Even on the scout team, Daniel Jones prepared as if he could start any day.
Duke’s redshirt freshman quarterback didn’t see any action in 2015 and was supposed to be a reserve this past season.
But Jones’ preparation paid off after Thomas Sirk suffered the third Achilles injury of his career, this time ending the redshirt senior quarterback’s season before it began.
Jones, a 6-5, 210-pound Charlotte native, beat out redshirt junior Parker Boehme to become the Blue Devils’ starter, and with a plethora of rookie quarterback records under his belt after his first season on the field, Jones secured his future with the program.
“He never waivers from focusing on getting better and focusing on his team,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “Daniel doesn’t get consumed in his performance, and that’s what a good quarterback should do.”
The two-time ACC rookie of the week threw for a rookie record 2,836 yards this season.
But his road didn’t start off as well as it ended. Jones had to build trust, grow as a leader and work to become a consistent performer. Cutcliffe said Jones’ job will not be in jeopardy even after the NCAA granted Sirk an eligibility extension, allowing him to return for a sixth year.
In Jones’ first start as a Blue Devil, he went 10-of-15 for 189 yards and two touchdowns against N.C. Central on Sept. 3. But when Duke reached its FBS opponents, things took a tough turn early for the young quarterback.
He had at least one interception in each of the next four games and things snowballed Oct. 1 against Virginia.
That game, a 34-20 loss, was perhaps his worst. The Cavaliers picked him off five times and forced a fumble in the end zone that led to a score, as they collected 21 points off turnovers in Durham.
“The turnovers were the biggest takeaway from that game, just focusing on taking care of the ball,” Jones said. “That’s kind of something I’ve tried to focus on this season. As an offense, the most important part is taking care of the ball.”
Since UVA, Jones showed marked improvement, throwing one interception in 133 pass attempts the rest of the way.
Jones finished the year with a season-high 34 completions in Duke’s 40-21 loss to Miami on Nov. 26.
“He’s had a year to where he had some tough losses, some big wins, some incredible performances,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s been an interesting year for quarterbacks, a loss of weapons around him. I think he’s been pressured a good bit in the pocket and had to respond.
“Even in defeat, you can see he’s getting better.”
The bright spots
Jones strung together four 300-yard games this past season. He established or tied 22 Duke single-season and game rookie records, including his 2,836 passing yards, and broke one overall mark.
Jones was the team’s second-leading rusher on the year behind Shaun Wilson with 683 yards.
“I was … trying to improve every week,” Jones said. “A lot of things to improve every game. That’s the biggest thing for me is making sure I’m always moving forward and progressing as quickly as possible.”
In Duke’s 24-14 loss to Louisville Oct. 14, Jones didn’t stand down against the Cardinals’ defense and his counterpart Lamar Jackson, who won the Heisman on Saturday. Jones threw for two touchdowns against them.
He was poised against a Virginia Tech defense, bringing the team to within a touchdown after Duke trailed, 21-7, at halftime on Nov. 5. The Hokies, the eventual Coastal Division champion, held on for a 24-21 victory.
Duke suffered a number of close losses in its 4-8 season that ended its four-season bowl streak, but Jones helped lead the Blue Devils to an impressive 28-27 victory over rival North Carolina on Nov. 10. He looked comfortable running the ball with 94 yards.
Jones comes from a sports family. His younger brother Bates verbally committed to play basketball at Davidson and was the starting quarterback at Charlotte Latin this year. His younger sister Ruthie is a highly regarded prep soccer player.
Jones, a three-time letterman on his high school basketball team, chose Duke because he was impressed with the program’s progress over the years under Cutcliffe, who started coaching the Blue Devils in 2008. Under the coach, Duke has won the Coastal, captured its first 10-win season ever and secured a bowl game victory for the first time since 1960.
“Duke was a just a great opportunity to get a great education and play for a great football program,” Jones said.
He helped his high school football team to a 19-5 record with two state championship appearances.
Since being named the starter for Duke, Jones’ relationship with Sirk has blossomed. Although Sirk was one of three team captains hit with a season-ending injury, the two worked on football on and off the field.
“I think that Daniel does a really good job of preparation during the week. I think it allows him to go out there and be comfortable with the plan,” Sirk said. “I think the biggest thing has been his poise on the field. He brings a great attitude and has lots of leadership potential with the guys, and the guys respect him as a quarterback.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan
Daniel Jones’ records
▪ Single-season passing yards, freshman: 2,836
▪ Pass Completion % season, freshman: .628
▪ TDs, freshman: 16
▪ 20+Completions, freshman: 8
▪ 30+ Completions, freshman: 3
▪ Pass Attempts, freshman: 430
▪ Pass Completions, freshman: 270
▪ Avg. Yards/Att, freshman: 6.60
▪ Pass Efficiency, freshman: 126.28
▪ 100-yard Passing Games, freshman: 11
▪ 200-yard Passing Games, freshman: 8
▪ 300-yard Passing Games, freshman: 4
▪ Total Offensive Plays, freshman: 571
▪ Touchdown Responsibility, freshman: 23
▪ Total Offensive Yards, freshman: 3,322
▪ Pass Efficiency, freshman: 216.51 (N.C. Central/9/3)
▪ Pass Att w/o Int, freshman: 50 (Miami/11/26)
▪ Pass Completion Pct., freshman: .750 (Notre Dame/9/24)
▪ Total Offensive Plays, freshman: 67 (Wake Forest/9/10)
▪ TD Passes of 20+ yards, overall record: 3 (Notre Dame/9/24)
▪ Yards/Attempt, freshman: 12.60 (N.C. Central/9/3)
▪ Yards/Completion, freshman: 18.90 (N.C. Central/9/3)