David Cutcliffe has an undisputed eye for quarterbacks, as eight of his 10 starters as a college coordinator or head coach reached the NFL. Now his 11th, Anthony Boone, is ready to take over at Duke.
Cutcliffe’s recipe for developing pro-caliber quarterbacks is deceptively simple. It begins in recruiting, where he and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper look for one trait above all else.
“Accuracy,” Cutcliffe said. “If a guy doesn’t have command of the ball, you’re not going to win with him, no matter how good of guy he is. He might be good at another position if he’s a great leader, a great competitor, great this and great that, but he can’t do that at quarterback if he’s not accurate. Always that.”
The second requirement Cutcliffe has deals with personality.
“I like really decisive people,” he said. “Decisions don’t come after long studies. Really, a decision comes in about two seconds.
“If I sit down with a guy, and he can’t decide what he wants to eat off of a menu, he’s not going to play quarterback for me.”
Boone, a redshirt junior, meets both requirements, at least so far. As a rising sophomore in high school, he was the most accurate passer Duke had in its summer camp. When he talks, Boone’s quick speech is dotted with firm words like “definitely” and “absolutely,” leaving little doubt as to what he thinks and how he feels.
Boone will need to be accurate and decisive while running Duke’s spread-option offense, and its current in vogue component, the zone-read. While Cutcliffe is most famous for tutoring pro-style quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning, he is willing to adapt.
“He’s going to play to the personnel that he has,” said Heath Shuler, a more mobile Cutcliffe quarterback who followed a traditional pocket passer at Tennessee. “One person can change. You don’t want to change an entire team. He can adapt his offense much easier than he can adapt personnel to the offense.”
With that in mind, it’s time for Boone and the era of the dual-threat quarterback at Duke to begin.
Boone built for zone-read
Boone has come a long way in his development since he was a freshman struggling to stay awake in meetings and fully grasp the importance of watching film. Entering his fourth year in Cutcliffe’s and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper’s system, he has a firm grasp on what to do.
At a recent preseason practice, the offense had a reverse called. The defense blitzed.
“It’s just one of those things you say in a meeting, ‘hey, this isn’t very good vs. this or this,’ but he goes right on the field and doesn’t miss a beat. Fixes the problem,” said Roper, who was also Cutcliffe’s quarterbacks coach at Mississippi. “He has a lot of understanding about our offense. He has a lot of understanding of what defenses are doing, so he can fix bad plays.”
Shortly after arriving at Duke, Cutcliffe and Roper decided to recruit more athletic quarterbacks. By that, they mean passers who can also run, not the other way around.
Boone reminds Cutcliffe of two of his former quarterbacks, Shuler and Tee Martin, who led Tennessee to the 1998 national championship. All three have the arms to complete deep passes and the mobility to move outside the pocket.
“My freshman year and my sophomore year,” Shuler said, referring to the 1991 and 1992 seasons, “we got on the goal line, and we ran the option, the speed option. That was just fitting me as a quarterback, and we were able to be very successful in the red zone based upon being able to have the option quarterback.”
Just as Cutcliffe played to Shuler’s strengths 20 years ago, he will do the same for Boone. The latest version of option football is the no-huddle spread option, with the quarterback as a legitimate threat to run the ball, eliminating the numbers advantage the defense has traditionally held in the run game.
“The quarterback has been seen as a protected player and a liability of some sorts in the run game because he is the guy handing it off, but now, you’re putting him in the mix, and it makes it a little bit different defensively,” passing game coordinator Scottie Montgomery said. “It’s truly 11-on-11 football.”
With the zone-read, in its simplest form, Boone will take a snap from the shotgun and see (“read”) what the defensive end does. If he moves toward the running back, Boone will keep the ball and run. If the end comes toward him, Boone will hand off to the running back.
The Blue Devils could also call a zone-read play that reads a linebacker or a safety. If the defender stays deep, Duke will run. But if the defender comes up toward the line, Boone could pass to a receiver who has slipped behind him.
“Now you’ve got the zone-read connected to the passing game where you not only have to defend the field from a vertical standpoint, but you’ve got to defend it from the complete width of the field with what the passing game has done,” Montgomery said. “It’s a really good scheme, and it’s something that, if you know effectively how to run it and you do the things the right way, and your guys buy in, and you’re playing fast, it’s very hard to defend.”
The latest wave of the zone-read involves multiple-option plays. The line blocks like it’s a run play, but Boone has the option to keep the ball, hand it off, throw a screen or throw it out wide – all from the same play call, based off what he reads. In theory, the Blue Devils could run the exact same play four times in a row and have four different results.
“It wasn’t that long ago that people asked, well, does your quarterback have the ability to audible? That was the thing,” Roper said. “And, yeah, they can audible, and you can do that, but it’s not easy. You would go up there, try and get a read on the defense and say, OK, this play isn’t going to be very good, let’s change to this play. Well, what offenses have done is try and put plays together that answer no matter what the defense is doing without changing anything. So, in a sense, the audibles are built in.”
The success of the system is dependent on Boone making the right decisions. As Roper and Montgomery pointed out, making the right read is similar to taking a test with more than one right answer. The trick is finding the best answer, and doing it in about two seconds after the ball is snapped.
“Sometimes you could have done more than one, but pick one, be decisive, let’s go,” Roper said. “And I try to coach them and tell them all the time, if you’re decisive, I’m not going to critique you. I’m not going to sit back and go on Sunday, ‘OK, this was all right, but this would have been better.’ That would drive them crazy.
“So, be decisive, let’s play the game.”
Taking control of offense
Boone recently compared running the zone read to playing point guard. Both require vision and quick decisions. So is quickness, specifically in the hands for a quarterback, something Cutcliffe and Roper say Boone has.
Thanks to his game experience last season, leading Duke to a fourth-quarter victory at Wake Forest and throwing four touchdowns in a win against Virginia in his first career start, Boone has confidence. He brought that to the field this spring and summer, and his teammates noticed.
“He started in the spring and has really taken control of the offense,” senior offensive lineman Dave Harding said. “I was interested to see how he would do that as well, but I’ve been blown away by his leadership ability and just jumping in and taking control. He’s done a great job.”
Just as the Duke staff has a basic formula for finding quarterbacks, it has one for leadership, too. First, a player must be good enough to earn the respect of his teammates. Then, he just has to be himself.
“I’m very outspoken, very hands-on,” Boone said. “You can ask anyone around the Duke community. I like to talk, I like to interact with people. That’s just who I am.”
Said Roper: “His personality is fun-loving, he’s always involved with people and interacting, but that’s who he is. He hasn’t changed since he’s been here.”
“Anthony is just being who he is.”
If he can be the accurate, decisive quarterback Cutcliffe and Roper recruited, history says being himself will be just fine.