Daniel Jones managed much more than to riddle Notre Dame’s defense last week. The Duke quarterback’s play in a 38-35 victory flipped upside down the modern-day recruiting system that supposedly leaves no stone unturned.
Everyone but Blue Devils Coach David Cutcliffe whiffed on the kid from Charlotte (N.C.) Latin.
How is it possible that Jones ended up a run-of-the-mill 2-star prospect on the recruiting circuit? He stands 6-foot, 5 inches and weighs 210 pounds, he’s armed with a live and accurate wing, his transcript matches Ivy League credentials and he gained state high school playoffs exposure in a major city.
Everything about all of the above screams FOUR-STARS!
But the only schools interested in him coming out of high school were Harvard, Yale, Princeton and UNC-Charlotte’s fledgling program in his backyard. Duke, a two-hours-plus drive up Interstate-85, didn’t enter the picture until Latin head coach Larry McNulty made a phone call to Cutcliffe, encouraging him to take a look.
“Coach Cutcliffe thanks me every time we talk for sending Daniel his way,” McNulty told Today’s U in a phone conversation.
Jones, a redshirt freshman, was scheduled to back up fifth-year senior Thomas Sirk this season. That all changed when Sirk suffered a season-ending Achilles’ injury a week before the opener.
Four starts into Jones’ career, his stature shouts big-time college quarterback with an NFL future. He leads the nation’s freshmen QBs in completions (92), passing yards (1,090) and total offensive yards (1,190).
Jones looked the casting-call part at Notre Dame, standing tall in the pocket. He completed 24-of-32 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. He drove the Blue Devils 10 plays and 44 yards to set up A.J. Reed’s game-winning field goal from 19 yards with 1:24 to play.
“I had goose-bumps watching the game on TV,” McNulty said.
Here’s the short story on how Jones flew under the recruiting radar:
— A late growth spurt in high school. He didn’t turn 18 until a month before high school graduation.
— A broken bone on his throwing wrist that required surgery in the spring of his junior year. He wore a cast for two months and missed the recruiting combines and camps the summer before his senior year.
Those factors made Jones a throwback recruit – a word-of-mouth prospect. In the old days, on-field performance counted. Coaches relied on their contacts to learn about prospects. They studied film from games – not combines and camps – sent to them by U.S. Mail.
Those films were from their senior years on the field, but the Internet-based modern system has sped up the recruiting game. Kids are committing before their senior years based on combine and camp performances.
McNulty had good reasons to call Cutcliffe. Duke was Jones’ favorite school and Cutcliffe has a QB guru reputation. McNulty’s belief in Jones also was backed up by others.
“The Charlotte coach (Brad Lambert) told me, ‘He could start for us right now,’ but Daniel had other schools in mind,” McNulty said. “The Harvard Coach (Ryan Murphy) told him the quarterback spot was his.”
McNulty also heard from Eugene Robinson, a 16-year NFL veteran that serves as the Carolina Panthers’ broadcast analyst. Robinson saw Jones run for 200 yards and pass for another 200 yards against Charlotte Christian.
“He told me, ‘I can’t believe this kid doesn’t have bigger offers,’ ” McNulty recalled.
Jones had made a verbal commitment to Princeton, but he switched to Duke once Cutcliffe offered a roster spot. Duke didn’t have a scholarship available, so the plan was for Jones to grayshirt, paying his own way until a scholarship opened after the season. As fate would have it, senior Kelby Brown’s career ended with an injury before the 2015 season to open a scholarship.
Jones spent last year as a redshirt, but he wasn’t some lost kid on the scout team. When spring drills rolled around, he gained more first-unit snaps than usual due to the injury Thomas Sirk suffered.
“I was up there in the spring, and one of their older coaches came over to me,” McNulty said. “He said, ‘I’ve been here for a long time and every young quarterback has to go through the practice squad process, but we’ve never had a practice squad quarterback terrorize the varsity defense like him.’ ”
The defense, including strong cover corners Breon Borders and Bryon Fields and veteran safety DeVon Edwards, began calling him “The Future.”
The difference for Jones in the losses to Wake Forest and Northwestern and — on the other hand — the Notre Dame win was eliminating turnovers. He had been holding the ball past the 2.8 seconds that Cutcliffe coaches as the difference between forcing a mistake and safely throwing it away. At Notre Dame, Jones was getting off passes in less than two seconds.
The win improved Duke to 2-2 entering Saturday’s home game against Virginia (1-3). Duke’s four-game bowl streak was threatened if the Blue Devils had slipped to 1-3.
McNulty expects much more from Jones this year and beyond.
“He’s got a lot of work ahead of him, but he works hard,” McNulty said. “He never missed coming down to talk game plans with me. I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s 6-6, 230 before he’s done playing in college. His father (Steve) is a mountain of a man. Daniel is going to be fine.”
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055