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Nov. 11, 2010
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - Brandon Connette can't help but be amused by the reaction he gets when he enters a football game for Duke.
Not from the fans, but from the opposing team.
"Every play I'm in the game everyone on defense is yelling `18 is in the game, 18 is in the game, he's running the ball, he's running the ball,'" Connette said. "This past Saturday (against Virginia) when I went in, everyone was pointing at me. I just kind of laughed at what was happening. I just think it's kind of funny that teams pay attention to it that much."
Teams are paying attention because Connette has developed into a real threat. He's the "running quarterback" who typically replaces Sean Renfree on third-and-short yardage and on downs close to the goal line.
Virginia may have known when he was in the game but it couldn't do much to stop him. Connette had the best game of his young college career, carrying 12 times for 78 yards and two touchdowns to help the Blue Devils win 55-48.
Connette is a freshman - not a redshirt freshman because this is his first year of eligibility and not really a true freshman because he enrolled in January and participated in spring practice.
"I think I've been here long enough, almost a year already, so I don't really feel like a freshman," he said, "and a lot of my teammates don't either, I was here in the spring and they're used to seeing me around campus."
He came to Duke from Santiago High School in Corona, Calif., not as difficult a transition as people think. He was born in Charlotte and lived there a few years before his family moved out west. He still has numerous relatives in the east, including South Carolina and Virginia.
Quarterback was not Connette's first position. He played offensive and defensive line and linebacker in the sixth and seventh grades, relishing the contact on defense. He was moved to quarterback in the eighth grade and the results were not pretty.
"To be honest I was horrible at quarterback," he said. "I think I threw one TD on the year and about 15 interceptions. So quarterback was the last thing that I was thinking that I was going to play in high school."
But coaches put him there anyway, eliminating defense, and let him develop. Always a good runner, he became a good passer, too, and started attracting recruiting attention.
"I think I really started understanding the position my junior year," he said. "It was always fun to me to have the ball every single play and make decisions with it."
West coast teams made offers but Connette liked Duke's style of play under coach David Cutcliffe, the direction the program was heading and thought it would be "a perfect fit." Cutcliffe, a well-known developer of drop-back quarterbacks, understood college offenses were changing to incorporate more running by the quarterback. He admired Connette's athleticism.
Enrolling early and gaining the benefit of spring practice was one of the best decisions Connette ever made. It was particularly important to Duke because Renfree, slated to be the starter, was still recovering from off-season surgery.
The time was well spent as Connette got used to his teammates and how things work and got a taste of the speed of the college game. In the spring game, he passed for a score and ran for another in leading his Blue team to a 24-3 win.
"That gave me a tremendous advantage," he said of spring practice. "Being able to get however many practices underneath my belt, getting used to seeing how fast everyone was moving, how much quicker you have to make decisions as a quarterback and as a runner." Although he suspected Renfree would claim the No. 1 spot when fall camp opened in August, Connette competed on every snap as if he would be the starter. Renfree, a third-year sophomore, did emerge as the starter but Connette's talents haven't been wasted. In nine games, Connette has run 63 times for 281 yards, second on the team, and a team-high six touchdowns. His longest run was a non-scoring one of 48 yards against Elon and he has had several runs for double-digit yardage. At 6-2, 225 pounds, he's not easy to bring down.
"In high school I was more of a finesse runner," Connette said, "but once I got to college I realized I wasn't gong to be outrunning many people. So I had to learn to be more physical, how to lower my shoulder to run more effectively.
"I need to run lower and need to finish some runs sooner than I have been, just make decisions quicker. The one thing I'm always trying to do is fall forward; I don't want to get tackled going backwards. I want to make sure I'm getting that extra yard at the end of every run."
Cutcliffe believes Connette is a good all-around quarterback and his passing skills will emerge down the road. He has thrown sparingly this season (7-of-15 for 82 yards with one interception) by design, not unlike the situation a future Heisman Trophy winner faced in his freshman year at another school.
"It's a great way to get him experience," Cutcliffe said. "We had one quarterback on our team that had played any college football, so it was going to be necessary to get somebody experience. Much like the University of Florida did with Tim Tebow; it's a very good way to get a young quarterback some experience in situational football."
Connette said he welcomes the way he has been used and believes he and Renfree complement each other nicely. He thinks he has the tools to be a good passer but knows he needs to work on aspects like reading coverages.
"Obviously it's a little easier to give a freshman the ball and say `run it' and a little bit harder to give him the ball and say `throw it to somebody,'" he said.
Besides, getting into the end zone on a run can be as exciting as a TD pass. Being a physical runner is something that appeals to him and gets the offensive line, to whom he gives generous praise, excited.
Early on there was a tendency for Connette to try to make a big play because he wasn't sure when he would be back on the field. Now he understands his role and realizes he doesn't have to do it all himself.
"I've really matured in my decision-making," he said, "and I think I've become an unselfish player, making zone reads and knowing when it's best to hand it off to the running back and when it's best to keep.
"My role isn't to have a 20-yard run or score a touchdown every time I have the ball. My role on the offense is to get the first down. I've really started to understand that. And it's not always me getting the first down, if I hand it off (to a runner), they're all completely capable of getting first downs as well.
"Sometimes defenses focus so much on me that I'm able to give it to one of them and they're able to bust a big one. So just being comfortable with that and knowing my role in the offense is key. Keep the chains moving."
Having two different kinds of quarterbacks makes it tough for a defense to prepare for Duke's offense.
"They seem to have two packages and of course Connette is the backup in the other package, so he can do both," said Boston College coach Frank Spaziani, whose team plays at Duke Saturday. "You have to address it and it certainly complicates your practice time.
"He seems like a very good athlete, seems like a very good quarterback, Tim Tebow-ish. He looks like he fits exactly what they're asking him to do." Cutcliffe said Duke's game plan doesn't include a certain number of snaps for Connette.
"It's more situational," the coach said. "Also, some of it is based on what the defense is doing to deploy against us and the kind of success we're having in other areas.
"It's always there and we have grown that offense and grown that system and continue to do that. It's something that we're going to do and it's something we're liking where we're headed with it."
The Blue Devils have won their last two games after dropping six in a row. A sweep of their final three games would make them bowl eligible, although Connette said that's not the team's top priority.
"We can't look ahead," he said. "We believe if we make solid decisions every single play, our playmakers will make plays. It's when we start forcing things that we start turning the ball over and start beating ourselves. That's one thing we've tried to stay away from the last couple of weeks."
Whatever success Duke has the last three games, Connette will undoubtedly have a hand - and two feet - in the results.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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