If and when Duke transfer quarterback Thomas Sirk takes his first snap at East Carolina in 2017, it will be the 1,000th of his college career. The milestone would have taken place for the Blue Devils last year but Sirk sustained a ruptured left Achilles tendon and sat out the season.
Sirk missed 2013 at Duke after tearing his right Achilles.
Sirk becomes the first sixth-year signal caller for the Pirates since Patrick Pinkney in 2009 when ECU won the second of back-to-back Conference USA championships.
Sirk is reunited with Pirates coach Scottie Montgomery. The tandem was instrumental in an 8-5 season for the Blue Devils in 2015, which culminated with a 44-41 overtime win against Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium after Montgomery had been named new coach at ECU.
Montgomery was assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Duke as Sirk had a 73-yard touchdown run in the first half and a 5-yard scoring run that tied the score with 41 seconds left in regulation. Sirk was 17 of 37 passing for 163 yards and a touchdown. He ran for 155 yards in Duke’s first bowl victory since 1961.
Sirk completed 261 of 441 passes at Duke (59.2 percent) for 2,692 yards with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He rushed 210 times for the Blue Devils, gaining 1,041 yards and scoring 16 times.
“I’m excited to be here,” Sirk said Wednesday. “I’m excited for the opportunity. . . . I was looking for a new start. For me, I was looking for something fresh. I was at a point, coming off another injury, and, obviously, working with Coach Montgomery in the past played a huge role in my decision to come here.
“Even on my visit here, it felt like a place that I would fit in. It felt like a place that had a good culture in practice. Being around the players, I felt how much talent they had and I wanted to be a part of what this program is going to do moving forward. Coach Montgomery told me the vision that he had for this program going forward and what he thinks this team can accomplish. I believe fully in what he’s trying to accomplish here and what these players are trying to accomplish.”
Ties the knot
Sirk has been busy from a football standpoint, conditioning to avoid Achilles problems in the future and learning the ECU offense.
His personal life has changed with his marriage to the former Danielle Jackson of Louisville, MS, on May 6. His fiancé, now wife, was supportive in the transfer process.
“We met here in college,” Sirk said. “She was living here with her Mom in North Carolina. We met through a mutual friend at Duke. … She was so gracious through the whole process. She wanted me to do what was best for me at the time. She just graduated college (North Carolina Wesleyan) in April so she was going to have to find a job that fit with her major at either place.”
Sirk visited South Carolina and Southern Miss when looking at programs where he might play in 2017.
“She was looking for jobs in all these cities,” Sirk said. “She found jobs in all the cities that I was looking at schools. I don’t think moving back to Mississippi for her played any role because she lived here in North Carolina. So both places would be a good fit. At the end of the day, she was just supportive of my decision and what was best for me from a football standpoint.”
His wife is an account executive for a marketing media company in Greenville.
Sirk also had a Duke connection to consider at South Carolina.
“I visited South Carolina,” Sirk said. “I have great respect for Coach [Will] Muschamp and their offensive coordinator there, Coach [Kurt] Roper. Obviously, I had previously worked with Coach Roper. I have the most respect for those two coaches. I think they have a great program there at South Carolina. Obviously, they were one of my top choices of schools moving forward but at the end of the day, I felt like ECU was a better fit for me.”
Sirk also visited Southern Miss.
“I visited a few schools throughout the process, just because I want to see what the best fit was for me,” Sirk said. ” . . . It didn’t just have to do with football. It had to do with everything as far as medical and rehabilitation and things like that for me. All of that came into play. ECU, I felt like, offered the best fit for me. I visited some other schools before I decided to come here. I prayed about the situation. I thought about it carefully and talked to my parents (Eddie and Joy) about it. I talked about the situation with my fiancé at the time. We made the best decision that I’m completely excited about and happy for here.”
There was interest from schools in addition to the Gamecocks and Golden Eagles.
“Those are the schools that I visited,” Sirk said. “I was talking to a lot of different schools, contacting with a lot of different coaches, just people reaching out to me seeing what my interest level was in their school.
“Texas was one school that I was really talking to. Coach [Tim] Beck (offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach) there at Texas. University of Minnesota was another one. There was different schools that were reaching out to me. Troy was another school that was reaching out to me. There was a lot of different schools that were reaching out.
“Some of them were more serious than others. Some of them were just to gauge my interest in their school and kind of see where I was at medically. The schools that were most interested were the schools that I kept in contact with in the whole process.”
Strengthening the wheels
Strength and conditioning athletic director Jeff Connors has been helping Sirk with a program to develop his running muscles.
“Yeah, I’ve been working closely with Coach Connors,” Sirk said. “Some physical therapy with the athletic trainers here, Kevin Young, the local physical therapist here. Working on those major muscle movements. Obviously, doing things that are going to strengthen my legs. At the same time, not doing too much that’s going to cause me a setback.
“We’re all working closely together and the communication has been great. They all know where I’m at and where I need to be and what we’re trying to accomplish through my rehab and strengthening and physical therapy. Coach Connors is pushing me in all the lifts that I can do. All the lifts that I can’t do, he’s understanding of that because of where I stand coming back from injury.”
The doctors at Duke did their part in getting Sirk ready to play again.
“As far as surgery goes, all that they can do is put your Achilles back together, the best that they can possibly do,” Sirk said. “At that point moving forward, they can tell you whether the surgery was a success or not. In my case, both were successful. I had great doctors at Duke.
“I think physical therapy plays a huge part in that, being able to strengthen all the muscles. It doesn’t just start with your calf muscles and your Achilles and your ankle muscles, it starts with your quads and your hips and your core muscles. For me, that was the biggest thing moving forward, is to make sure your power from your legs when you take off running is from the gluts (gluteal muscles) and the hip muscles, the major muscle groupings rather than putting all the pressure down on your calf and your Achilles.
“I think that could be, for me, where I had a deficiency is probably in some of my hip strength. Taking off running was putting a lot of pressure on the lower half of my leg.”
Relationship with Coach Mo
Although Sirk has yet to play a down for the Pirates, he has known Montgomery for an extended period.
“Our relationship dates back to our time at Duke,” Sirk said. “He’s a Duke graduate. He’s been on the Duke coaching staff before he returned back to Duke from being with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a receivers coach. When he took the offensive coordinator job at Duke in 2014 and the quarterback job, that’s when we grew closer.
“I respect Coach Mo as a coach and I respect him off the field as a family man and how he handles himself, character-wise, on and off the field, and how much he cares about his family. Those are two things. I value my family so much so him valuing football and valuing his family as much as he does and me getting the opportunity while I was at Duke, him inviting quarterbacks over for cookouts at his house, just simple things like that.
“Growing that relationship was obviously a huge factor in my relationship but also I knew Coach Mo has a love and a passion to coach the game of football. I always told people at Duke I thought he was going to be a great head football coach one day. Now that he’s started his career here as a head football coach here at East Carolina, I think this is a great fit for him.”
Making history at Duke
The Pinstripe Bowl was a crowning moment for the Blue Devils, Montgomery and Sirk.
“I think the team’s ability to just fight four quarters and then go into overtime and just pull it off,” Sirk said. “It was the first bowl win for Duke since 1961 so everyone understood the importance of that game to our program and what it meant to everyone involved in the program. We all respected Coach Montgomery for his decision to take the head coaching job (at ECU) but also we respected him to stay and finish out a miraculous season at Duke.”
Welcomed by Minshew
Gardner Minshew came out of spring practice as ECU’s No. 1 quarterback. The plan was to redshirt Minshew in 2016 but when Philip Nelson went down, Minshew went into action. There will be quarterback competition in preseason camp.
“Obviously, we have a lot to learn from each other,” Sirk said. “Gardner being here, we’ve worked closely with one another. On a weekly basis now, Gardner and I get together and watch film. We work out together in the weight room. We try to teach each other things from my experience of playing or his experience of being here.
“We work closely with the receivers. Whether it be staying late after a practice just to get some extra time in with the receivers or some extra routes in, we’ve been working together and we’ve built that relationship. Gardner is much more than a teammate to me now. Even on my visit here, he was welcoming of me, coming in and introducing me to the guys and making me feel at home.”
Sirk played in a two-quarterback system at Duke, a situation that would appear to be a possibility for the Pirates this season.
“That was kind of my role in 2014 with Anthony Boone,” Sirk said. “I don’t want to be limited as a running quarterback. I want to be a pocket passer first, but obviously I have the ability to run the ball on a zone read or even quarterback power. That was kind of my role in 2014. In 2015, I had the ability to be that dual-threat type of quarterback.
“That’s what helped our team out in 2014 was being able for me to come in and take some of the running responsibilities off of Anthony Boone, him being the starting quarterback at the time. Our relationship was great there, too. The two quarterback system worked out great there. . . . I would come in more in red zone packages and short-yardage packages.”
One year at QB in high school
Before his injury last year, Sirk was a candidate for numerous quarterback awards. He played just one full season at the position in high school but was rated the No. 19 pocket passer nationally by Rivals.com coming out of Baker County High School in Florida.
“I played like some receiver/tight end in our offense,” Sirk said. “I wasn’t put your hand on the ground type of tight end. It was more of a slot, out wide tight end with the ability to do different things. I played a little bit of quarterback junior year as far as running goes. We got down late in some games and I would come in and run the football some. It wasn’t until me senior year that I took on the full quarterback responsibility.”
Master’s at Duke, sports management at ECU
Sirk has been working on a masters degree at Duke and is studying sports management at ECU.
“I’m taking one summer class currently,” Sirk said. “I am studying sports management here. . . . I got an undergraduate degree in political science and I started working on my master’s degree at Duke in liberal studies. I have to finish up my thesis there, which I’m still working on also. Then I will have my master’s degree. That’s my last assignment before I get my master’s. . . .
“I’m taking completely different courses [at ECU]. For me, I would like to work one day for a conference or be an athletic director. That’s a goal of mine. I feel like these courses here are more specialized from the sports management side of things. Working for a professional program one day or becoming an athletic director, I feel like these courses are more engaged toward that.”
Sirk has a degree from Duke but he’s trying to forget some of his football education with the Blue Devils.
“I think first and foremost you have to learn to un-train what you’ve already learned as far as terminology goes,” Sirk said. “I think a lot of the formations and passing concepts wherever you go, will be very similar. I think all offensive coordinators have different styles. I’ve built my relationship with Coach [Tony] Petersen (offensive coordinator) here.
“Like I said, Gardner and I have been meeting, watching extra film just so I can catch on to the terminology. I’ve been meeting with Coach Petersen also to try to gain a better understanding of the offense. All of those meetings have been going great. I feel like I’m where I need to be at right now as far as learning goes. I’ll continue to grow in this offense as the summer comes along and as we move into fall camp.”
Working with receivers
Sirk has been developing valuable chemistry with the Pirate receiving corps.
“I throw during the organized team activities here and then I throw on the side also with the receivers,” Sirk said. “If they want to go out and get better, if they want to go out and work, I’m all about that, if they need some extra time to get some extra work in.”
Value of experience
Competing in a Power Five conference on a bowl winner is the source of some powerful points on Sirk’s resume.
“I think experience is always something you can never have enough of,” Sirk said. “I’ve been in some of the best and worst situations when it comes to football. I’ve been in a four-overtime game versus Virginia Tech on the road in a hostile environment. I’ve been in games where you have to have two two-minute drills with four minutes left versus Miami and then face adversity and come back and play on the road again the next week at North Carolina.
“I feel like experience helps you prepare yourself. That’s what playing the quarterback position to me, the importance of it is, the preparation that you have to have. I think that experience is part of the preparation that I’ve gained. So when I watch film, I have knowledge of the speed of the game. You continue to grow from yourself. Experience is so important in the game of football because you get to watch yourself on film and critique yourself and try to correct any mistakes that you have.”
What’s left to prove?
Sirk has a lot of motivation as he settles in at ECU.
“I want to win a conference championship,” he said. “I think we have the talent here to win the AAC championship and go on and win a bowl game here at East Carolina. That would be huge for me and prepare myself for the next level to try to play in the NFL. If I never get an opportunity to play in the NFL, I will at least never look back and say, ‘What if I didn’t give this sixth year a chance and try to make the most of my opportunities that I’ve been blessed to have?’ ”