Giants starting Daniel Jones over Eli Manning leaves David Cutcliffe in tough spot

The big quarterback news from New York triggered a wave of emotions for Duke coach David Cutcliffe.

Rookie Daniel Jones will start his first NFL game on Sunday as the winless New York Giants seek to turn their season around.

Veteran Eli Manning, the Giants starting quarterback since 2004 who’s led the franchise to a pair of Super Bowl championships, heads to the bench.

Giants coach Pat Shurmur’s decision announcement on Tuesday left Cutcliffe, a coach and mentor to both players from their teenage years to the NFL, in a quandary.

“To say the least,” Cutcliffe said, “an emotional time for me obviously with relationships with both quarterbacks in New York.”

In a video statement shot a few hours after the Giants named Jones the starter and released by Duke athletics on Tuesday, Cutcliffe admitted it’s hard to think how quickly the end of Manning’s career may be approaching.

“I’m certainly more concerned at this point for Eli,” Cutcliffe said in the video. “I don’t know the circumstances. I want to learn a little bit more. I know that he has been the face of that franchise.”

Eli Manning, Daniel Jones and David Cutcliffe

A Charlotte native who starred at Charlotte Latin School, Jones played four seasons for Cutcliffe at Duke. After a redshirt season in 2015, he started the last three seasons. Duke posted records of 7-6 and 8-5 in 2017 and 2018, with Jones being named most valuable player of their bowl wins in both seasons.

Manning played quarterback for Cutcliffe at Ole Miss from 2000-03, leading the Rebels to a 10-3 record and a Cotton Bowl win in his senior season. The Giants used their 2004 first-round pick (via a trade with San Diego for N.C. State quarterback Philip Rivers) to acquire Manning and, in 234 games over the last 15 seasons, he’s thrown 362 touchdown passes.

But ever since the Giants drafted Jones No. 6 overall in last April’s NFL Draft, naming him Manning’s heir apparent, Cutcliffe found himself in a tough spot given his relationship to Jones and Manning.

He often said he hoped Manning started every game this season, meaning he is playing well enough that Jones would get to learn under him for at least a season.

Instead, the Giants moved on from Manning after just two games -- losses to the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills.

Jones will be the starter on Sunday when the Giants play at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Absolutely I’m excited for Daniel, praying that Daniel gets off to a great start,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s important in your career. But I know he’s tough enough to take what comes. So he’ll be just fine.”

Jones’ road to the NFL

Back in Jones’ hometown, the high school coach who saw Jones grow from a 5-11, 145-pound kid into a 6-5 potential NFL star, couldn’t hide his pride on Tuesday.

“How proud am I?” Charlotte Latin coach Larry McNulty said. “Let me preface by telling you that I’m more proud of him as a person than a football player. ... His teammates would’ve walked on fire for him. He just puts his head down and works. That’s how he got his nickname Swag. He had that quiet confidence and swag.... I may not be able to sit down Sunday. I will be watching that game Sunday.”

It was McNulty’s phone call to Cutcliffe five years ago that set Jones, then an under-recruited player headed for Princeton, on the path toward to the NFL.

Cutcliffe watched Jones on a video McNulty provided and immediately told the Charlotte Latin coach not to share it with anyone else because he wanted Jones at Duke.

Jones came to Duke as a walk-on but was put on scholarship only a few weeks after enrolling. He impressed Dukes’ coaches during his redshirt year in 2015 and threw 52 touchdown passes while starting 36 games over the next three seasons for the Blue Devils.

Is Jones the Giants’ next QB of the future?

Smitten with his size, athleticism and arm strength, the Giants decided Jones was their quarterback of the future when they used the first of their two first-round draft picks on him last spring.

It brought together two quarterbacks who were already familiar with each other thanks to Cutcliffe. Manning, at his own expense, brought a group of Giants receivers to Duke each spring for off-season work.

“What a great competitor and a great worker he’s been and a great person,” Cutcliffe said.

Jones twice attended the Manning Passing Academy quarterback camp in Louisiana as a college player.

Manning and Jones worked together as professionals during minicamps and training camp this year, with Manning the starter and Jones the understudy.

On Tuesday, the Giants decided the future had arrived quicker than many, including Cutcliffe, thought it would.

“If this is the end,” Cutcliffe said, “and I have no idea what’s next for Eli Manning, I hope he focuses on all the great things that he’s accomplished.”

Langston Wertz of the Charlotte Observer contributed to this article.

An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.