If it looked like they’d done it forever, that’s probably because they had.
The Duke Blue Devils faced third and goal from the 7-yard line in the second half of Saturday’s game at Baylor.
Quarterback Quentin Harris, making his first collegiate start, took the snap, took one step, set his feet and let fly.
Coaches say that a well-run fade route should allow a receiver time to get under the pass — and no one else. The pass should lead the receiver right into the pylon in the rear corner of the end zone.
The ball floated toward the back of the end zone, and T.J. Rahming ran to his spot.
“T.J. and I, we’ve gotten some pockets of time together,” Harris said. “Last season, when Daniel (Jones, Duke’s starting quarterback) was banged up, I took some of the ones’ reps in practice. So we’ve kind of continued to build a rapport through the years we’ve been here together. That’s a route we run all the time in practice, anywhere from five to 10 times each practice. You add that up over time, it becomes muscle memory.”
“That’s something that we probably ran over 50 times during camp, finding that perfect angle, having that touch on the ball,” Rahming agreed.
The ball floated into Rahming’s hands, hopelessly out of reach of the defender. Rahming took another two steps and then stumbled … as he hit the pylon in the right rear corner of the end zone.
The play stands as the perfect symbol of Harris’ debut as the Duke starter. With Daniel Jones on the shelf for the near future with a fractured collarbone, Duke’s players and coaches preached all week that Harris would be ready, and the redshirt junior had their full confidence.
The confidence was a testament to Duke’s preparation.
“It’s ingrained in us,” Harris said. “It’s something Coach (Dave) Cutcliffe harps on us and preaches. You never really know when your time will come. You’ve got to practice every week like you’re going to play.”
Duke’s practices are structured to help get the next man up ready to go, in case of emergency.
“That may be the total secret to a good program,” Cutcliffe said. “There’s one ball. You recruit offense players, and maybe five of them don’t care if they touch it a lot — well, maybe the center does. We only have 11 people on the field, and we have 85 on scholarship. … We’re not a program that just gives our reps to the ones. We rep three deep, four deep. Everybody matters on that practice field.”
That’s why, with a second-string quarterback, second-string center and a secondary filled with backups, Duke was able to not miss a beat despite playing on the road against a Power Five team with a week that’s schedule was turned upside down by the hurricane that hit North Carolina.
“You saw how well-prepared guys were,” Harris said. “How much attention to detail they had. How focused they were.”
It should only get better, since Harris now has on-field experience and game film to watch.
“Previously, when I’ve been in a game, it’s been mainly garbage time, just kind of handing the ball off,” he said. “(Having film is) definitely helpful, especially from a learning perspective — to be able to critique myself and improve week-to-week. I still don’t think we’ve reached our potential.”
With quarterback guru Cutcliffe going through it with him, Harris can’t help but improve.
“He went wire-to-wire,” Cutcliffe said. “There’s a lot in there. When you’re reading defenses, your presnap reads, your post-snap reads, all of those come to life on film.”
Plus, there’s no substitute for experience.
“When you’re talking to a quarterback, the more experienced they are, you don’t need to have a board. You don’t even need to have film. You’re in a visualization talk,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s hard to visualize something when you haven’t experienced it. So it’s been fun talking with him. I think he knows he can take another step. I expect him to take that step.”
One of the big areas Harris expects to improve is on his accuracy. He completed just 12 of 30 passes against Baylor, including some misses on short dump-offs to backs.
“Completion percentage often comes with better presnap reads,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s what people don’t understand. If you’re good enough at presnap reads and react well enough post-snap, if you’re taking the ball to the right places, you can complete 60 percent of your passes.”
That includes the fade route in the end zone that you’ve practiced over and over, waiting your turn.