DURHAM, N.C. – On Tuesday afternoon, Duke offensive coordinator Zac Roper discussed the rapid progress of redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones as a backup to returning starter Thomas Sirk.
By Friday, Roper and head coach David Cutcliffe were forced into Plan B: Who will start the season opener Sept. 3 against North Carolina Central?
According to reports from the Stephen Wiseman in the Durham Herald-Sun, Sirk suffered an Achilles’ tendon injury Thursday night that will likely end his season. Duke has yet to release a report on Sirk’s status (Duke head coach David Cutcliffe confirmed the season-ending Achilles’ tendon injury with a Saturday afternoon new release).
Sirk, who compiled 3,504 total yards last season, appeared on his way to a rapid comeback from a torn Achilles’ tendon suffered in February that forced him to miss spring drills.
Without Sirk in the spring, junior Parker Boehme, last year’s backup, and two redshirt freshmen, Jones and Quentin Harris, gained more work than they otherwise would have had.
Jones appeared to make the most of the opportunity. Roper was asked on Tuesday if Jones, a 6-foot-5, 210-pounder from Charlotte Latin, had overtaken Boehme as the No. 2 quarterback.
“That’s still an ongoing battle,” said Roper, who was promoted within the staff to offensive coordinator this season. “Daniel has done some good things and Parker has done some good things. But Daniel has done enough good things to get some playing time.”
In Duke’s second scrimmage last week, Jones threw two touchdown passes to the Blue Devils’ top returning receivers – a 31-yarder to senior Anthony Nash and 14-yarder to sophomore T.J. Rahming. Harris also threw a touchdown pass of 73 yards to sophomore backup Sayvon Sampson.
What Roper and Cutcliffe liked most about Jones’s performance was that he showed an ability to adjust to the defense.
“What I saw is he had two or three checks that were outstanding that he didn’t make earlier,” Cutcliffe said after the scrimmage. “He had a comfort seeing the field. I know he’s extremely talented. He played with poise that you’re hoping to see.”
Last year Duke routed N.C. Central, 56-0. The ideal situation this year if Sirk had been healthy would have been to pull him with a lead and allow Jones to gain some experience under center.
Without Sirk, Boehme — who started one game last year — might have an edge on Jones for the opener due to his experience.
Duke’s next three games after N.C. Central are its ACC opener at home against Wake Forest and back-to-back road weekends at Northwestern and Notre Dame.
Jones might sound like an underdog story based on recruiting rankings. He was lightly recruited, and he originally committed to Princeton before switching to Duke. Cutcliffe, who has a respected eye for quarterbacks, saw something special. Roper, who succeeded Scottie Montgomery as the offensive coordinator when Montgomery was named East Carolina’s head coach, sees it in his new role.
“He’s a big, mobile and he can run the football when he has to,” Roper said. “He has a strong arm and is very intelligent; very football smart. The hardest thing to do (as a freshman) is to manage the game with checks and function within the offense. Daniel is doing a nice job of managing as well as having all physical tools to make him a talent.”
A new offensive coordinator would have served as setback for a redshirt freshman, but Roper is calling plays from the same scheme that Cutcliffe and Montgomery developed the last two seasons.
“It’s the same system for all the guys when they came in as freshmen,” Roper said. “It’s the one they know and have been a part of. The older guys can help the younger guys and bring them along because they don’t have to learn anything new.”
Sirk remained engaged with the team in spring drills while in a working boot to help the younger quarterbacks. In a bitter twist for the Blue Devils, that may turn out to be his role in the fall, too.
If Daniel Jones flourishes, however, a lot of that bitterness will fade away.
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055