Luke DeCock

Duke may benefit from quarterback transition

QB Thomas Sirk (1) looks to pass as Duke holds its first football practice of the season Aug. 5.
QB Thomas Sirk (1) looks to pass as Duke holds its first football practice of the season Aug. 5. cseward@newsobserver.com

The words that come up quite a bit when his coaches and teammates talk about new Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk are “confident” and “comfortable,” about what you’d expect for a team breaking in a first-time starter at the position.

That transition is often a red flag, particularly at a program like Duke that continues to make season-to-season progress and relied heavily on veteran quarterbacks like Sean Renfree and Anthony Boone.

For Duke this season, the change in quarterbacks may actually help more than it hurts.

Boone was beloved by his teammates and held in the utmost esteem by his coaches, but his on-field performance was often erratic, bafflingly so at times for a second-year starter. Boone had a much higher completion percentage as a junior than he did as a senior (64 percent declining to 56 percent) and there were games where either his mentality or mechanics seemed way out of whack.

The Miami loss last September, his first as a starter in the regular season, was marred by botched snaps and off-target passes; it was one of four games where he completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes. Open receivers saw deep balls sail over the heads and short balls bounce at their feet. And for all the games Boone won (19 as a starter), Duke’s last two bowl losses ended with Boone interceptions with the game still there to be won.

(The same thing happened a year earlier with Renfree in the Belk Bowl – a new Duke tradition the Blue Devils would prefer not to continue.)

Duke coach David Cutcliffe is quick to defend Boone as a leader and a winner, but he’s also quick to set a high bar for Sirk, a redshirt junior taking over after one season of spot duty and occasional goal-line work.

“I think so,” Cutcliffe said. “And I expect it from him.”

If Sirk’s play meets Cutcliffe’s expectations, Duke could very well see an increase in productivity and efficiency at the quarterback position, even replacing a three-year starter with a first-time starter. And if Sirk does measure up, Duke has the potential to show enough improvement in other areas to contend for the Coastal Division title again.

There’s a talented and experienced secondary, even without injured cornerback Bryon Fields, and an experienced offensive line that has contributed to steady growth in Duke’s running game – an area that may be a weakness at the moment because of injuries but should stabilize early in the season as several backs return to health.

The Blue Devils avoid Florida State and Clemson and play Georgia Tech, Miami and Pittsburgh at home. It’s a schedule that lends itself to eight or nine wins if Sirk can perform at the same level as Boone – and perhaps more if he can exceed it.

Sirk remains an unknown, having played only in spot duty, but with solid results in a limited sample. He has run or thrown for two game-winning touchdowns and accounted for 10 total touchdowns, the only active quarterback in the country to have done either without starting a game, according to Duke.

Duke has often rotated in a goal-line quarterback – Brandon Connette most notably, and Sirk scored eight touchdowns in that role last season – but with only Sirk and Parker Boehme on the roster with any playing time, Cutcliffe said he’s unlikely to take any unnecessary risks with Boehme running the ball. For the first time in a long time, a Duke quarterback may get to finish the drives he starts.

“He’s confident, controlling the offense,” wide receiver Max McCaffery said. He’s stepped into the shoes that Boone was in last year and he’s ready to take over.”

They’re big shoes to fill in some ways, and less so in others, but Duke needs Sirk to fill them, and well. If he can, the Blue Devils may be the rare team to lose a veteran quarterback and move forward.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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