CHARLOTTE, N.C. – No candidate possess a better leg up for college football’s unofficial comeback player of the year than Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk. Never mind that he has yet to miss a game.
Sirk has made such a remarkable rehab comeback from a torn Achilles’ tendon that jeopardized his season, Duke Coach David Cutcliffe is proceeding as if Sirk will start the season opener Sept. 3 against North Carolina Central.
Just how did the redshirt senior make it back from surgery on Feb. 10 to representing the Blue Devils at the ACC Kickoff last week at the Westin Charlotte? It’s not true he drank that magic water Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was hawking this time a year ago in a Rolling Stone magazine article.
Sirk’s surgery put him back together physically, but the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder said his attitude was more important to his accelerated recovery time. He should know.
When he previously tore his other Achilles’ tendon in April 2013 and missed the season, he said he sunk into a negative attitude of “Why me?” He knew he had to avoid repeating that mental trap.
“I knew what the process is going to be composed of,” Sirk said. “Immediately I accepted there’s nothing you can do about the injury. I had to move forward.
“I listened to my trainers and what they told me. They told me we could overcome this one as I did my right one. I’ve taken that mindset and had a positive attitude from the very beginning. That’s one thing you can control, is your attitude. That’s what I did. Every week I’ve gotten better and seen improvement.”
Sirk wasted no time in his rehab getting back to throwing the ball. When he was still in a walking boot, he threw passes from his knees to his wide receivers. During spring drills, he walked the practice field in a boot with the backups, quarterbacks, junior Parker Boehme and two redshirt freshmen, Daniel Jones and Quentin Harris. He also was with them in meetings and the film room.
Once the boot came off, he began training for the start of fall camp.
“I’m able to make cuts and dropping back,” Sirk said. “We’ll see where I’m at on Aug. 8. I know it’s a short window, but a lot can happen.”
The remarkable recovery gets him on the field, but can he pick up where he left off in the 2015 season?
Sirk was the co-MVP of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl win over Indiana. He scored with five seconds to play on a 5-yard run to cap a 13-play, 78-yard drive to force overtime. The Blue Devils won on a field goal, 44-41, for their first bowl game victory since 1961.
For the game, Sirk ran 20 times for 155 yards and two touchdowns and threw for two more TDs, although he completed only 17-of-37 passes (45.9 percent) with one touchdown and two interceptions.
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He was one of four quarterbacks in the Football Bowl subdivision to pass for 2,500 yards and rush for 800. But his totals (803 yards rushing and 2,625 passing) aren’t considered a ceiling.
Duke Coach David Cutcliffe said he’s a better deep ball threat than he showed last year when he overthrew or underthrew receivers that could have been game-breaking plays in close losses to Northwestern and Miami. That could been the different in a double-digit victory season for a team that finished 8-5 overall and tied for fourth in the ACC Coastal at 4-4.
“Do I think we could have thrown for a little higher percentage?” Cutcliffe said. “That part of it, yes. But I talked with (former offensive coordinator) Scottie Montgomery a year ago about the kind of player Thomas was. We were going to try to take some shots more downfield. I think we could have hit more of them. That’s the only negative aspect I can see at this point when I review.
“Thomas takes care of the ball pretty darn well. He’s a threat. He’s a true dual threat.”
Despite Duke finishing fifth in the ACC in scoring (31.5) and third in total yards per game (439.4), the yard per pass attempt ranked only 12th at 6.3. There were too many dump offs to the running backs. That led to many stalled drives when the defense didn’t fear the deep pass.
Thomas understands the need for better timing on the deep balls. That’s why he began by throwing on his knees.
“I’ve been throwing to receivers and one-on-one coverages for a couple of weeks now,” he said.
The Blue Devils also feel they have more speed from their receivers. Senior Anthony Nash (14.8) and sophomore T.J. Rahming (13.3) are back after leading the team in catches per yard. Four-star recruit Scott Bracey may play as a true freshman.
“I’m not going to throw too much pressure on him at this moment,” Cutcliffe said of Bracey. “We certainly believe he can impact the 2016 team.”
Speed on the outside and the timing to connect with that talent is another factor that could help make Sirk the Comeback Player of the Year — without missing game.