment.

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