Last season, Brandon Connette played 217 snaps for Duke. That’s more than Anthony Young-Wiseman or Max McCaffrey. It’s more than the kicker or punter. It’s just 21 fewer than Anthony Boone. And it may be the most snaps ever for someone who wasn’t listed on the depth chart.
Connette had an important but nebulous role for the Blue Devils last season. He played some at quarterback, tight end, running back, receiver, and even got a few snaps at safety.
Coach David Cutcliffe invented a position for him, calling Connette the team’s “phantom,” floating from position to position, adding uncertainty to opposing game planners.
This season, due to injuries at quarterback, Connette finds himself at the top of the depth chart, moving up from third-string to QB-one. But getting a read on Duke’s starting quarterback is still just as murky and mysterious as when Connette was manning the Phantom.
Last weekend, against Pitt, Connette became the first player in Duke history to pass for 300 yards (323) and rush for 100 (101) in a game. In his coaching career, Cutcliffe had only had four games with a 300-yard passer and 100-yard rusher, let alone having the same guy turn the trick.
Connette rushed for a pair of touchdowns and threw for four, tying a school record for touchdown production in a game. His performance against Pitt was also the ninth-best total-offense day in school history.
And yet, no one seems particularly happy about Connette’s performance.
“He was better,” Cutcliffe said, his face and voice giving the emotional equivalent of a shrug. “He threw four touchdown passes. He led us in rushing. His reads were good. He got us in the right play. I thought he threw it pretty fair. He’s better.”
Cutcliffe seemed to struggle to find a way to put his phantom quarterback’s performance into words. “I’ve seen him ...” he started. “He will be ...”
“I still have concerns,” Cutcliffe finally said. “You don’t want a ton of third downs. I don’t care if you have Peyton Manning as quarterback. What you do as a quarterback is avoid having a whole lot of third and longs ... Brandon’s learning.”
Part of the reason for the lackluster response to Connette’s rewriting of the Duke record book are the four interceptions he threw, including one that was returned for a touchdown. “All of them were different,” Cutcliffe said of the picks. “All of them were potentially avoidable.”
Connette certainly wasn’t looking for a more positive response from his coach. He was even more critical of his own performance.
“It’s part of the learning curve,” he said after the game. “I’m really tough on myself, because I feel like I should be past that part of the learning curve. I feel like I’m more of a veteran than that. I don’t think I should be making those types of mistakes. It’s frustrating.”
Any third-team quarterback thrust into a starting role 2 games into the season would struggle to adjust to being the main men, but that’s especially true of one who wasn’t dedicated solely to the position last year.
There’s no question that Connette’s year as a Phantom hurt his development as a quarterback. Splitting practice reps and studying a wide variety of positions would spread even the smartest players a bit thin.
Mistakes made by the quarterback are a little more noticeable than those made by a phantom who’s not listed on the depth chart.
“Everybody knows that people can make mistakes,” Connette said. “Sometimes, it can get a little harsh, because the quarterback is at the center of everything.”
To Connette’s credit, he’s not looking to dissolve back into the shadows. He’s taking on a leadership role, and that starts with taking responsibility.
“I think every game is a learning experience, no matter who you are,” he said. “Even if you’re a guy with 15 years’ experience, every single game, you learn something new. You’re going to make mistakes, and you have to learn from them.”
“One thing you have to do is go and tell your teammates on the sideline, ‘Hey. My fault. When we get the ball back, we’re going to move the ball and score.’ I said that after the first two interceptions, and then I think we did that for the rest of the game.”
“You tell them after the interceptions, ‘It’s not something we’re going do on consistent basis. It’s something we’re going to get fixed.’ And we got it fixed.”
On his fourth snap of Saturday’s game against Troy, Connette will exceed the 217 plays he saw last year. And as his year goes on, Duke’s phantom quarterback will continue to take shape.