CHARLOTTE — Duke football coach David Cutcliffe raved about quarterback Daniel Jones on Friday during the Atlantic Coast Conference’s preseason media event in Charlotte.
Calling his junior signal-caller a “special talent,” the Blue Devils’ veteran coach said Jones’ ability to bounce back from a slow start last season helped the young quarterback take his game to the next level.
“One of the things that Daniel did prove, any quarterback that’s ever going to be a great player has to learn to fail and return quickly, and he has proven that he can do that,” Cutcliffe said Friday.
“You’re going to have some rocky roads, but he’s a special young man from a special family, and he is a special talent. The reason he’s being talked about is that he is really an outstanding talent.”
Along with Virginia, Duke is the only team in the Coastal Division that is set to return its starting quarterback from last year.
Rising from his role as a third-string former walk-on, Jones burst onto the scene during his sophomore campaign, passing for 2,836 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. He also showed his ability as a runner with 486 yards and seven touchdowns.
But it was a process that took time.
After throwing three touchdown passes in a 38-35 win at Notre Dame, Jones followed with an abysmal performance against Virginia, throwing five interceptions in a 34-20 loss.
He would only throw one interception over the final seven games of the season, and over his final four contests, Jones finished with 947 passing yards, five passing touchdowns and rushed for four more scores.
“I’d say after the UVA game, things were different, but I don’t know if you can say that there was a specific event or a defining moment, specifically at an exact time,” Jones said.
“I would say over the course of the season, I just was able to gain more and more knowledge and learn from some mistakes that ultimately kind of culminated and put me in a position to take care of the ball better and make a few more plays.”
His continued growth will be key for a Duke team that took a step back in 2016, earning just one ACC victory en route to finishing with a 4-8 record. The finish snapped a streak of four consecutive bowl appearances for the Blue Devils.
The bounce back starts with Jones.
“I think the biggest difference is the confidence, the leadership, the knowledge that (Jones) knows what he’s capable of doing, and his consistency is going to be outstanding based on his spring performance,” Cutcliffe said.
But Cutcliffe, who enters his 10th season at Duke, also acknowledged the improvements across the Blue Devils’ roster.
“You could probably pick 10 reasons things didn’t go well, and there would be legitimate reasons. But the biggest one, and I mean this sincerely, is that I didn’t have our team as ready as it needed to be. I believe in my heart of hearts, this team is the deepest, most talented team we’ve had at Duke yet,” he said.
“We are young in certain spots. We have concerns in certain little areas. But I think this team will display what we’re capable of being at Duke, and we believe we can compete for championships every year. That’s where we had gotten to, and that’s where we intend to be.”
The Blue Devils’ depth at wide receiver should boost the offense and Jones’ development. Keyston Fuller and Scott Bracey return to the fold after suffering injuries last year. Tight end T.J. Rahming, Duke’s top target last season with 70 catches and 742 yards, is also set to return.
Defensively, Duke is led by all-ACC linebacker Ben Humphreys and veteran cornerback Bryon Fields.
Despite the team’s success before last season’s hiccup, Fields and the Blue Devils remain on a year-to-year mission to prove they belong.
And it starts from within the program.
“As far as gaining respect from the outside world, we don’t worry about that too much. Even after we had a 10-win season, we still were picked to finish toward last in the Coastal,” Fields said.
“We can’t really control that. We can control how hard we work, how much confidence we have in ourselves. We know what we’re capable of. Last year was a bit of a disappointment, but we know what we have to address.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.