Even the most informed Duke football fan may have asked that question after Jalon Calhoun’s break-out performance last Saturday against North Carolina A&T. The freshman wide receiver exploded for two touchdowns and 105 yards on eight receptions to key Duke’s 45-13 win. But Calhoun began fall practice a virtual unknown to everyone outside the coaching staff.
Let’s reprise. Duke lost all three starting receivers and two reserves from last year’s team. The leading returning wide receiver was sophomore Jake Bobo, who caught 10 passes last year. Aaron Young had 16 catches two seasons but missed most of last season with a hamstring injury. Scott Bracey entered the season with nine catches over two seasons, Damond Philyaw-Johnson six in one season. Freshmen Jarrett Garner and Dennis Smith played sparingly but sat out enough games to preserve a redshirt. Neither caught a pass.
In other words playing time was available.
Darrell Harding and Eli Pancol enrolled early and both made positive impressions over the spring, Harding with a highlight-reel catch in the spring game. Duke ended the spring with Bracey, Young and Bobo as starters, Harding, Pancol and Philyaw-Johnson at second team.
Calhoun did not enroll early and was on nobody’s radar screen.
Well, except for the coaching staff.
Calhoun was a quarterback at Southside High School, in Greenville, South Carolina. He threw for a modest 633 yards as a senior and more than a few schools recruited him as a defensive back.
That played to Duke’s advantage.
“There were a lot of teams that talked to him about playing corner because he has great feet and quickness,” David Cutcliffe says. “And you can see that. Some teams didn’t think he threw the ball well enough to play quarterback. I think he throws it well. We’ll see that at some point. He needed to get the ball. He’s dynamic with the football. I think deep in his mind he wanted to play offense and that’s why he ended up at Duke.”
Calhoun showed up for summer classes at Duke and promptly made a positive impression.
Cutcliffe again. “I know that this summer, because my quarterbacks were telling me, he could not get enough work on his own. Anytime they wanted to, he went to the Pascal and threw with them. He was constantly growing as a player and it shows. He’s very comfortable and he’s committed to learning. He’s just a natural ball player.”
When tight end Noah Gray was asked about Calhoun he responded “ work ethic is the first thing that comes to my mind. Jalon’s done an unbelievable job of getting out with the quarterbacks, receivers, tight ends in the off-season working on his routes, getting on the same page as his quarterbacks. He’s really brought that same work ethic into the season. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. I’m not sure I’ve seen that many guys work that hard, especially at a really young age. He came in and didn’t act like you think a freshman should. He worked hard, really showed us the maturity he’s brought to this program.”
Calhoun has leveraged his experience as a quarterback to his advantage.
“It definitely helps,” Calhoun says of his background. “We have a lot of film sessions, reading coverages and different stuff like that. It comes naturally as a quarterback coming to college.”
Quarterback Quentin Harris agrees.
“It always helps when you have the mindset of a quarterback, to be able to understand how the quarterback is thinking about plays and coverages. So, if he can think ‘I have to run my route this way’ in order for the quarterback to see me, then that just helps a lot. That’s one thing I’ve seen from Jalon, has been his awareness and ability to digest coverages and adjust his route accordingly.”
Calhoun is playing in the slot, which is where the injured Bobo was scheduled to play. But Cutcliffe says Duke will find ways to get both on the field at the same time when Bobo returns from his broken clavicle.
“Jake is so versatile and can do so many things there are a lot of ways he can cure a lot of things for us. Our offense can use him at a lot of spots. I don’t think Jalon can move around. And Jake will be on the field.”
The competition gets tougher than MEAC schools and Calhoun understands that. But he also knows that he is only scratching the surface of his potential.
“I’ve got to carry on next week and the week after that. At the end of the day, football is still football. A lot of the older guys in my room, they give me a lot of confidence and advice to not worry about that. So, I just go out there and play football.”