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Duke passing game takes next step with Sirk’s return

Sean Meyers / ICON SMI

DURHAM, N.C. – The next step to Duke improving its passing game is in the books. Quarterback Thomas Sirk took to the practice field as planned Monday for the Blue Devils’ first workout of the 2016 season.

“We’ll put him on a little bit of pitch count,” said Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, using a baseball metaphor. “It’s not just how much he throws but how much we fatigue him. I met with (offensive coordinator) Zac Roper, and we have a good plan in that regard. We’ll see how about his day-to-day progress. We won’t have updates until about a week and a half.”

Cutcliffe began hinting in the late spring Sirk was ahead of schedule on his rehab from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in February. With Sirk expected to participate in all workouts – seven-on-seven, one-on-one and full squad – he and his receivers can work on their timing that had too many hiccups last year.

Anthony Nash and T.J. Rahming return as two of last year’s three starting wide receivers, but Sirk’s favorite target is gone to the NFL. Max McCaffery, who led the Blue Devils in receptions (52), yards (634) and touchdown catches (five), signed as a free agent with the Oakland Raiders.

Nash, a 6-5, 200-pound redshirt senior, had a slow start to the 2015 season before he started the final nine games. He was fifth on the team – fourth among receivers since running back Shaquille Powell was third — with 32 catches for 475 yards and one TD.

“I’m really pleased with Anthony Nash,” Cutcliffe said. “If you look at his season he made a lot of important catches. He is a guy that made first downs, made catches off the ground. That’s one of things we’ve lost a little bit of – Max McCaffrey was a beast at making big catches.”

If Nash is counted in the possession-type receiver role, the Blue Devils need more long balls from Rahming. He earned Freshman All-American honors as a true freshman last year, finishing second on the team with 43 catches for 571 yards and two touchdowns.

The 5-10, 165-pounder set Duke rookie records with 12 catches for 190 yards against Virginia. His 59-yarder was the team’s longest pass play, but that’s a statistic that needs to improve. Rahming probably also led the team in groans from the crowd on plays he had his man beat but Sirk’s ball was underthrown or overthrown.

If those explosive plays are made this year, the possibilities of opening up the field for other receivers and the running game expand.

Among the other returning receivers are senior Ryan Smith, redshirt junior Quay Chambers, redshirt sophomore Johnathan Lloyd and redshirt sophomore Chris Taylor.

“Ryan Smith looks like a different guy,” said Cutcliffe, referring to added strength to his 5-7, 170-pound frame. “I’m anxious to see what he does. I thought Chris Taylor had a tremendous spring.

“I’m not going to set a depth chart in my mind right now. I just want to see performance. We’ve got one (true) freshman, (Scott) Bracey, who I know is going to compete. But I don’t have any preconceived ideas.”

One Sirk stat that is overlooked was his total yards performance of 3,428 (2,625 passing, 803 rushing).

He was one of only four quarterbacks in the Football Bowl Subdivision with at least 2,600 yards passing and 800 yards rushing. The only other two quarterbacks in ACC history to combine those numbers were Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and North Carolina’s Marquise Williams, last year’s first- and second-team All-ACC quarterbacks.

Sirk has proven he can put up numbers. In the Pinstripe Bowl 44-41 win over Indiana, he ran for 155 yards and two touchdowns and passes for 163 with a TD.

The difference between the Blue Devils challenging in the Coastal Division and playing in a Pinstripe Bowl will be how many game-breaking passes he can connects on with his receivers.

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