Just because he never appeared on Duke’s official injury report this season doesn’t mean quarterback Daniel Jones played free, easy and healthy during the Blue Devils’ up-and-down regular season.
While Duke has kept the exact nature of Jones’ ailments quiet, he played the last eight games of the regular season limited by them. With its offense struggling, Duke endured a six-game losing streak.
“He’s gone through a series of pretty tough injuries that he was able to continue to play through,” said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who did not detail the nature of the injuries. “But it was challenging for him.”
The six-game losing streak that followed a 4-0 start put Duke’s bowl hopes in jeopardy. Jones’ health apparently improved enough for him to lead the Blue Devils to wins over Georgia Tech and Wake Forest in the final two regular-season games to even the team’s record at 6-6 and claim bowl eligibility.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Duke last played on Nov. 25 when it beat Wake Forest 31-23. The Blue Devils play again on Dec. 26 against Northern Illinois in the Quick Lane Bowl at Detroit.
The time off has Jones, the sturdy 6-5, 220-pound redshirt sophomore, feeling better than he has since September.
“Certainly he has started feeling physically better,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s not back 100 percent. I’m anxious to get him back 100 percent.”
When Jones felt his best physically in September, Duke rode his strong play to wins over N.C. Central, Northwestern, Baylor and North Carolina.
During a 41-17 thrashing of Northwestern on Sept. 9 at Wallace Wade Stadium, Jones threw for 305 yards and rushed for 108 more. It was just the second time in program history a Duke player had thrown for 300 and rushed for 100 yards in a single game.
Cutcliffe raves about Jones’ quickness and size, and the Blue Devils’ offense is at its best when utilizing him in run-pass option plays.
But things took a turn for the worse in late September, both with Jones’ health and Duke’s ability to score. Though Duke won 27-17 at North Carolina on Sept. 23, Jones was sacked three times.
Six days later, Miami sacked Jones six times while beating the Blue Devils 31-6 on Sept. 29 in the game that started Duke’s losing streak.
Over the next three weeks, losses to Virginia, Florida State and Pittsburgh, Jones’ health caused the coaching staff to limit how it used him. He barely practiced during the week, with backup Quentin Harris getting more repetitions with the first team.
Still, Jones refused to give in. He started every game for Duke this season.
“I think just being able to focus on what you are doing rather than how you are feeling all the time,” Jones said. “A lot of people have a lot of issues. We were all able to fight through it.”
Cutcliffe said Jones wasn’t able to throw the ball down the field with the same precision, and the staff limited how much he ran the ball.
“He was pretty beat up and sore,” Cutcliffe said while declining to give specifics.
The statistics show how things changed for Jones and Duke, keeping in mind that, unlike the NFL, sacks count as running plays in college football statistics.
Jones ran the ball 18 times against Miami, but six of those rushes were really passing plays where he was sacked.
In a 28-21 loss at Virginia on Oct. 7, Jones ran the ball nine times, with two sacks.
In a 17-10 loss to Florida State on Oct. 14, Jones ran three times with one sack.
When Duke lost 24-17 to Pittsburgh on Oct. 21, Jones was credited with seven rushing attempts and was sacked twice.
During that stretch, Harris saw additional playing time. After not playing in the Sept. 23 win at UNC, he tooks six snaps in the Miami loss six days later. He was on the field for five plays at Virginia and three plays each against Florida State and Pittsburgh.
With Jones limited, Duke’s offense sputtered. The Blue Devils scored just seven offensive touchdowns during the six-game losing streak.
By mid-November, after losing 21-16 at Army, Duke needed wins in its last two regular-season games to ensure itself of a bowl game.
Fortunately, Jones was starting to regain his health.
In a 43-20 win over Georgia Tech on Nov. 18, Jones ran the ball 16 times to gain 91 yards. That was the most rushing yards he’d gained in a game since his 108 yards against Northwestern. Jones also completed 18 of 26 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns against Georgia Tech. His completion percentage of 69.2 was his best against a Football Bowl Subdivision team this season.
The following Saturday at Wake Forest, Jones threw for a career-best 346 yards with two more touchdown passes in Duke’s 31-23 win.
Seeing Jones battle through it all and still help Duke to a bowl game showed junior wide receiver T.J. Rahming plenty about his teammate.
“It just showed me who he really is,” Rahming said. “I know Daniel, when he got here at first we were tight and we worked. I noticed that about him from day one when he got here. He just wants to be better and wants to be the best. He showed us that during the season, working through injuries, coming to the sidelines hurt after taking big hits. Just being that leader that our team needs.”
Already impressed by how Jones handled starting 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2016, Cutcliffe raves at how Jones displayed toughness this season.
“He’s very much like the rest of our team. I didn’t see Daniel waver or change, which is a great way to evaluate quarterbacks. If you are going to play anywhere near a long time in the National Football League, I’m going to tell you you’d better be resilient. You better be prepared to struggle in one half and then throw five touchdown passes in the second half to be successful. I think Daniel has displayed that kind of personality.”
Duke vs. Northern Illinois
Quick Lane Bowl
When: 5:15 p.m., Tuesday
Where: Ford Field, Detroit