A career backup except for two starts last season, quarterback Quentin Harris faced something unique to his new role in Duke’s offense last week.
The offense struggled in its first scrimmage on Aug. 10 with penalties and turnovers. A Harris pass intended for junior wide receiver Scott Bracey was picked off in the end zone by freshman cornerback Tony Davis.
With a second scrimmage scheduled for six days later, Duke’s coaches turned up the pressure on the offense during practices.
A fifth-year senior entrenched as a starter for the first time, Harris had to improve his play and push his group to produce better results.
“That’s the biggest issue you have when you really become the man,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “That would be at quarterback. That would be at receiver or the offensive line. You are not a backup. You are a starter. The expectations are greater. Not just the work but the work focus has to increase.”
Harris and the offense responded with improved play in a closed scrimmage on Aug. 16. Playing against the No. 2 defense, Cutcliffe said Harris’ first-team offense produced 24 points.
“I definitely thought the offense was more polished in the second scrimmage,” Harris said in an interview with the News & Observer on Friday. “That’s a testament to the work we put in that week and getting more familiar with one other and also the calls that are coming in from the coaching staff.”
The 6-1, 195-pound Harris spent the past three seasons backing up Daniel Jones, now a rookie with the NFL’s New York Giants. Harris has played in 23 games, starting two when Jones was injured last season, completing 50.6 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and one interception.
On the field, that has prepared him to take over Duke’s offense. Off the field, he’s now in graduate school at Duke, having been an Academic All-ACC honoree who graduated with a public policy studies degree with a minor in economics last May.
He took all of those accomplishments and life experiences into those practices between Duke’s two scrimmages. With a season-opening game against No. 2 Alabama set for Aug. 31 in Atlanta, Duke needed Harris to help make the offense better and he delivered.
“He showed me a little toughness,” Cutcliffe said. “The whole offense certainly was challenged. We have gone to that point pretty intensely on the practice field. He took the challenge. He took the coaching. He took a different focus on to the practice field.”
For Harris, it was all about preparation and communication.
“I think just in my experiences here the past four years we’ve definitely had to deal with a lot of adversity,” Harris said. “I definitely leaned on those experiences and leaned on what I’ve learned from them and what I’ve learned from the other guys who have played quarterback here.
“We’ve got a young group of guys, especially some skills guys and we are breaking in a couple of new tackles now. I think the biggest thing for me to do was instill confidence in them, get them on the same page. Just kind of communicating effectively. Transferring the knowledge that I have from coach Cut and coach (Zac) Roper, making sure they understand what I’m see so we can be on the same page and operate smoothly. My role is to be a good communicator out there to get everybody with a sense of urgency.”
Harris led the Blue Devils through practice sessions all summer with the coaches nowhere in sight. Such work is commonplace in Duke’s program, where captains run the practices a couple times a week to get ready for the season.
So the players are comfortable with Harris running the offense.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Duke starting center Jack Wohlabaugh said during a meeting with reporters on Aug. 13. “He knows what he’s got to get done, the calls to make. We definitely trust him up front to make those. It’s a smooth transition.”
But Harris said things are even more challenging now because the group has to precisely run the plays the coaches call as part of a game plan rather than what the players like to run.
Since that Aug. 10 scrimmage, the coaches saw Harris turn up his work ethic — both on the practice field and on his own time — in a way that impressed them.
“His preparation level you could tell picked up the way you want a starting quarterback’s preparation level,” Duke offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Zac Roper said in an interview with the News & Observer on Aug. 17. “Obviously, we had prescribed meeting times and everything, but you could tell he did a lot of other things on his own.”
Duke’s completion percentage as a team was 58.4 percent last season after coming in at 56.7 in 2017. The Blue Devils went 8-5 and 7-6, coming home with wins in the 2018 Independence Bowl and the 2017 Quick Lane Bowl.
In 2013, when Duke went 10-4 and won the ACC Coastal Division championship, its completion percentage was 63.1 percent.
Getting back to that level falls on the entire offense as receivers have to catch passes while the linemen block well to protect the quarterbacks.
With one week to go before facing an Alabama defense full of NFL prospects, Cutcliffe believes the starting quarterback job is in capable hands with Harris.
“Quentin is playing like a fifth-year senior right now,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s gotten better every day. The more he is the starter, the more reps he has taken, his consistency has gone way up. The thing that Quentin has done the best is physically thrown the ball this camp.”