Quentin Harris spent the last four years watching what Daniel Jones did, on and off the field, to make him a top NFL prospect this spring.
Duke concluded three of those four seasons with bowl wins, with Jones being named most valuable player the last two years at the Quick Lane and Independence bowls.
While Jones was in Indianapolis at the NFL Scouting Combine last week, Harris led the Blue Devils through their first spring practice on Friday.
His days as Jones’ understudy are done. Now it’s his job to lead Duke’s offense as the program seeks its seventh bowl trip in the last eight seasons.
“I guess I’m a pretty patient person but I also am a team-first guy,” Harris said. “Whatever role they wanted me to play in the past, that’s the one I was happy to do. To bring the team ultimate success, that was what I was concerned with. Now, it being my turn to be the starter, I’m kind of anxious to showcase what I can do as the quarterback of this offense. I’ve been pretty patient with my time so far. But it’s no issue to me as long as it was helping our team get to its ultimate goals.”
Jones and Harris each took redshirt seasons in 2015, with Jones impressing the coaching staff with his work leading the scout team in practices. Thomas Sirk’s two offseason Achilles’ tendon injuries in 2016 meant Duke needed a new starting quarterback that season and Jones took over.
Harris received playing time, though. He was used in Duke’s short-yardage and goal-line packages, rushing for seven touchdowns last season.
He also started two games and completed a third last September when Jones was sidelined with a broken collarbone. Duke won all three games on the way to an 8-5 season, its fifth winning season in the last six years.
“Quentin has definitely taken the bull by the horns,” Duke offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Zac Roper said. “He’s always been a natural leader. You’re seeing him be more and more vocal. You saw that last year when he was the starter for those games. It’s not new for him the fact that he’s QB1 if you will. He knows that he’s at the top of the depth chart and he wants to remain there.”
The 6-1, 195-pound Harris is built differently than Jones, whose NFL scouting combine measurements were 6-5 and 221 pounds. Duke coach David Cutcliffe offered an honest assessment, saying this year’s Duke team doesn’t have any quarterbacks who are potential first-round NFL Draft pick talents.
Because of that, it’s likely Harris’ job will be different than Jones’ within Duke’s offense.
“Offensively, it always goes back to what can your quarterback do and your five offensive linemen, what do they do well?” Roper said. “That will dictate how you are dispersing the ball and how you are getting the ball to your playmakers.”
Duke is replacing most of its playmakers in addition to Jones. Senior wide receivers TJ Rahming, Johnathan Lloyd and Chris Taylor were Duke’s top three players in receptions last season. Senior tight end Daniel Helm was fourth while senior tight end Davis Koppenhaver caught seven touchdown passes, one behind the eight that team leader Rahming caught.
Harris is working with the players who will replace them, guys like redshirt senior Aaron Young and sophomores Jake Bobo and Damond Philyaw-Johnson at wide receiver and junior tight end Noah Gray.
“I’m really confident in the group,” Harris said. “I think they will grow as the spring continues and get more comfortable with the playbook. It seems like we’ll pick up where we left off last year.”
Harris will also have running backs Deon Jackson and Brittain Brown at his disposal. The versatile Jackson is capable of lining up in the slot rather than the backfield, to take advantage of his skills in the passing game.
But none of their play will matter that much if Harris can’t handle the starting job. He’s already working hard to grasp the mental and physical challenges of being Duke’s starting quarterback.
“From a mental standpoint you really try to focus on understanding the schemes that go into everything,” Harris said. “It’s one thing to kind of know how a play operates and where to go with the ball. But it’s another thing to understand why you are doing it. I think that’s kind of the next mental step I’ve taken, understanding the schemes behind plays, why we are doing things or why we go to a certain receiver in a certain coverage. That’s been the biggest step mentally for me, but I feel pretty good with the grasp of the offense and the playbook.”