When quarterback Daniel Jones dropped back to pass, he saw wide receiver T.J. Rahming sprinting down the right sideline.
Jones lofted the ball perfectly toward Rahming, who was one step ahead of the defender when the ball arrived. But Rahmig dropped the ball, as loud groans emerged from coaches and players on the sidelines.
This was just a scrimmage last Saturday night at Wallace Wade Stadium. But it’s a play Duke will need to convert successfully this season if it wants to return to a bowl game for the first time since 2015.
“Obviously we’d like to have that one back,” Jones said. “We need to make those plays.”
Rahming, a 5-10, 165-pound junior, is the most experienced of Duke’s wide receivers. He caught 70 passes for 742 yards last season. Jones completed 62.8 percent of his passes last season.
Jones, who’s 6-5 and 215 pounds, threw 103 passes in Rahming’s direction, which means the receiver converted 68 percent of them into catches.
This season, Rahming has turned in solid work over the first two weeks of practice. Coach David Cutcliffe mentioned Rahming as one of the players who had separated himself from the pack.
Still, Rahming didn’t make any excuses for missing that pass.
“I dropped one,” Rahming said. “It’s stuff that we run over and over in practice. I just have to get back in practice and focus on getting our timing down with Daniel and getting that connection. The good thing is, those drops were in the scrimmage and not in the game. We have time to get everything together and get perfect.”
Rahming wasn’t alone in his miscue. Cutcliffe identified four or five of Jones’ passes in the scrimmage that were dropped by the intended receiver. Another veteran, senior running back Shaun Wilson, also dropped one on a screen pass.
Duke scored 23.3 points per game last season while going 4-8 and missing a bowl game for the first time since 2011. In the four previous seasons, Duke’s scoring average had never been lower than 31.5 points.
The consensus around college football is that Jones has a future as an NFL quarterback. But Duke’s receivers have to catch his passes for Duke to maximize his time in a Blue Devils uniform.
“The thing that I’ve tried to make them understand is there isn’t a rep that doesn’t have purpose,” Cutcliffe said.
In practices, quarterbacks and wide receivers work on routes against varying degrees of competition. Sometimes there are no defenders. Sometimes there’s no pass rush, but the receiver is going one-on-one with a defender. Sometimes it’s seven-on-seven with no offensive or defensive lines. The closest thing to a game are the scrimmages.
Often, Cutcliffe said, a player might drop a pass in a drill with no defender and shrug if off. Even in a scrimmage, they don’t worry as much because it’s not a real game.
“So how do you manage that?” Cutcliffe said. “We manage with each rep by having a greater purpose in practice. Understand what that means. So if it sounds like pressure, it is. That’s the level of college football we are playing.”
And that pressure is on both ends of the pass play.
“The quarterback should throw the ball where it’s most easily caught, and the receiver should catch every one of them,” Cutcliffe said.
While admitting the obvious that the team missed converting a big play when Rahming dropped that deep ball in the scrimmage, Jones still expressed confidence in his receivers.
“It doesn’t change any of our focus,” Jones said. “We have improved there. We need to improve more. We need to be able to do that. We will and we can.”