David Cutcliffe is driving south on I-85. Duke’s head coach had a busy day in Atlanta, hopping from high school to high school recruiting. Tonight, he’ll speak to a group of Alabama high school football coaches in Montgomery, but his thoughts keep turning to another part of the state, where Daniel Jones, the quarterback he’s coached for the last four years, is in the middle of a crucial week at Senior Bowl.
“I don’t even have time to check the internet and it’s frustrating because I am actually a nervous wreck,” Cutcliffe says. “I can’t help but to be.”
Cutcliffe knows being there would be more distracting than helpful, because Jones is rarely referenced without mention of his coach, who also developed Peyton and Eli Manning. “I’d love to be there,” Cutcliffe says, “but I’d have to put a disguise on.”
Jones is one of the top quarterback prospects in the 2019 draft class; there’s a lot to like about him. He’s 6' 5", 220 lbs, he’s accurate, he’s shown an ability to read defenses and manipulate coverage with his eyes, and he’s resilient—he broke his collarbone early in the 2018 season at Northwestern, had surgery to fix it, and returned to the field just 20 days later.
NFL teams have questions about his arm strength, and he could stand to speed up his release, but as of right now, most scouts I’ve talked to predict he’ll be the second or third quarterback picked. Jones threw two interceptions during seven-on-seven work at a Senior Bowl practice and was outperformed by another top prospect, Missouri quarterback Drew Lock. When it came to the actual game, Jones outplayed Lock in an MVP performance. One NFL scout said that right now, Jones and Lock are quarterbacks 2a and 2b behind Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, and it will depend on what a team is looking for in their quarterback. The same scout said that in his view, “Jones gets the edge because of Cutcliffe.”
Cutcliffe’s most successful pupil concurs. “Daniel has a real advantage because he has been coached by Coach Cutcliffe,” Peyton Manning says… “or Coach Cut, as everyone calls him.”
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Cutcliffe was Peyton Manning’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee, and Eli Manning’s head coach at Ole Miss. “My dad had the biggest impact on me, but after that it was Coach Cut,” Peyton says. “Because he got me from [age] 18 to 22 and developed me.”
Every offseason during his NFL career, Peyton paid a visit to Cutcliffe wherever he was coaching—Ole Miss, Tennessee or Duke. “I’d go back for a tuneup, like a golfer going back to his first swing coach,” Peyton says. “He is very candid, he’ll always point out any bad habits that you have. As you get older in the NFL that’s the biggest challenge, being on top of fundamentals and details, and that is his strength.”
Even though he is now retired, Peyton still went back to Duke with Eli last offseason, and Jones was there to pick the brothers’ brains. Jones was a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy for two years, and has developed a relationship with the Mannings because of their connection to Cutcliffe. Peyton says he was even part of Jones’s decision process to forego his final year eligibility at Duke and enter the draft. “We spent a decent amount of time talking about what he was going to do,” Peyton says. “My advice to him was, it’s up to you to make the right decision by what you do now, going to work and going all the way.”
When Jones decided to declare for the draft, he called Peyton to let him know his final decision.
Cutcliffe has his own unique vocabulary of quarterback-isms, which is often subconsciously repeated by players he has coached. You’ll hear it in Peyton’s dialogue on his Details show on ESPN+, and you’ll hear certain phrases pop up in interviews with Jones. Do the right things in practice. Fast-twitch decisions. No feet, defeat. We train a quarterback from the neck up and the neck down. And Peyton’s personal favorite: There’s a completion out there somewhere on first down.
In his NFL career, Peyton was known for his devotion to study and preparation—the neck up—which is something he picked up in part from Cutcliffe. Jones’s private quarterbacks coach, David Morris, was Eli Manning’s backup at Ole Miss. Morris remembers that each week on the night before the game, Cutcliffe would sit them down for a QB test. “We used to sit in a room and go over signals,” he says. “Eli would always beat me, he has a better memory than I do. Coach Cut is all about the details, so it requires a lot of studying in order to be good under those guys.”
In interviews with teams at the Senior Bowl, Jones says the topic of his relationship with the Mannings and Cutcliffe came up frequently, and the conversation always came back to that familiar word: preparation. “People are interested in my connection with Peyton and Eli and how they have helped me and I am certainly willing to share that,” he says. “I think those guys have impacted the way I prepared and made an impression on how important preparing is.”
“We spend a lot of time in the classroom,” says Cutcliffe. “One of the reasons our guys will succeed is they know the work ethic, they know the study, they know the amount of time it takes to prepare, and Daniel is tremendous from the neck up.”
Jones, who played high school football in-state at Charlotte Latin School, was initially overlooked by Duke. He was a bit of late bloomer and grew taller between his junior and senior years. During basketball season his junior year he broke his right wrist, but didn’t realize it until May of that year. He underwent surgery on his throwing wrist and, because of the early summer timing, missed his chance to get noticed by major programs on the camp circuit. Jones committed to Princeton, the only school that had offered him, until Morris, who by then had been coaching Jones for two years, called his old coach Cutcliffe. “I know y'all got a quarterback,” Morris told him. “But you really need to check out this kid.”
Then Cutcliffe’s phone rang again. It was Larry McNulty, Jones’s high school coach at Charlotte Latin School. “Coach, I think he is better than Princeton,” McNulty said. “I know you’ll know when you take a look.”
Cutcliffe put on the tape and called McNulty back. “Don’t you call anybody else,” Cutcliffe said. “You’re right, and we want him at Duke.”
Charlotte Latin had one game left on the schedule, so Cutcliffe assigned Scottie Montgomery, then Duke’s offensive coordinator, to go to the game. Montgomery loved what he saw. Jones loved Duke so much he committed without a scholarship offer (the Blue Devils had already filled their recruiting class). In July, a scholarship opened up for him. “The recruiting process is a little faulty these days when you don’t really get to evaluate seniors,” Cutcliffe says. “Everything is moved up so fast that I’m sure what our coaches had done who had the area is took a brief look off junior tape and that's how you miss them.”
Thankfully for Jones, the rigorous NFL scouting process leaves no chance he’ll be overlooked this time. Peyton says he’s already had a couple NFL teams call him during this past college season to ask about Jones.
One scout in Mobile said that Cutcliffe’s reputation will help Jones because teams want to eliminate risk when drafting a player. Knowing that Jones was coached by Cutcliffe will help eliminate any concern that he won’t be prepared, or won’t pick up an NFL offense quickly enough.
Jones has a thick binder that holds all papers related to his training and draft preparation, organized neatly. There’s a divider for his schedule, a divider for his notes on different types of NFL offenses, and divider called, The QB Bonus, which houses several excerpts about quarterbacks from Bill Parcells and Bill Walsh’s books, Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If,” and a white sheet of paper labeled Strengths and Weaknesses. In the Weaknesses column is written “being assertive.” Morris and Jones point out this is listed here because it’s a weakness that others perceive him to have, because Jones is naturally quiet and serious.
“He reminds me of Eli a little bit,” Morris says. “Somewhat soft-spoken, super competitive.” Jones knows that his reserved nature can cast doubt on his ability to lead a team, and he’s ready to combat it. “Sometimes when people first meet me they perceive my personality to be less than maybe what is typical of a guy in my position,” he says. “But I don't think I've ever had an issue doing that and I feel confident in my ability to assert myself.”
Several scouts wonder, has Cutcliffe coached a successful NFL quarterback since the Mannings? Before Peyton, he coached a high draft pick in Heath Shuler—a bust. At Duke, where he has coached since 2007, he produced journeyman backup Thad Lewis and former seventh-round pick Sean Renfree. But while Cutcliffe’s last NFL success story is Eli, he also hasn’t had a talent like that until now.
By the time Cutcliffe starts his presentation that night for the group of Alabama high school football coaches, he’s taken a second to watch a quick clip of Jones throwing at Senior Bowl practice. “It made me smile because that ball just came out like it was supposed to,” he says. “It let me go to sleep because I am worried like it’s a son.”
As NFL evaluators will tell you, the Cutcliffe connection is nice, but ultimately it’s Jones throwing the ball.
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