Thomas Sirk is more than ready to play quarterback for the Duke Blue Devils. It has been three long years since the young man from Florida has taken a snap in a game. And while he has missed the competition, he has used that time between snaps to best prepare himself for his future as a signal-caller.DURHAM, N.C. -- You can see it in his eyes, in the way he talks to you.
Sirk arrived on the Duke campus in January of 2012, having graduated early following an all-star high school season in 2011.
After going through spring drills and redshirting the 2012 campaign, Sirk was supposed to get his college career started in 2013.
But misfortune struck on the morning of April 10, 2013, just a few days before the annual Duke spring game. Practice had been going well for Sirk; he was in competition for playing time with Brandon Connette and had made such progress that there was talk of moving Connette to a part-time wide receiver position to make sure the Blue Devils were getting their best athletes on the field. That was before an Achilles injury on the morning of the 10th, and surgery later that day, ended any hope of Sirk playing in 2013.
This would be the point where Sirk took a negative and turned it into a positive. Having played only one season in high school as a fulltime quarterback, Sirk used his long healing and physical rehabilitation period to grow mentally at the position.
Sirk had been transformed into a quarterback by virtue of being one of the best athletes at his high school. At 6-foot-4, with size and speed, he could play basically any position. But it wasn’t until a new coach took over at Baker County High in the spring of his junior year that he moved to quarterback.
“The first time I saw him was in the spring of his junior year, and when I saw him throw it just came out of his hand so pretty,” explained Blue Devil assistant coach Jim Collins, who recruits Florida. “When that first ball came out of his hand I thought, ‘This guy could be a good quarterback.’”
That summer Sirk began working with David Morris, former backup to Eli Manning at Mississippi, on quarterback drills and training. Morris suggested that Sirk go to Duke football camp for an opportunity to meet coach David Cutcliffe, who had been Morris’ coach at Ole Miss.
“I came to camp here and just fell in love with the school. I enjoyed other schools when I visited them, but none of them had the vision that Coach Cutcliffe was selling,” Sirk explained. “Coach Cut was selling a vision of this program being on the rise and his track record with quarterbacks…Even though I was a new quarterback — I hadn’t even played a season at quarterback — he told me he could transform me into the best quarterback I could be.”
Sirk took those words to heart and as soon as he arrived on campus you could see that he was going to work to be the best that he could be.
In his first year at Duke, Sirk was the recipient of the Sonny Falcone Iron Duke Award. The award is annually presented to one offensive player, one defensive player and one player in the developmental program for their year-round commitment to strength training and conditioning.
“My dad taught me that no matter what skill level I faced that you could never take hard work away from someone. So I have worked to push myself, to be the strongest and in the best condition I could be,” said Sirk, who passed for over 2,300 yards and rushed for over 1,000 as a high school senior.
“At our leadership meeting we talked about ‘All in, all the time’ as our motto for this year. Whether you are the best in any area, you can always go all in, all the time, on the field, in the classroom. I just want to be all in all the time. I am going to push myself to be better than the guy beside me in the weight room, in conditioning, in everything I do. That’s just the standard I hold myself to each and every day.”
Sirk set a high standard in high school. His team went 34-9 over his career while he played several positions. When he finally became the main quarterback for his senior year, he threw for 26 touchdowns and ran for 11 more. He completed 30-of-36 passes for 405 yards and five touchdowns in his last game for Baker County, then tossed two TD passes to earn MVP honors in Florida’s North-South Classic.
But instead of playing, Sirk has spent the last two years at Duke learning more about the game and the Blue Devils’ offense.
“As I got into the playbook more and more, I started to understand the concepts of the game and the speed of the game,” he explained. “When I first came in I really worked on understanding the formations and our base offense. After getting hurt it gave me a year to mature and I started understanding more about defense, understanding what the defense was doing and why we were throwing to certain guys and why we were doing certain concepts against this type defense.
“I really grew as a player just standing on the sidelines, watching the game and understanding by learning more about the game,” he continued. “I stayed locked in when I was on the sidelines at practice or in a game and put myself in the quarterback position watching what Anthony (Boone) or Brandon (Connette) were doing, how they handled different situations and how I might handle those situations.”
Last year, because of his injury, he was able to see the game from a variety of levels, even spending part of his time watching games from the coach’s booth in the press box.
“It started with the spring game, because I had a boot on my foot and they didn’t want me to stand on the sideline. I sat up in the booth for a few of the early games last year as well and it gave me the opportunity to see more of the field and see why you throw the ball to certain receivers, why you throw it here on one play and another play to a different area,” he said.
But Sirk knew to really understand what was happening on the field he needed to be closer to the action.
“On the field the game is happening a lot quicker than you see it from up there and it’s easy for coaches to see things from the box we can’t see,” he added. “My time in the coaches box helped me better understand the conceptual level of the defense. You could see more of what they were doing and how adjustments could be made on my side of the ball.”
While he hasn’t taken a snap in a game since the fall of 2011, Sirk feels that all his time away from the action has made him a better quarterback.
“I’m more prepared for games since the injury,” he noted. “I have a much better understanding of our offense. I have a better understanding of game situations. The time before the snap was one of my biggest problems — understanding down and distance, where the ball was on the field, all those things. Now I have been able to put myself in those situations and feel that I am better prepared than two years ago.”
All that time learning and studying the Duke offense has brought Sirk to the realization that this offense has incredible potential.
“There are so many options on every play to make plays,” he said. “You have the ability in every situation, on every play, to make a play for yourself or for another player. Our mentality is that every play should be a positive play. We should never have a negative play in this offense, because every play is so explosive. We have explosive players on this offense. We have talented players at wide receiver and running back and a very strong offensive line that makes our running game just as explosive as our passing game.”
Having watched Boone and Connette rush for a combined 540 yards last year, Sirk is well aware of how important running quarterbacks can be in complementing veteran backs Josh Snead and Shaq Powell.
“On third downs you don’t have to force passes, because we have quarterbacks that can make plays with their legs,” said Sirk, who has 4.5 speed in the 40. “When we have an opening, we can take off and get the first down. Anthony has the ability to run the ball and I have that ability as well, so we have to take advantage of all these skills.”
Sirk moved into the backup role behind the veteran Boone this spring when Connette transferred to Fresno State to be closer to home as his mother battles cancer. When Sirk came on his official visit to Duke, Connette was his host and served as his big brother in the big brother program.
“It was an interesting feeling when I heard Brandon was leaving. I was sad and glad,” he explained. “I was excited for Brandon. He had the opportunity to play there and be with his family when they needed him, and also the opportunity that he gave me. He’s competing for the starting job there and it allowed me the opportunity to compete for the starting job here.
“Overall, I think going into the summer it changed the way that I was going to perform this summer. When I heard about Brandon, it was immediately, like the next day, I had to get into the film room, start studying more and more. I knew I was going to have to watch more and more film.”
Sirk learned a great deal from quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper the past two years, but he has adjusted to and enjoys the enthusiasm that Scottie Montgomery brings to the room in the wake of Roper’s departure to Florida.
“He brings urgency to the process wherever he’s at,” said Sirk. “He knows what we have to get done and we wouldn’t want it any different because he knows we all could be great players if he pushes us to the point where we need to be each and every day.”
Now in the middle of the summer, working in the weight room, and conditioning in the heat of July in North Carolina, Sirk can only dream about taking that first snap in a game as a college quarterback.
“I think about it every single night before I go to bed,” he said with a smile on his face. “I take my iPad out every night before I go to sleep and watch game film and then I just dream about myself being in that situation. I dreamed about it growing up and now my dream is about to come true and I keep praying that this will be the year that I finally get to achieve my dream of playing quarterback at the college level. My dad and I talk about it every day. He is so excited about the opportunity I have. I really want to make my dad proud.”
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