Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk would receive the play call, and then he would start his pre-snap preparation.
What coverage is the defense playing? Who is coming on a blitz? What routes are my X, Y and Z receivers running?
And then the ball would be snapped – to Anthony Boone or Brandon Connette. Sirk, meanwhile, was standing on the sideline, visualizing himself on the field.
That’s all Sirk, a redshirt sophomore, could do last season – imagine he was playing. That spring, he was the backup quarterback, ready to take his first college snaps after redshirting his first year. But in the last week of spring practice, the plan changed.
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Sirk dropped back to pass, but fell, untouched. He said it felt like someone kicked him in his calf muscle, or maybe thrown a ball at the back of his leg. He turned to see what had hit him, and he tried to stand up.
“I couldn’t put any pressure on it, and I went back down,” he said. “I knew right away, then, that something was torn.”
It was actually worse than that – a ruptured Achilles tendon in his right leg. Sirk had surgery that afternoon, and, just like that, his 2013 season was wiped out.
“It was saddening to me, and sad that I was going to have to tell my parents that I was going to miss the whole next season, from that standpoint, in April,” Sirk said. “But the next day, I accepted the fact that I was injured, and there was nothing I could do about it. Sitting around and sulking wasn’t going to get it any better.
“When I woke up the next day, I knew from this point on, I have to push myself to another level that I’ve never pushed to before.”
The journey to QB
Fast forward 16 months, and Sirk again is Duke’s backup quarterback, ready to make his college debut. With last year’s backup, Connette, at Fresno State, starter Anthony Boone is the only quarterback with college experience. The Blue Devils need someone to fill Connette’s role – a change-of-pace, short yardage specialist – and Sirk is the heir apparent.
That doesn’t mean they are identical players.
Sirk, 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, is longer and leaner than Connette (6-2, 213), but the height doesn’t come at the expense of his athleticism. Duke coaches say Sirk is one of the offense’s best athletes.
Sirk has been an athlete much longer than he has been a quarterback – he played the position full time for just one season before arriving at Duke.
Sirk’s high school – Baker County (Fla.), about 30 minutes west of Jacksonville – ran a wing-T for his first two seasons. As a receiver, he was out of luck as far as major offensive contributions were concerned. He did, though, play free safety. A coaching change before his junior year brought in the spread offense, but there was still an incumbent quarterback in place. Sirk got 12 snaps, according to MaxPreps, in a wildcat package.
“I got closer with my coach, we grew in our relationship, and I told him, ‘Coach, I just want to get the chance to play in the spring game, I want to be the quarterback,’” Sirk said. “As soon as that season ended in December, I started working as a quarterback.”
Sirk also contacted David Morris, a private quarterback coach and founder of QB Country. Morris learned the trade at Ole Miss, where he backed up Eli Manning for three seasons – on teams coached by David Cutcliffe. Sirk and his dad, Eddie, traveled to Alabama for an initial meeting with Morris. It didn’t take long for Morris to see the potential.
“His dad said, ‘Hey is he a quarterback?” Morris said. “I said, ‘he’s absolutely a quarterback, and let’s work on getting him recruited as one.’ ”
Morris helped Sirk put together a video highlighting his throwing ability, and that brought in offers from Iowa State and Southern Mississippi (then coached by UNC coach Larry Fedora). Sirk went to a Duke camp, and the offer came shortly thereafter. Sirk committed in June of 2011, the summer before his senior year – and before he had played a full season at quarterback.
Sirk immediately demonstrated some of the potential others saw in him, completing 141-of-207 (.681) passes for 2,303 yards and 26 touchdowns while rushing 111 times for 1,018 yards and 17 touchdowns in his final high school season.
Healthy and ready to go
While Sirk was short on quarterback experience when he arrived at Duke, his past prepared him for the mental challenges of waiting to play.
“He knew patience pretty well going into last year before the injury, just because of the nature of his high school career,” Morris said. “That set him up for being able to handle that difficult situation last year, when he had to sit out after there had been some expectations for him to contribute that season. To have that injury and wipe that out was obviously very disappointing and really challenging. He handled it well.”
Sirk volunteered to be one of the play signalers on the sideline in order to better learn the offense. As he relayed the call through a series of hand gestures, he visualized himself on the field. Sirk embraced film study, too, learning the offense as he went through rehab.
By last October, he was back on the field – but he was a little overeager and strained another muscle in his calf.
“Once they let me start to go out there and throw with the receivers again, I was taking the approach as me going out there and dropping back, instead of just standing and throwing simply,” Sirk said. “That could have caused some problems, some fatigue in my calf muscle that wasn’t 100 percent back to normal strength yet.”
Despite the setback, Sirk participated in two weeks of Duke’s bowl practices, and he filled in for Connette while he was on the West Coast with his ailing mother. Still not 100 percent in the spring, Sirk was at least able to participate in the spring game.
Now, with his first preseason scrimmage behind him, Sirk – two-and-a-half years removed from his last competitive football game – has declared himself ready to go.
“It took awhile to get back to that top speed again,” he said. “But I feel now that I’m back to where I need to be.”