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With spring football ending, Duke QB Daniel Jones firmly in control

Daniel Jones began to take ownership of the Duke football team last season, when a season-ending injury to Thomas Sirk forced him into the starting quarterback job a year early.

So that part of his role did not change much during spring practice, which wraps up Saturday. What did change are two important parts. Jones improved the chemistry with his receivers and became a more vocal leader.

A transformation that began hastily had become so smooth, it was obvious to everybody who watched. That was evident to Sirk, who announced this week he would transfer for his final season. During the rehab process, Sirk had said he wanted to compete to win his starting job back. But it is apparent the team now belongs to Jones.

“Thomas and I talked about it, looked at it, and Daniel had established himself with that receiving corps and we return most of those guys,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “That’s the natural start of a transition. Just the entire offense, and even the defense is used to him, and you can see that absolutely. And as Thomas was watching spring ball, I think he saw firmly that times had changed. I respect that about him. He’s willing to look at it and view the different direction for himself.”

As the starter going into spring, Jones grasped the importance of leading in different ways. As soon as players returned to campus after winter break, he gathered the receivers and threw with them a few times a week and on Saturdays.

Duke keyed in a few areas of improvement during practice. One of them was getting better at the deep ball, an area in which the Blue Devils struggled a year ago. With more familiarity came better performance throughout the spring, and that was not lost on Jones.

“I felt like that really paid off for us,” Jones said. “Early on in spring ball, we had some great chemistry and we’ve kept that going. That’s been big for us, and we obviously have room to improve, but I felt like we made some strides.”

Jones noted that veterans T.J. Rahming and Chris Taylor had good springs, but he also said Aaron Young and redshirt freshman Scott Bracey (a four-star prospect in 2016) looked “really good. They’re both bigger guys who can use their size and strength.” In the slot, Johnathan Lloyd has given up baseball to concentrate on football full time, and Keyston Fuller has shown progress after missing last season with a knee injury.

“That depth and seeing so many guys making plays is definitely good to see as a quarterback,” Jones said. “Developing that chemistry with not just a couple guys, but the whole receiving corps, that will be big as we finish up spring but also throughout the summer and doing some other work -- just quarterback-receiver-tight end work -- that will be big for us for sure.”

There is reason for optimism with Jones leading the way after he threw for 2,836 yards, matched or tied 23 school records and won team MVP honors in his first year as the starter.

But the Sirk announcement was not the only big one Duke had this spring. Starting defensive end Marquies Price and backup Brandon Boyce were dismissed from the team after “failing to meet the standards of a member of the program.”

Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles acknowledged “we really took a blow,” but also praised the work of ends Terrell Lucas and Tre Hornbuckle and said Edgar Cerenord, Trevon McSwain and Quaven Ferguson have an opportunity to step up and make a bigger contribution.

Outside of linebackers Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys, the entire Duke defense has undergone an overhaul with just five starters back. But expect Jones and the offense to take a major step forward if for no other reason than this: Duke is the only team in the Coastal Division to bring back a quarterback who started every single game in 2016.

ACC reporter David Hale contributed to this report.