Call Thomas Sirk a run-first quarterback. It doesn’t bother him.
“I really don’t mind it because I know that we can be more effective on offense if our quarterbacks have the ability to run the ball,” Sirk said. “Our offense is very diverse this year. You’ll see us open it up and do a lot of things with a lot of guys. With me having the ability to run the ball, we can be a lot more effective.”
Sirk is entering his fourth year at Duke, but this will be the first time the redshirt junior enters a season as the starting quarterback. When preseason camp begins Wednesday, Sirk is the unquestioned leader of the offense.
Coach David Cutcliffe and all of his teammates have spent the offseason singing Sirk’s praises as a complete quarterback – one who can run and throw. He has proven the former in games: last year, as the short-yardage specialist, he averaged 5.1 yards per carry (238 total yards) with eight touchdowns, including the game-winner in double overtime at Pittsburgh, a 5-yard gain on third-and-2.
His passing resume is much shorter: 14 attempts, 10 completions for 67 yards and three touchdowns.
“The role that I was in last year, people didn’t get a chance to see me throw the ball a lot,” he said. “Whether they think that I can throw it or not, that’s what I go out there every day in practice and do. At practice last year, I was running the same exact plays as (Anthony) Boone.
“I have confidence in myself to go out and make all the throws on the field. All my receivers have the same confidence in me.”
Cutcliffe called Sirk the fastest quarterback Duke has had and the one with the best range. Cutcliffe’s first two Duke quarterbacks – Thad Lewis and Sean Renfree – went onto the NFL.
“Thomas Sirk is talented. Period,” Cutcliffe said last month. “He has played well in practice. He has a great ability that I trust to make practice like a game. He’s serious. He is prepared.”
It wouldn’t take a Herculean effort to outplay his predecessor, Boone. According to ESPN’s David Hale, of the 75 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts against Power 5 competition last year, Boone ranked 64th in passer efficiency (111.2), 66th in yards per attempt (5.69) and 56th in completion percentage (54.3). The downfield passing game wasn’t strong, either, as Boone’s 5.69 yards per attempt last year was the lowest posted by any of Cutcliffe’s Duke quarterbacks. And those numbers came behind a great offensive line, one that gave up the third-lowest sack rate in the country.
Sirk focused on improving his accuracy this offseason, on placing throws to the proper side of his receivers. He has worked hard on developing the right timing with receivers – not an easy thing given his ability to scramble and extend plays. In fact, Sirk and his receivers specifically practice a scramble drill, training them to better react to his ad lib moves.
“When he rolls, if we’re deep, we’re coming short. And if we’re short, we’re going deep,” redshirt freshman receiver Chris Taylor said. “If you’re running a 5-yard hitch and Sirk is scrambling your way, you’re going to take it up to give him space to throw the ball.”
Linebacker Zavier Carmichael said Sirk’s running background actually makes him a more patient passer – he is used to letting plays develop, blocks get set and so forth. And then if he needs to run, he has speed not previously seen at that position from Duke.
“You can’t really let him get outside the pocket,” Carmichael said.
Had Sirk had better luck with his health, he could have seen meaningful snaps much sooner. During spring practice prior to the 2013 season Sirk beat out Brandon Connette for the No. 2 quarterback spot, Cutcliffe said. Then a ruptured Achilles tendon ended his season before it began.
That injury, combined with his previous redshirt year, leaves Sirk with just one season of game experience, leading to the questions from those outside the program about his arm and his passing ability – not that Sirk has heard them. He said he only reads things that appear on the athletics department’s official website or are shared by the team’s official Twitter account.
“Hopefully it’s all positive things said about me,” Sirk said. “And the negativity I just avoid. I know what we have to do, and I know what our expectations are.
“I put in a lot of hard work to become the starting quarterback. I’ve put in the film study, I’ve put in the practices, and I try to make each practice like a game. You have to work your hardest. You have to work like you’re the No. 2 guy because you never want to be content with where you are at.”
There won’t be answers to questions about Sirk’s passing ability until the Sept. 3 season opener at Tulane. Until then, it’s all just talk, good, bad or indifferent.