- David M. Hale, College football
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DURHAM, N.C. -- Thomas Sirk is tall and lanky and baby-faced, and when he answers questions about his spring performance and his role as the heir apparent to Duke’s starting quarterback job, he’s adept at breaking down his strengths and weaknesses with the kind of nervous charisma reserved for a job interview. Self-awareness is a crucial ingredient for improvement, he says.
Sirk’s personality neatly summarizes the quarterback situation at Duke this spring. For the first time since David Cutcliffe arrived as head coach in 2008, there is no clear-cut, experienced passer waiting in the wings, but in the locker room, that is of little concern. Instead, there is a sense of excitement about what’s to come -- a taste of the unknown for the first time in years at that position, but also a sense that the ceiling for Sirk and the rest of his quarterback competitors is incredibly high.
"It’s somewhat like when we came in here and winning wasn’t in anybody’s vocabulary," said Cutcliffe, who has led Duke to three straight bowl games after the program had a 17-year postseason hiatus. "It’s going to be fun. The skill set is fun for us, because it allows us to look at a few things we’d like to do differently because of the athleticism of these guys."
Cutcliffe inherited a veteran quarterback upon arrival and has worked to groom a successor each season since. Not since 2006 has Duke opened a season with a starting quarterback who had fewer than 50 career pass attempts. This year, the depth chart includes players with a combined 16 throws in their careers.
That has complicated the locker-room dynamic a bit, as Sirk, Parker Boehme, and Nico Pierre jockey for position on the depth chart in hopes of replacing Anthony Boone, who had been one of Duke’s unquestioned leaders on offense. On the field, things are actually running pretty smoothly.
"I feel mentally and physically prepared for that role," Sirk said of his spot atop the spring depth chart. "Stepping into some big-game situations last year definitely prepared me. And the way that we practice is so much like a game that if you can just transfer it over to the field, you’ll play at a high level."
Sirk did get his share of snaps last season. He scored eight rushing touchdowns as the change-of-pace and red-zone quarterback behind Boone. That was crucial in getting his feet wet in a pressure-packed situation, Cutcliffe said, but the limited role undersold just how dynamic the redshirt junior might be this season.
"Thomas’ skill set -- all of it is good," Cutcliffe said. "He’s strong-armed, accurate, he’s got great size, and he has outstanding speed. He’ll be the fastest starting quarterback I’ve ever coached. From a character, intelligence, reliability, accountability sense, they’re through the roof."
If that makes it sound like the competition for the starting job is already over, Boehme would emphatically disagree.
The redshirt sophomore got a taste of action last season but threw just two passes, and he has spent the spring mostly working with the No. 2 offense. Still, he’s not conceding the starting job to his more experienced teammate.
"It’s good competition at every position, but especially the quarterback position," Boehme said. "It’s been clear it’s an open spot."
Of course, even if Boehme isn’t the starter, he’ll see action.
Last season, Sirk had 61 touches as the backup. The year before, Brandon Connette played in every game, accounting for 27 touchdowns. In 2012, Boone was a regular on the field while backing up Sean Renfree. Cutcliffe wants his No. 2 quarterback to get plenty of work, and that won’t change this season, he said.
With that in mind, this spring has been something of a trial-by-fire -- if not to identify the clear-cut No. 1, then certainly to ensure two quarterbacks are ready for what lies ahead.
Not only did Duke lose Boone, but two crucial members of the offensive line are gone, too. So Cutcliffe has turned his pass rush loose, looking to confuse and frustrate his new faces on offense. So far, it’s been a fun battle.
"Our defense has thrown a lot at us this spring," Sirk said. "I think we’ve done a good job of keeping up, keeping track of their blitzes, handling their pressures and responding how we need to."
After each play, Sirk, Boehme and Pierre saunter back toward their coaches and face the interrogation. What was the coverage? Where did the blitz come from? Who was your hot read?
"He stays on us, throwing the ball and making the right reads," Sirk said of Cutcliffe. "He does a great job making sure we get the ball out of our hands quick, and afterward, he wants us to come back and tell him what the coverage has been."
As spring winds down in Durham, Cutcliffe has been pleased with how many of these tests his young quarterbacks have passed.
This isn’t the old days at Duke, when a rare talent walks out the door and the cupboards are left bare. Cutcliffe sees a world of possibility in Sirk and Boeheme, and though the questions will linger at the position until they have both seen enough work on game day to allay any doubts, Cutcliffe isn’t the least bit concerned.
Position lacks experience, but returning talent intrigues head coach.