Transcript: Duke at the 2019 ACC Kickoff

dukeDuke coach David Cutcliffe and players Quentin Harris and Koby Quansah talk with reporters at the 2019 ACC Kickoff.

THE MODERATOR: We will get started with Duke University.

We start things off with quarterback Quentin Harris. Questions, please.

Q. Duke technically only returns four starters. You have a lot of guys, including yourself, who got a lot of playing time last year. How do you see the outlook for the offense?
QUENTIN HARRIS: We lost a good amount of our starters from last season. I’m confident in the group we have coming back. Thankfully I had a couple of starts to get my feet wet. I think we have a lot of great depth at all positions, great leadership on the offensive line up front with three guys in the middle coming back.

And a lot of guys who have played some football for us. You have a great running back tandem in Brittain Brown and Deon Jackson. You have some young guys able to return in there as well. You got Noah Gray returning at tight end, who has had some good playing time as well. Those guys behind him are working hard as well. You got Jake Marwede, Mark Birmingham, Zamari Ellis. We’ve got a deep group of receivers as well. A lot of young guys with a lot of potential.

We’re excited about how we progressed this off-season. We’re looking forward to seeing where things take us this.

Q. Last year you were primarily used in a running role. This year you are going to have a lot of young wide receivers stepping up. How do you expect to increase your ability in the pass game?
QUENTIN HARRIS: Yeah, I think one of the nice things about losing that many starters on offense is the guys that are now coming into starting roles are guys I’ve been practicing with the last few years. We’ve been able to build a good rapport. Coming through our off-season work through the spring, we’ve taken a lot of strides getting on the same page and building our chemistry.

So I think we’ll definitely continue to work on that, enhance that, closer to training camp. We’ve already begun that groundwork. We’re in a good spot heading into camp.

Q. David Cutcliffe said you can either be handed the reins or you can take them. How have you taken them as you go into this season?
QUENTIN HARRIS: Yeah, hopefully I’ve earned the respect of my teammates over the last four years, kind of in the role that I’ve occupied. But I think hopefully I’ve taken the reins, 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.

Just trying to lead by example, always doing the right things to the fullest of my abilities. Taking the reins of the offense, taking on a leadership role with a 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.

Q. Deon had a breakout year last year. How important is he going to be to your offense this year, not just in the running game by the passing game?
QUENTIN HARRIS: I think Deon showed he’s a versatile weapon for us. He had a lot of success on the ground and through the air. Definitely I think he’s a guy we’ll use versatilely in our offense. I think him and Brittain will be a great tandem for us, building on their strengths. They’re similar players – game breakers, play-makers that can take a one-yard route into a touchdown. Deon took a pitch into a touchdown, 70-yard touchdown last year.

You get them the ball in the right situation, they’ll definitely know what to do with it.

Q. In your start against Baylor, you ran 83 yards. Do you feel like you can get, with you and the dynamic duo, you can get more energy into Duke’s running game this year? You were around the 50% mark in terms of your passing accuracy. What are your objectives this year in finding more receivers?
QUENTIN HARRIS: Yes, sir. I believe your first question was about how I can add to the running game a little bit. You definitely want to lean on those two guys, Brittain and Deon, some younger guys as well. Mataeo Durant, you’ve got Marvin Hubbard as well that will get some good playing time for us.

Aside from that, I can add to be a good supplementary piece for them. I’ve been able to have success on the ground. I think that’s a part of our offense, something I will certainly execute.

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.

But definitely very confident in my abilities to pass. I think our offensive game will continue to kind of thrive on a nice balanced approach.

Q. You spoke about the passing game. What can you say about some of these receivers? A lot of freshmen, sophomores, youth on this team. What have you seen from them and what can you say about your weapons?
QUENTIN HARRIS: Wide receivers are versatile. Got a lot of height as well. A lot of guys 6’4″ plus, great targets for me.

We have Aaron Young coming back, who started the season really well against Army. Unfortunately wasn’t able to stay healthy through the season. But he’s coming back. He’ll be leading that group.

You have guys that did get some great playing time behind him as well. You’ve got Jake Bobo, Scott Bracey, Damond Philyaw-Johnson. So you have a lot of guys that have gotten some playing time, and are ready to step into those larger roles. Then you’ve got some young guys as well that just came in – Darrell Harding and Eli Pancol, they’ve had a great spring, great off-season, and really encouraging to see their progress throughout the spring. Hopefully they can continue to build on that and they’ll be able to help us out in the fall.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll switch places with Koby. Questions, please.

Q. Last year you had two linebackers banged up, led for you to get some playing time. What did you learn last year in that stint of playing time that you could bring to this year and some leadership?
KOBY QUANSAH: I think the main thing I learned was the speed of the game. Every time you get on a game field, it’s a lot different from practice. The speed increases a little bit more. You try to mimic it in practice as well as you can, but in game, it’s a lot different. Getting the opportunity to get out there when I got the chance was great.

Also young guys, and the other guys are getting into the field: Brandon Hill, Xander Gagnon getting that feel when they get in a game-like situation was great for us. We know when peak guys go down, next man up.

Q. You did a great job of stopping the run in the first half of the season. Then kind of suddenly in games like against Pitt, Wake Forest, you had great difficulty. What happened as you look back on it? Injuries had something to do with it. You got most of your defense back. What is the outlook for this year in run defense?
KOBY QUANSAH: I think our main thing, like you said, we have pretty much our whole defense coming back. We’re excited, confident in our team. Main thing is keeping our foot on the gas the second half, the entire game.

Our guys are excited about the season. We know we’re a great defense, can stop people when we want to. We just have to make sure it’s consistent.

Q. What can you say about the linebacker corps this year? Do you see yourself as a leader? Do you see somebody else emerging there?
KOBY QUANSAH: I think I’ve stepped up in being a leader. Pretty much everything I learned from Ben and Joe throughout the years has helped me try to get the young guys ready in terms of how to watch them better, how to practice better. Just little tendencies that we can do collectively as a group has helped me a lot.

A lot of guys I see stepping up, Brandon Hill, Xander Gagnon, Rocky Shelton, Shaka Hayward, even our freshmen coming in, I’ve been in the weight room, film room with them, Sayyid, Mason Russell. I think if we can carry everything Ben and Joe has taught me, we’ll have a great season this year.

Q. What does it mean to actually be listed as a starter at this point in your career?
KOBY QUANSAH: To be listed as a starter really means that everyone kind of has trust and confidence in you, knowing you have the ability to go out there and lead them, again, both on and off the field. They have confidence in you to make plays, get them going when times are going rough. Like I said, everyone trusting you to get the job done.

Q. What did you learn about yourself during that interruption of your season last year with the injury?
KOBY QUANSAH: I think I learned really about myself how mentally strong I could be. You never really want to go down in this game. When you do, you really have to look past the physicality of it, look mentally, look into your heart and soul. Hard times you’re going to go through, you just got to push through.

In myself, I found mental and spiritual strength.

Q. The secondary is hard hit with injuries. Lost Mark Gilbert, Dylan Singleton. If they can come back and play at the level, previous level, what would that mean to this defense?
KOBY QUANSAH: They mean a great deal to this team. Those guys bring a lot of energy, a lot of tenacity to this defense. Having them on the field, there is no timetable whenever they get the chance to come back on the field, with open arms we’ll take them back to the team. They bring a lot of energy and tenacity to this defense. We’re looking forward to them coming back.

THE MODERATOR: Koby, we’ll switch places and bring David Cutcliffe up.

Questions, please.

Q. With one quarterback going out, obviously with Quentin taking over, what can you say the Giants get in Daniel Jones? The first quarterback off the board, and secondly what you get in Quentin Harris, as he steps into the role this year?
DAVID CUTCLIFFE: We’re really proud of Daniel and the job that he did. It’s interesting, when you’re a coach and you have a player that’s a first-round draft choice, you think kind of maybe it’s singular. When I think of our quarterbacks, I think of Daniel, I think of Quentin. If you’re familiar with our season, a year ago Quentin played a huge role in the season with Daniel’s injury, but also the mechanism of how they’re trained, what they do day to day.

I have great confidence in Quentin. I had great confidence in Daniel his first full year as a starter. They’re a little different. One of the things that I’ve been fortunate to do in my career is have to replace first-round draft choice quarterbacks. It’s not an easy task.

We have to realize it’s all about what they can function within and what they do well. Daniel Jones has a new era, a new opportunity. We’re happy there. I could not be more excited about having a fifth-year senior to step up and step in.

The thing that Quentin Harris didn’t have to do, 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.

Q. Your background coaching quarterbacks is well-documented. Your first opponent has quite the quarterback, it seems. How do you begin to describe the challenge of facing Alabama in game one?
DAVID CUTCLIFFE: Well, we have worked extremely hard as a program to put ourselves in a position to be in a game like this really hard. Our program, we lost some good players on both sides of the ball. We got a lot of good football players coming back.

I would use the term “expectation to win” at Duke. There’s not a player that signs with us that doesn’t sign expecting to win. Our fan base expects us to win. That’s what you do to put yourself in position to play big football games.

Alabama’s program is as elite as there has been in college football. I’m an Alabama grad. I know that history. What Nick has done there is phenomenal.

The challenge is that you’re playing a complete team. When I look at Alabama, I see recruiting, I see coaching, I see conditioning, I see all eight phases of the game being outstanding. So what this does for us, it’s a clear and concise signal to these young men what you have to do to prepare.

You do what good teams do: you prepare and you go play well. That’s our focus in entirety.

You mentioned their quarterback, too. He’s terrific. He is so good, got a really quiet lower body. He can get the ball out in an instant. He keeps his eyes downfield extremely well. He’s every bit as good as what’s advertised.

Yeah, huge challenge. Huge opportunity for our program to take another step.

Q. Your defense played at a high level last year despite being youthful and having a lot of injuries. It was hard for you to keep a consistent pass-rush. What are you doing this year to keep a consistent pass-rush?
DAVID CUTCLIFFE: Let me make sure I heard the question right.

Our defense being better, increasing pass-rush? Is that kind of the gist of it, what are we doing?

Q. To keep a consistent pass-rush this year.
DAVID CUTCLIFFE: One of the critical things that you do in any program as you grow is that defensive front. Koby would be quick to tell you any linebacker’s best friend are two interior defensive tackles that have to be double-teamed, edge players, which we have.

I’m more excited about this defense than any defense we’ve had in the 12 seasons. What we have to do is generate those big plays. I call them sack fumbles. About 20% of sacks end up with fumbles from a quarterback. That’s how critically important they are. Not only is it lost yards but it’s a lost down and maybe possession of the ball. So it’s a huge emphasis. It’s been our biggest emphasis all spring.

You got to do it with the front four, but you also have to be creative in pass-rush. We have some athletes, Koby being one of them, that are explosive, that are fast, that will play a role in that, as well.

I’m excited about what the potential is. But that’s not easily done. There’s usually five or six guys over there, about 300-plus pounds that are saying, You’re not going to touch our guy. It’s a big part of what we see in college football today.

Q. I’ve been asking the other coaches in the state of North Carolina this, about how the state has been growing rapidly. You’ve been around this state the longest. Comment on how you see more talent, how you approach it now as opposed to maybe when you first got here.
DAVID CUTCLIFFE: I drove in this morning instead of coming in last night. I’m reminded every time I drive into Charlotte how it’s growing. Traffic would attest to that.

But I started recruiting the state of North Carolina in 1982 when I was at the University of Tennessee. It is so significantly different. Our coaches in this state, high school coaches, have done a phenomenal job. The population has gone from maybe three million to 10 plus, whatever it is right now. You literally can sign a class, an entire class, out of this state.

The competitiveness of everyone else coming in here is going to be a part of that. One of the biggest challenges for those of us in-state is to win those battles in-state because we have so many schools that are flying in from the West Coast recruiting areas here, and certainly our border states.

Right now the high school football in the state of North Carolina is the best it’s been since I’ve been around, but it’s also the most competitive atmosphere in recruiting that I’ve been around.

Q. There were 18 punts returned for touchdowns in the league last year. Duke ranked 11th in punt return coverage. One game in particular, Virginia, you gave up a long punt return, it wasn’t a touchdown, but kind of tilted a close game. You’ve been known for special teams at Duke. Do you look for improvement there this year?
DAVID CUTCLIFFE: Absolutely. Every phase of a game is critical. But you mention a punt return, a kickoff return, any circumstance. A kicking game play is a whole series within itself. If players don’t understand that, the critical value is that result is going to affect the game every bit as much as an entire offensive or defensive series or more.

The combination of the snap, the punt, the kick placement, the coverage, how good your gunners are, schematically what you’re doing. We spent an inordinate amount of time this spring and winter as a staff and as a squad trying to do that very thing.

We have a quality punter returning. We expect great things from him. We have a snapper returning. We have a lot of players that have played on our punt coverage unit before. I’m expecting us to be outstanding in all phases of special teams.

Q. If you could discuss the progress that Mark Gilbert has made coming back from injury, kind of what your expectations are for him this season.
DAVID CUTCLIFFE: I was with Mark yesterday afternoon as he continues rehab. He has been so dedicated to this, as you might imagine. He had an injury to the hip that — this is difficult for athletes, the focus is to get well before you start worrying about getting back.

Rehab and therapy is a part of getting well, but it’s like having to take a thoroughbred, we’re having to rope that guy right now saying, Let’s make sure we don’t want a setback. But his spirit, he told me yesterday, his exact words, I went up and hugged his neck, he said, Coach, I’m so blessed. That was the exact words out of his mouth. It made me smile.

He looks good physically. He’s strong. We’re just waiting on the go from our medical people. Praying that happens sooner than later here.

Q. How do you view the Coastal Division? A lot of different champions over the last several years.
DAVID CUTCLIFFE: I remember saying this kind of when we got our feet on the ground finally. You could take the Coastal Division and pick it one through seven, then flip it over, and somebody else could take the seven down through what you chose as the one, have just as good a chance of being right as the person that picked first.

I think we got a lot of outstanding coaches. The ACC, this is 12 years for me, is at a height that it is by far the best football conference it’s been. It’s as good as any football conference in the country.

Clemson has found a way to dominate right now in the Atlantic Division. Don’t think that division doesn’t have outstanding teams and play.

I think it’s exciting. I think every team in our division believes it can win a championship right now. The proof is in the pudding, which is what I like. You’re going to win it on the field. There are not going to be any gifts in any game you play in the ACC any more.

That’s when you know you’ve arrived as a conference. We want to make all of your guys’ jobs really tough in picking a champion. That’s our goal as coaches. So we’ll see. Don’t change your pick halfway through now. I want to document all of these picks, okay (smiling)?

Q. You mentioned your excitement about your defense this season. Your defensive line specifically with that kind of depth, how much confidence do you have in that group?
DAVID CUTCLIFFE: I have a great deal of confidence in those guys. I like going in the weight room now. I go right past receivers and DBs, no offense, guys, quarterbacks, linebackers, I make my way over to the platform that has all these big plates on it, standing over there with those defensive linemen.

This has been fun. They do have to get stronger. I think both our offensive line and defensive line have made a commitment in a conditioning level. That gives me more confidence that when you are in good physical condition, we should see your best.

That’s been Albert, Jim Bridge. Both lines of scrimmage have taken that on, starting back day one of spring practice.

I’m seeing that it’s pretty evident in our defensive front right now. They’re chomping at the bit, they’re eager. We got some older guys. We got Edgar Cerenord back, for a sixth year. Edgar is reaching a point now where he’s in the best shape of his life.

We’re excited. We just need to stay healthy. We had the most difficult year I’ve had in my career a year ago with surgeries. We’ve completed the quota, we’re done. We’re going to sit on that for a while.

Q. Talk about some of the things specifically you’ve been working with, some of the points of emphasis with Quentin during the off-season to make him a more complete quarterback this season.
DAVID CUTCLIFFE: Yeah, it’s a good question. He was asked about his accuracy based on completion percentage. Those are completely two different things. So when you become a starting quarterback in a league like the ACC, there is accuracy, which is the physical mechanics of putting the ball where you want it time and time again.

What people don’t understand is that’s just a small portion of completion percentage. Completion percentage is presnap reads. When you become a master of a presnap read, you have a much better chance of having a completion.

You have post-snap reads where you know where you want to go. You not only know where and when, because it’s got to happen on time. You have to understand why I’m making certain throws.

Quentin is brilliant, just plain and simple brilliant. You can coach him intellectually, you can coach him, he understands what the concepts are and what we’re trying to do.

I think what we’re working on is trying to find what he believes in. Ultimately what he has most confidence in what we’re going to do. We have a big ole 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.

THE MODERATOR: Duke, thank you very much. Good luck this year.

DAVID CUTCLIFFE: Thank you.


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