College Sports

Why quarterback Quentin Harris is among the best David Cutcliffe has coached at Duke

Though a Duke football veteran, Quentin Harris is still new to this whole starting quarterback thing.

What the redshirt senior did on Saturday night at Floyd Stadium, though — helping the Blue Devils batter Middle Tennessee State — put him among the best David Cutcliffe has coached at Duke.

Having earned the freedom to call his own audibles, Harris completed his first 12 passes on the way to a night where he had more touchdown passes (four) than incomplete passes (three).

He’s been Daniel Jones’ backup for the past three seasons. With Jones gone to the NFL as a top-10 draft pick, Harris showed in leading Duke to a 41-18 win over Middle Tennessee State he, too, can lead the Blue Devils to winning seasons and bowl victories.

“I thought Quentin,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe told the media after the game, “played as well mentally as, well, we’re just getting used to him. But he played mentally as well as any quarterback that we’ve had at Duke tonight. And we’re going to build on that. That’s really big for us.”

Starting his third game of this season and fifth in his career, Harris, who’s 6-1 and 200 pounds, completed 24 of 27 passes for 237 yards and four touchdowns. He added a team-best 107 yards rushing.

Since Cutcliffe became the Blue Devils coach for the 2008 season, Jones is the third of Duke’s quarterbacks to play in the NFL, joining Thad Lewis and Sean Renfree.

Yet Harris, albeit in shredding the defense of a Conference USA school, looked as in command of the Duke offense as any of them when they were at their best.

This is what Duke hoped he could deliver when it became obvious that Jones would be leaving for the NFL following his redshirt junior season. The key word is hoped.

While NFL scouts knew Jones was special even before last season, Harris isn’t held in the same esteem as a pro prospect.

That doesn’t matter to Harris. He has the respect of his teammates and a command over Duke’s playbook honed from those seasons as Jones’ understudy. He learned how to break down film from doing it with Jones.

Duke quarterback Quentin Harris (18) hands off to running back Mataeo Durant (21) as Middle Tennessee defensive end Tyshun Render rushes in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Mark Humphrey AP

Calling audibles

On Saturday night against Middle Tennessee State, Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Zac Roper thought Harris was ready to change plays on his own at the line rather than looking to the sideline for hand signals from the coaches.

The result was Duke scoring points seven times on its first seven possessions, leading to a dominating win.

“I think the coaches did a great job preparing us this week, getting us used to their different looks,” Harris said after the game. “Just installing a game plan that really kind of emphasized our strengths and allowed us to attack them.”

That game plan involved throwing the ball all over the field, from the short routes tight end Noah Gray feasted on to make five catches for 33 yards to the deeper passes that resulted in Aaron Young catching two touchdowns and freshmen Jalon Calhoun and Eli Pancol each making a touchdown grab.

“They’re a really good football team and their quarterback was exceptional as a runner and a passer,” Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Stockstill said after the game. “He got the ball out, he didn’t take unnecessary risks with the ball and I was really impressed with him.”

Trusting Quentin Harris

By protecting the ball Harris showed improvement. He tossed a pair of interceptions when Duke lost 42-3 to No. 2 Alabama on Aug. 31. Though none of his passes in a 45-13 win over N.C. A&T were intercepted, a few throws were in danger of becoming a turnover.

That wasn’t the case against Middle Tennessee — and it was a matter of trust.

Duke’s coaches trusted Harris with more freedom in the offense and Harris trusted his receivers to make contested catches.

Both plans proved wise.

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Harris put the ball where it needed to be and his receivers were strong and sure-handed.

It started with Young, the wide receiver, a redshirt senior like Harris who looked spectacular at times. His catch in the corner of the end zone, securing the ball with a defender in his space while getting one foot in bounds, is highlight-reel material.

Calhoun and Pancol, a pair of freshman, are solid route runners who’ve shown good hands as well.

Now Harris is about to get even more help. Sophomore wide receiver Jake Bobo, out since fracturing his collarbone in early August, was in uniform and available to play at Middle Tennessee.

The 6-4, 200-pound Bobo proved sure-handed himself last season in limited playing time. Duke’s coaches lined him up for a play in the second quarter but a timeout was called prior to the snap. After the break, Bobo wasn’t on the field but he’ll certainly be ready to go when Duke plays at Virginia Tech on Sept. 27.

Duke starting ACC run

After going 8-5 last season, Duke had to not only replace Jones but three starting wide receivers and two productive tight ends. Question marks abounded on offense.

Harris completed only 54.5 percent (12 of 22) of his passes against Alabama’s world-class defense but has feasted on lesser-talented teams over the past two weeks.

The rest of the regular season will present challenges somewhere in the middle. Duke begins its run of eight ACC games at Virginia Tech and also has a home game with Notre Dame in November.

The way Harris played Saturday night — and the way his receivers are showing big-play abilities — shows the Blue Devils offense is in solid shape once again.

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.