Jalon Calhoun built his football reputation in high school on the throwing end of touchdown passes.
On the way to a Shrine Bowl selection last December, he threw 25 touchdown passes over his final two seasons at Southside High School in Greenville, S.C.
Yet when Duke lost Jake Bobo, the player coach David Cutcliffe called his team’s best wide receiver, to injury last month, Calhoun stepped into that starting receiver role — and it doesn’t appear he’ll be giving up.
Calhoun, a freshman who converted from quarterback to wide receiver when he arrived at Duke this summer, caught two touchdown passes in Duke’s 45-13 win over N.C A&T last Saturday night at Wallace Wade Stadium.
He’s caught nine passes for 109 yards over Duke’s first two games this season, and he looks like he’s been a wide receiver forever rather than a former quarterback making a transition.
“At the end of the day, football is football,” Calhoun said with a smile and a laugh after Saturday’s game. “A lot of the older guys in my (wide receiver) room give me confidence and advice and not worry about that. So I just go out there and play football and just be an athlete.”
Even with Bobo, who was sidelined with a broken collarbone, back at practice as he gets nearer to a return, Calhoun’s play at his new position means he’ll remain firmly in Duke’s game plan.
“Boy,” Cutcliffe said about Calhoun during a press conference Tuesday. “He is just a natural ballplayer.”
Jalon Calhoun a standout in high school
A standout all-around athlete, the 5-11, 185 pound Calhoun excelled as an undersized quarterback playing at the Class 3A football level back home in South Carolina. As a junior, he threw for 2,226 yards and 20 touchdowns. In basketball, he scored 11 points in the state title game as the Tigers won their second consecutive state championship that same school year.
College football recruiters, though, saw that his arm was good enough for high school but not to play quarterback at their level.
Some thought Calhoun would make a good cornerback. Cutcliffe and his coaches, though, could see that Calhoun could make more impactful plays elsewhere on offense.
“He needed to get the ball,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s dynamic with the football. I think deep in his mind he wanted to play offense and that’s why he ended up at Duke.”
After declining offers to play at Air Force, East Carolina, Charlotte and Coastal Carolina, Calhoun arrived at Duke this summer with talent and the work ethic that showed his teammates and coaches he could help the Blue Devils immediately.
“One thing I’ve seen from Jalon ever since he got here was his awareness and ability to kind of dissect coverages and adjust his route accordingly,” Duke quarterback Quentin Harris told reporters Tuesday. “He’s a very smart player and I think you are starting to see him get more comfortable in the scheme and now you are letting your true talent show through.”
That summer work at Duke’s indoor practice facility and in the film room is clearly paying off now for the Blue Devils and Calhoun.
“He could not get enough work on his own,” Cutcliffe said. “The quarterbacks, anytime they wanted to, he went to the Pascal and he threw with them. He was constantly growing as a player and it shows. He’s very comfortable and committed to learning.”
Just a few practices into his college football career, Calhoun said he was already comfortable.
“In camp I feel like the game kind of slowed down for me,” Calhoun said. “In the scrimmages and everything. So like just going out there just to play football and the game slowing down for me to read coverages and everything to know what I had to do and my assignments.”
Jake Bobo’s injury a blow to Duke’s offense
Bobo, a 6-4, 200-pound sophomore, caught 10 passes for 167 yards last season. That’s more than any other current Duke receiver had last season in either category. His injury was a blow to an offense replacing seven starters, including current New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones.
Calhoun’s emergence, though, means Bobo could move to another starting slot among Duke’s wide receivers. In their spread offense, the Blue Devils routinely line up three and sometimes four wideouts.
“Jake is so versatile,” Cutcliffe said Tuesday. “He can do so many things. There are a lot of ways he can cure a lot of things for us if he can get back full speed and healthy, whether it’s there in the slot or all over the place our offense as the ability to play him at three or four different positions and he will be good at all of them.”
In the meantime, Calhoun’s play gives Duke a weapon for now and in the future.
Duke at Middle Tennessee
When: 7 p.m., Saturday
Where: Johnny ‘Red’ Floyd Stadium, Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Watch: Facebook Live
Listen: WRBZ-99.3, WDNC-620 Raleigh; WRBZ-96.5, WDNC-620 Durham; WBCN-94.7, WHVN-1660 Charlotte