Duke quarterback Brandon Connette will get the first true start of his career on Saturday when he takes over for injured starter Anthony Boone (collarbone) against Georgia Tech. Last week, Connette came off the bench and threw two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to lead the Blue Devils to a 28-14 win at Memphis.
Connette improved noticeably last week as the game went on. In the second quarter, he completed just 3 of 7 pass attempts for 16 yards and was sacked twice. In the second half, he was 11-of-14 for 182 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed 11 times for 42 yards in the second half and converted 10 of Duke’s 14 first downs in the second half, including all four third-down conversions.
Can he pick up where he left off in what will be the first ACC game for both Duke and Georgia Tech? I caught up with him to find out:
Are you nervous?
Brandon Connette: No, not really. I've played in way too many football games, and too many meaningful football games to be nervous. If I was going to be nervous it would have been last week, but even then I wasn't feeling it because I was too involved in the game to be thinking about that.
What was the difference between the first and second half for you last week?
BC: It was more of a change of the offense. The difference between the first and the second half for us was we stopped killing ourselves. In the first half we were turning the ball over, fumbling on the punt and on a couple of receptions we had, and we were killing ourselves with penalties, too. In the second half we really minimalized the mental errors. We hung on to the ball, held the ball higher and tighter, were able to keep the ball in our possession. That's what helped us sustain longer drives, just keeping the ball and not putting ourselves in really long third-down conversions. That's really what changed from the first to the second half.
Is the offense changing at all for you?
BC: Nope. We haven't put in any new plays or taken any plays out. Coach Roper calls the plays exactly the same, whether it's me or Boone in the offense. We're both very capable of running each and every single play in the playbook. It's not changing at all; it's the exact same Duke offense.
You’ve played just about every other position on offense. How does that help you as a quarterback?
BC: It really helps because you understand what other people are seeing from their position, and you better understand what they should do vs. different coverages, and how they see the open windows compared to how you see it. It helps with timing, knowing when guys are going to break. That's how it helps.
You’ve developed a reputation as a running quarterback. Do you feel like you're fighting that a little bit?
BC: I've never felt like I'm fighting that. That's nothing I've ever worried about. I've never thought, 'Man, I'm just a running quarterback.' It's never something I felt like I had to prove to anybody that I could throw the ball. I think coach Cutcliffe and coach Roper and the rest of the team would tell you the same thing. It's never been something where they've doubted whether or not I could do it. It's more that people have assumed I can't do it because I don't do it. So maybe that's just the media wanting to know whether or not I can do it. I don't know, but it really doesn't matter to me or my team because we both know I can get it done.
I know they’ve only played one game, but how much better or different does Georgia Tech’s defense look on film under Ted Roof?
BC: It's way different because last year when we played them they were in a 3-4 defense. This year they're using a 4-3 and it will be the first time this year we've played against a four-down front. The first two games were both against odd defenses. Playing against a four-down, they have more bigger bodies up front. It creates some different variations of plays we're going to have to run to account for that.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from watching Sean Renfree?
BC: The biggest thing I took away from him was his off-field habits, how he studied and game-planned for games, the way he watched film, the way he really critiqued other teams and defenses and opponents. His off-field habits were absolutely amazing. I was lucky to be around someone like him and like Anthony. Just to be around someone like that, an NFL-caliber quarterback, that's the big reason he made it to the NFL, how smart he was and how good of a guy he was off the field at preparing.
You had shoulder surgery in January, any lingering concerns about that?
BC: Not any. I haven't even thought about that since Week 1 of summer. It hasn't bothered me at all, never felt any twinges or any pain or anything like that. I've been hit in every game and not once has it hurt at all.
You’re not afraid to hit or be hit, have the coaches talked to you about being careful out there?
BC: They talked to me, but it wasn't about being careful. Coach Roper and coach Cutcliffe both told me I have to be the type of player I am. As soon as you try to change the mindset of a player, that's when you're going to have them start to second-guess decisions they make, and when you second-guess what you do on the field, that's when you make critical mistakes and turn the ball over. What they said was just turn myself loose and play the time of game I'm going to play. Be who I am; don't try to change what I do.
Do you feel like this is your team now, like you’re the leader?
BC: It's never just been a one-person leader. The special thing about this team is there are leaders who aren't on the captain committee, aren't even on the leadership committee. There are so many leaders on the team. There's not one person you could look to, even before Boone's injury, and say this one guy is the leader. The really special thing about this team is, even though I've been the backup quarterback, I think people have always respected me and looked to me for leadership. Even if I'm not playing as much. No one on this team would ever be so selfish to say it was there team. That's not the kind of team we are, that's not the kind of program we are, or the kind of school we are. It's the team's team.
What would a win over Georgia Tech mean to you personally, considering you guys haven’t won in this series under Cutcliffe?
BC: It would be absolutely awesome for us to win, and that's our expectation going into tomorrow's game. It would be a huge mark for us to start off the season 3-0. That would be great for the program and the university.