DURHAM -- At one point last spring, Brandon Connette was Duke’s third-string quarterback.
He’s now the Blue Devil starter heading into Saturday’s game with Georgia Tech at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Of course, “third-string quarterback” was never a good description of Connette’s role on the Duke team. He’s been an extremely valuable player for the Blue Devils – mostly as a Wildcat quarterback for short yardage and goal line situations, but also as a tight end, running back, slot back and even as a punt protector.
“I just wanted to play and help the team wherever possible,” Connette said of his multiple roles.
And he has helped -- going into this season, the redshirt junior had scored 17 rushing touchdowns, thrown three touchdown passes, caught one touchdown pass and had converted numerous third and fourth down plays.
But in his heart, Connette always remained a quarterback -- a true, all-around quarterback. It’s just that his path to playing time at that position was always blocked by Sean Renfree and then by his classmate and former roommate Anthony Boone.
When the Duke coaches first suggested in the spring of 2012 that Connette could help in a variety of roles, the California product agreed – on one condition.
“I wanted to stay in the quarterback meeting room,” he said. “I learned a lot from Sean about how to prepare for and manage a game.”
Connette was still slated to play multiple roles last spring, but late in the offseason drills, freshman Thomas Sirk, projected as the No. 2 quarterback, suffered an Achilles injury that still has him sidelined.
Connette said that the coaches – realizing that he had become the backup to Boone with Sirk’s injury – had him focusing on quarterback over the summer and in preseason practice.
“Not working on tight end or running back as much helped me get into the mindset as a quarterback,” he said.
That proved providential when Boone suffered a broken collarbone at Memphis. Connette came into a tie game and rallied Duke to a 28-14 victory. Along the way, he proved he was more than a short-yardage specialist, hitting 14 of 21 passes for 198 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
“How can you not have confidence in a guy like Brandon Connette?” coach David Cutcliffe asked Sunday night.
Connette said the Duke offense is not going to change with him at the controls. And he vowed not to modify his own game, even if he is the last experienced quarterback left healthy.
“I will not change who I am,” he said. “I’ve always played with a physical mindset. Maybe if I’m chased to the sidelines, I’ll step out of bounds, rather than take a hit. But if I’m running down the middle of the field, I’m not sliding.
“I don’t think I’ve ever slid in my football career and I don’t see that happening unless Coach Cut forces me to do so – and even then it will be hard to do.”
Cutcliffe, informed of Connette’s comments Tuesday, said, “We’re going to talk about it.”
TESTING THE DEFENSE
Duke’s defense, which struggled late last season, has been nothing short of spectacular so far this season – allowing just one touchdown in the first two games.
But the first two opponents are hardly offensive juggernauts. Is Duke’s defensive revival real … or is it a product of two weak opponents?
“Wow, that’s a good question,” senior cornerback Ross Cockrell said. After some thought, he answered, “Memphis lined up and tried to punch us in the mouth. We responded. I think that’s something I haven’t seen before. We have a bunch of fourth and fifth year players on the defensive front who are stepping up and being leaders on this team. And taking control of the games.
“We might have more TFLs [tackles for loss] after two games that we had at any other point in a Duke season. That’s stuff to dote on. It’s good for our confidence and I think it’s good going into Georgia Tech.”
Linebacker Kelby Brown didn’t get to play last season, but he watched the 2012 defense struggle. He thinks the 2013 defensive improvement is significant.
“I think it’s all real – it’s a new defense,” he said. “This year there’s a swagger … a pride. Last game we had to overcome a lot of adversity. It’s all real.”
Brown understands that Georgia Tech will offer a stiff test for Duke’s “new” defense.
“It’s obviously a lot different,” he said. “It’s ACC. But I’m confident in this defense. We take pride in what we do.”
Georgia Tech presents some special problems. The Yellow Jackets run a sophisticated option attack that has made them the nation’s top rushing team over the last five years. Coach Cutcliffe suggested that this version of the Georgia Tech offense is the best he’s seen because of the addition of strong-armed quarterback Vad Lee, a product of Durham’s Hillside High.
A year ago, Duke limited Georgia Tech’s explosive plays, but couldn’t stop the Jackets from grinding out long drives. Tech was 13 of 20 on third down and four of four on fourth down.
“We couldn’t stop them on third down or fourth down,” Corckrell said. “That’s something we worked on [on the offseason] – finishing drives. That means that when it’s 3rd and 5, make sure it 4th and 4, so they don’t want to go for it on fourth down.
“The biggest thing we’ve got to do is make them go backwards. Once you get them behind the sticks, behind the downs, you can force them to make some bad plays.”
Georgia Tech presents another problem for the Duke defenders – the heavy use of cut blocks, a dangerous practice that had been outlawed in the NFL but is still legal in NCAA play.
“I don’t like cut blocks … nobody likes them,” Brown said. “It’s just something you’ve got to overcome. You have to beat it. It takes a lot of eye discipline. You’ve got to look at the man coming at you. If you try and look past him, he’s going to go low. You’ve got to eye him up, have great hands and keep your feet square – a lot of little technical things like that.”
A LATE ARRIVAL ON THE STAGE
Garett Patterson was a part of the same recruiting class as Ross Cockrell. In some ways, he has more to offer than his more famous classmate – Patterson is bigger, stronger and just as fast.
But while Cockrell is now starting for the fourth straight year, Patterson is getting his first chance to play regularly – starting at the cornerback opposite Cockrell.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Patterson said earlier this week. “It took me a long time to get used to the college game. Coach [Derek] Jones did a great job teaching me the fundamentals – what it takes to play corner in the ACC. I think by my fifth year, I finally got the hang of it.”
Patterson was credited with two pass breakups against Memphis – the first two of his career. Coach Cutcliffe said his performance looked as good when they graded the film as it did in real time.
“Garett is a real good athlete without a ton of good football experience,” he said. “You’ve got to have great resiliency and confidence to play corner. He’s grown a lot in that regard.”
Patterson played safety at Monacan High School in Richmond. He concedes that it took him time to mature as a corner.
“It was a matter of me having the confidence that I could really go out there and do it against the strongest competition,” he said, adding, “You also have to look at the guys in front of me.”
That was the point Cockrell made when asked about his classmate.
“There were older guys in front of us,” he said. “Garett has always had the skill, has always had the size and strength to play. It’s always been a fifth-year senior here or a fourth-year junior there that was ahead of him. But he knew this was his year. He stuck to his role and I’m proud of him.”
Patterson thinks he’s proved something in the first two games.
“I think I’ve shown my coaches, my teammates and myself that they can trust me to make plays,” he said.
THE FRESHMAN QUARTERBACKS
With the injury to Anthony Boone and the elevation of Brandon Connette to the starting role, the spotlight has fallen on some younger quarterbacks.
The first is Parker Boehme, who is now the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart.
Cutcliffe wanted to redshirt Boehme – and still might – but he’s now leaning towards using the 6-2, 220-poind Florida native in relief of Connette.
“We’ve got a lot to think about,” Cutcliffe said. “If you play Parker, it’s a year. I’m leaning towards doing that. I want to see how prepared he is. The worst thing you can do to a quarterback is to play him before he is ready. Because it can cost two to three years of confidence.”
The Duke coach said that Boehme had a good practice showing Tuesday, but he wants to see how well he performs Wednesday – a much more complex and demanding practice.
Another factor weighing in his decision is the development of redshirt freshman quarterback Thomas Sirk, who was running No. 2 behind Boone last spring before suffering an Achilles injury.
Sirk has not yet been cleared to work out, but Cutcliffe sounded as if the talented prospect might be back before too long.
“He’s throwing a lot,” the Duke coach said. “He’s not dressed out, but he’s running inside now. He has really done great. What I’m not going to do it bring that type of athlete back too early. He’s a really, really fast guy and I don’t want to alter that in any manner.”
Cutcliffe said the prognosis is that Sirk will make a 100 percent recovery – in time. But will it be in time to back up Connette this season? That’s the question.
A third freshman quarterback in the spotlight this week is Quay Chambers, a 6-3, 215-pounder from Monroe, N.C. Chambers is not going to play this week – the plan is still to redshirt him – but he’s important this week because he’s running the scout team offense against the Duke defense. He’s got to emulate talented Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee.
“Quay is a big, fast, athletic guy – similar to what we’re going to see this weekend,” Cockrell said. “That gives us a good look as far as lowering his shoulder, juking people and making pitches.”
Cutcliffe suggested that in time Chambers can become the kind of multi-positional threat that Connette was before he was forced into the starting quarterback role.
“He’s a really fine prospect,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s an interesting athlete.”