Highly touted QBs overlooking Duke guru
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Highly touted QBs overlooking Duke guru

But the Blue Devils he's worked with have gained NFL opportunities

Photo: Peyton (L) and Eli Manning with David Cutcliffe in off-season at Duke's indoor facility

Jack Sears seemed to answer a perplexing Duke recruiting question two years ago. Prior to the 4-star quarterback committing to the Blue Devils, you had to wonder why more highly touted QBs don’t clamor to play for David Cutcliffe?

After all, the Blue Devils’ head coach is widely recognized as a quarterback guru that groomed the Manning brothers, Peyton as his offensive coordinator at Tennessee and Eli as his head coach at Ole Miss. The Mannings have routinely spent time in the off-season with Cutcliffe on the Duke campus.

And a Cutcliffe endorsement from their father, Archie Mannning, a College Football Hall of Famer an NFL icon, isn’t to be taken lightly. Archie’s firm stand that Eli wouldn’t play for the then-San Diego Chargers was the reason the dysfunctional franchise traded him to the New York Giants after taking him No. 1 overall in the 2004 NFL draft.

But Sears, a 4-star prospect from San Clemente, Calif., that picked Duke over USC, UCLA and Utah as his finalists, flipped three months later to USC. So what gives?

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Maybe Sears' second-thoughts centered on not wanting to sit behind Duke returning starter Daniel Jones, who enters 2018 considered an NFL as high as a Top 15 pick in the 2019 draft, although the flip didn't help Sears' playing prospects. He was a USC redshirt in 2017 and is projected to backup incoming from freshman J.T. Daniels, this week’s Sports Illustrated cover boy, in 2018.

Whatever Sears’ reasoning, the question remains: Why do highly touted QBs overlooked the value of learning under Cutcliffe? He hasn’t landed a 4-star QB as he enters his 11th season in Durham.

“I don’t think you can judge Coach Cut on where a 16- or 17-year-old kid wants to go to college,” Jones said at the ACC Kickoff. “People around college and the NFL know how much he is respected. But I also don’t think Coach Cut is caught up in rankings. He has much more experience and knowledge rating quarterbacks than (recruiting) websites.”

The lack of high-profile QB recruits era hasn’t prevented Cutcliffe from helping lightly recruited Duke quarterbacks matriculate to an NFL opportunity.

Sean Renfree arrived in 2008 as a 3-star; he left in 2013 a seventh-round NFL draft pick. Anthony Boone showed up in 2010 a 3-star; he departed in 2015 signing as a free agent with the Detroit Lions. Thomas Sirk arrived in Duke a 3-star in 2012 and signed in 2018 as a free agent with the New York Giants (after a year at East Carolina following a season-ending injury opened the starting job to Jones in 2016).

Jones, a two-star in 2015, can enhance Cutcliffe’s recruiting magnetism if he puts together a big year in 2018. We live in an age with more information available than the past, but the glitter of TV still burns brighter in many minds.

“In terms of recruiting 4- and 5-star quarterbacks,” Jones said, “if the program continues to grow he can start getting those guys.”

Jones, a 6-foot-5, 220-pounder, has an NFL arm and size and mobility needed in today’s game to lead the Blue Devils to a big year if the lineup’s other pieces fall in place. When Sirk's 2016 fall camp injury jumped Jones into the starting role, the first-team defensive players said they had been facing an NFL arm when Jones led the scout team.

Jones also drew NFL draft attention entering 2017, but undisclosed “upper-body” injuries limited his results. He finished the year completing 257-of-453 passes for 2,691 yards with 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also ran for 518 yards and seven scores.

They’re not bad numbers; he’s one of only three returning QBs with 2,500 yards passing and 500 yards rushing along with Clemson’s Kelly Bryant and Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke. But Jones is believed to have a much higher ceiling than his 2017 numbers. 

Jones and Cutcliffe both say the next step in his game will be making more and better adjustments once the defense reacts to a play and he drops back. He’s also worked on his footwork to improve his balance in the pocket. Cutcliffe says Jones forced too many plays last year.

“It wasn’t something directly affected my throwing motion, but it was an upper-body injury,” Jones said. “It’s part of the game and hopefully I’ve learned how to deal with.”

In addition to working on his game in spring drills, Jones spent his second straight summer at the Manning Passing Academy – another Cutcliffe advantage to receive back-to-back invitations.

“Having that connection from Coach Cut and spending time with them is unique,” Jones said. “They talk a lot about preparation. Payten is famous for his approach to the game and his preparation. It’s something to pick up on with their intensity to that and how much they put into the game.” 

The 4-and-5 star quarterback recruits may forever be first lured more strongly to the glow of blue chip programs, but Cutcliffe’s reputation doesn’t leave him without options if spurned. Once Sears flipped to open up a Duke QB scholarship in the Class of 2017, Chris Katrenick (6-3, 215) jumped. The 3-star from Algonquin, Ill., committed the next day.

Duke’s Class of 2018 commitment was Gunnar Holmberg (6-3, 190), a backyard 3-star recruit from Wakefield in Raleigh. Duke's 2019 class doesn't list a verbally committed quarterback.

Duke enters 2018 with Jones the third-year starter, redshirt junior Quentin Harris (6-1, 195), a three-star, the backup, Katrenick a redshirt freshman and Holmberg a true freshman that enrolled in the spring to take part in spring drills.

“Chris and Gunnar are two younger guys that are fun to watch develop,” Jones said. “They have the advantage of being with coach (Zac) Roper the whole time (Roper is entering his third year as offensive coordinator).

“Chris has made a lot of improvement recently on how he’s throwing the ball. Gunner is looking really good. He’s consistently improving since he got he here; he throws it well and he’s a good athlete. I fully support those guys and think they both have a bright future ahead of them.”

Sometimes 3-star recruits hit the combine circuit their junior year to improve their ranking to a 4-star. Holmberg didn’t wait. He committed to Duke in 2016 entering his junior year. And the flip side is it didn’t matter to Cutcliffe that Holmberg wasn’t ranked a 4-star when he offered him early.

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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu

-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

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Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom has also written for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Voice of San Diego, Chargers.com, Rivals.com, and Gameday Central. He has won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003 and USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

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