CHARLOTTE — Quentin Harris started two games for Duke last season. This year, he’s the starter.
There’s a world of difference between the two.
“I believe so,” the senior quarterback said. “I think as the starting quarterback, it’s definitely more indefinite. You have to string together multiple games. You have to prepare week in and week out. I felt pretty prepared to do that last year, since that’s something I’ve done my entire time as backup quarterback — keep that starter mentality.”
Harris led the Blue Devils to two wins while Daniel Jones recovered from a collarbone injury last year. Stepping in and preparing like the starter, though, is a world away from the responsibilities of being the starter from day one.
“I think there’s a bit of a difference now,” he said, “knowing you’re the guy, knowing you’ve got to prepare the entire week. You’ve got to be on top of your game, otherwise you give the opponent a chance to take advantage of you.”
It also means making sure that the rest of the offense is preparing and ready to go on game day.
“I think the big thing for me is to try to take a bigger leap, mentally,” he said. “A lot of my focus this offseason has been getting on the same page with my receivers, whether that’s watching film with them or just explaining to them what I saw on tape. Things like, ‘I think you can maybe run your routes to 14 yards instead of 12, or you can cut your split by a yard or two.’ That’s the next step, so we can operate as a well-oiled machine.”
As David Cutcliffe said, Harris, as next man up, would have been handed the reins of the team when Jones left a year early for the NFL. Instead, he took them himself.
“I think hopefully I’ve taken the reins,” Harris said, “taken a more vocal leadership role. As I started to play more in a supplemental role the last couple seasons, took more leadership of the team, a more vocal standpoint. … Taking on a leadership role with the young guys. We have a couple freshmen that may end up playing for us this year, eventually. Just really taking them under my wing, get them to understand how we want to run things offensively, running routes, building our timing. We’re on the same page. Take those guys under my wing, be there for them if they have any questions in transition.”
Harris is doing exactly what Cutcliffe hoped he would when he found out he’d be facing the 2019 season, starting with a game against Alabama, without Jones.
“The thing that Quentin Harris didn’t have to do,” Cutcliffe said, “he didn’t have to become a leader. He’s been a leader in our program. If you just heard him speak, you realize what type of young man he is. He speaks volumes of the character in our program.”
As for matching the on-field production of Jones, who threw for 8,201 yards and 52 touchdowns in three years with the Blue Devils, Cutcliffe seems to think Harris is up to the task.
“Quentin is brilliant, just plain and simple — brilliant,” Cutcliffe said. “You can coach him intellectually. You can coach him. He understands what the concepts are and what we’re trying to do.”
Harris made most of his plays on the ground while serving as Jones’ backup. That was a function of how he was used — primarily in goal-line and other short-yardage situations. His mobility doesn’t mean that he can’t pass, however, as he showed in his two-game stint as starter, throwing for three touchdowns in each game.
“Definitely very confident in my abilities to pass,” he said. “I think our offensive game will continue to kind of thrive on a nice balanced approach.
“Passing, I think, for me, it’s kind of getting more in-game reps with that, continuing to build rapport with the receivers. I think definitely it’s something I want to improve upon, the completion percentage. As I get more comfortable, as I kind of learn maybe how to dissect coverages in a certain way, get more familiarity with the plays that we’re running, I think that will naturally happen.”
For Cutcliffe, the focus isn’t on where Harris still needs to learn — it’s on finding what he does best.
“I think what we’re working on is trying to find what he believes in,” he said. “Ultimately what he has most confidence in what we’re going to do. We have a big ol’ wide array of offense, a lot of sets, a lot of pass concepts. What we want to do is zero in on what Quentin Harris believes in. So that’s really what we’re working on.”
It’s something they didn’t do last year, when he started. Now that he’s the starter, it’s a different story entirely.