DURHAM — Brandon Connette grew up playing backyard football in California with five younger brothers. Last season for Duke, Connette reprised that backyard-esque, ultra-utility role, lining up in the backfield, under center and split wide on offense, as the punt protector on special teams and even took a few snaps at safety on defense. Head coach David Cutcliffe dubbed him the phantom he wasnt on the depth chart, but he could show up anywhere on the field.
What Connette does for an encore this season depends on circumstances beyond his control.
When projected backup quarterback Thomas Sirk, a redshirt freshman, ruptured his right Achilles tendon on April 10, Connettes role changed instantly. Recruited as a quarterback, Connette, a redshirt junior, is the only signal-caller other than starter Anthony Boone with any college experience. As soon as Sirk was hurt, Connette and Cutcliffe met, deciding that his summer would be spent as the backup quarterback. That focus hasnt changed as summer transitions to fall.
Brandon is an extremely valuable player, almost to the point where its players, Cutcliffe said. The million-dollar question is how much he can or will or where we can use him, including at quarterback. Some of that is dependent on (true freshman) Parker Boehmes progress, some of that is dependent upon being able to project Thomas Sirks return, if theres going to be one.
Brandon Connette is too valuable to this team at this point in time not to play.
Cutcliffe and his staff have always liked athletic quarterbacks capable of playing multiple positions. Cutcliffe was Tennessees offensive coordinator when Jeremaine Copeland was the original phantom in the late 1990s, coming to the Volunteers as a quarterback and finishing as a receiver on the 1998 national championship team. A few years later as head coach at Ole Miss, Cutcliffe had Robert Lane line up at quarterback, running back, receiver and tight end.
You cant have enough people that know how to play quarterback and who are also really good players and can show up in a lot of places, Cutcliffe said. I always look for those guys, and were going to continue that.
Connette started his career as a lineman and then played safety in middle school. While he was purely a quarterback in high school, he still played plenty of receiver and defensive back with his dad and brothers in the backyard.
Wed go out with our dad for 1-on-1s, and there was a healthy competition, said Simon Connette, a sophomore safety at San Jose State. He can catch. I remember some one-handed backyard catches. And when people think about quarterbacks, the dont think they can go out and hit people, but thats not the case with Brandon.
When then-defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre recruited Connette to come to Duke, there was no mention of him playing anywhere other than quarterback (in a small-world twist, MacIntyre recruited Simon as the head coach at San Jose State before leaving to take over at Colorado). But Cutcliffe has always prioritized getting his best players on the field, and with Sean Renfree firmly entrenched as the starter, Connette began lining up at other positions last year.
Learning the offense from the quarterbacks perspective, you have to know what every single person is doing, Connette said. So whenever I went to go be a tight end or a fullback, I knew what they were doing. I just had to physically get the repetitions in to be able to do it. And then special teams, thats just something where you run around and hit people. Its not hard to teach that.
I really like just being on the field. Its a lot of fun for me. Im a really competitive guy. I just look for wherever I can fit in on the team and whatever role I can play to help the team.
In preseason camp, Connette has primarily focused on backing up Boone as Boehme continues to learn the offense. Its hard to imagine Duke sending its backup quarterback out as the punt protector on special teams, but even with a heavy focus on his natural position, Connette still expects to play plenty in short yardage situations, as he did during his first two years.
With Boone and Connette playing a similar dual-threat style, it will be easier on the offense to switch them in and out and move Connette around, as opposed to years past when the pro-style Renfree required a different type of play calls. Boone and Connette could even be on the field together.
Regardless of Connettes situation, the phantom role will continue to be a part of the offense. Senior running back Juwan Thompson is practicing in that role, and sophomore running back Shaq Powell is taking reps there, too.
Ive been learning a lot more of the receiving position, especially that tight end position where I can split out a lot more and we can have both backs in sometimes, Thompson said. We can actually have a fresh back in here and there, I can float back to the backfield and motion back in, or someone else can come in and block for me, and I can block for them. Its just various types of offenses that we can do by having those two backs in or three backs in at once.
The Blue Devils have athletes at their disposal. Its up to Cutcliffe to find places for all of them on the field. And that plan suits Connette just fine.
Im really excited for whatever role I have. If Im the backup quarterback, Im excited for that, he said. If Im doing all the other stuff that I did last year, Ill love that, too.
Keeley: 919-829-4556 Twitter: @laurakeeley