One of the best parts about asking David Cutcliffe quarterback questions is that the 62-year-old can reach into his treasure trove of stories and come up with a situation to draw from for his day job as Duke’s coach.
Even now, as his Blue Devils try to find themselves amid a 1-2 start with a redshirt freshman quarterback, Cutcliffe can point to a time that was more fragile than the predicament he’s currently in.
Even when he had Peyton Manning.
Cutcliffe, the quarterback guru and Manning family confidant, has helped ease in new Duke starter Daniel Jones ahead of Saturday’s trip to Notre Dame. Jones has been tasked with growing up fast after returning starter Thomas Sirk, a redshirt senior, re-injured his Achilles nine days before the opener.
But this is not exactly shaky territory for Cutcliffe, at least not compared to the spring of 1995 at Tennessee. Cutcliffe, then the Volunteers’ offensive coordinator, was coming off a 1994 campaign that saw senior Jerry Colquitt and junior Todd Helton get hurt, leading to eight starts from a freshman Manning and some action from fellow frosh Branndon Stewart.
Then Stewart transferred, Helton went with baseball and two freshmen weren’t set to arrive till summer ... leaving Manning, and only Manning, under center as the Vols entered spring ball.
“I did not have a walk-on or a scholarship quarterback besides Peyton Manning as we were headed into the second semester,” Cutcliffe said. “You talk about near-panic: You can’t run a football practice with one guy. No matter how good that guy is.”
The 6-foot-5, 210-pound Jones has shown flashes in completing 61 percent of his throws for 800 yards with two touchdowns and two picks, while adding 81 rushing yards and three rushing scores. The Charlotte (North Carolina) Latin High product was a late bloomer, spurning Ivy League options to grayshirt under Cutcliffe before making his presence felt on the scout team last season and earning some first-team reps this spring as Sirk recovered from his initial injury.
"I love his poise for a freshman," Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly said. "He has a really good command of the offense. He does not seem at all fazed when he's back there."
Early on, Cutcliffe has tried drilling a simple point in Jones' head: The offense might run through you, but it’s not about you; rather, it’s about ensuring that the 10 guys around you are on the same page.
“I tell young coaches all the time, two things,” Cutcliffe said, "say what you mean and mean what you say, particularly when you’re talking to a player. Never tell a player he’s gonna play or he’s gonna do this and you don’t back it up. I think one of the things [when] coaching quarterbacks sometimes people do is that they’re just not straightforward enough with them. I think it’s a conversational thing to coach a quarterback, not just an X-and-O thing.”
Cutcliffe sees opportunities for Boehme this fall, as Boehme saw extended action in 2015 when Sirk missed time. And the coach has been so impressed with the way Sirk has handled his third career Achilles injury that he calls him his “sunshine.”
But first Jones, and the rest of the team, must get up to speed, starting this weekend at Notre Dame. Cutcliffe was hired to coach the Irish QBs in 2005 before health issues forced him to resign after a few months. He now has Duke on a once-unthinkable run of four consecutive bowls, so the sense of urgency over a sub-.500 start is, in some ways, a breath of fresh air for his program.
“I have learned something every year I’ve been in coaching, and certainly with this group of quarterbacks here we’re continuing to learn,” Cutcliffe said. “Some people might look at us and say they haven’t learned fast enough right now, but let’s hope we learn a little bit more each week.”
He later added: “This team is gonna be a good football team. I feel it in my bones. And we’ve just got to hurry that process along.”