the chronicle’s guide to
september 3, 2010
ACC football Renfree’s turn
margie truwit/The Chronicle
ACC FOOTBALL PREVIEW
2 | FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2010
Schedule says: A bowl possible
DUKE’S SCHEDULE 9/4: ELON
good showing could boost morale.
by Alexander Stuart THE CHRONICLE
Two years ago the win total was four games, last season it was five, and this season Duke fans hope the total to at least be six, which would qualify for the Blue Devils for their first bowl game since 1994’s Hall of Fame Bowl. Head coach David Cutcliffe eagerly anticipates his team’s journey to begin. “I can’t remember—this is an honest statement—being more excited about starting a season than I am with this group,” Cutcliffe said. The Opener: ELON (September 4) The opener against the Phoenix will be crucial as the Blue Devils look to start the season on a positive note. Last season a swine flu-ravaged Duke lost to FCS school Richmond at this juncture, and it severely damaged the season’s bowl hopes. Elon is not of the same caliber as that Richmond team, which was the defending FCS national champion, but the Phoenix do return thirteen starters to a team that made the FCS playoffs last season, so they should not be taken lightly. Key Non-Conference Games: ALABAMA (September 18) The Blue Devils face football juggernaut Alabama—the defending national champion, with a quarterback who has never lost a game as a starter on any competitive level—in this early season matchup. The Tide boasts a reloaded defense and a host of NFL prospects, including last season’s Heisman winner Mark Ingram and standout wide reciever Julio Jones. Although the Blue Devils look overmatched, the game will give Duke Football national exposure and a
9/11: Wake Forest
ARMY (September 25) Army is a team in a similar situation to Duke: In the past few years the Cadets have brought in a new coach, Rich Ellerson, who oversaw an improvement in the win total to five games last season. After starting 12 games as a true freshman, sophomore quarterback Trent Steelman is expected to have enough experience to get the Cadets over the hump to bowl eligibility, the Blue Devils’s same goal. This matchup will be closely contested as Army will look to avenge last year’s 35-19 loss to Duke, but with this year’s game in the friendly confines of Wallace Wade, the home team should have the edge. Navy (October 30th) Navy and its dreaded triple option attack will host the Blue Devils in Annapolis the day before Halloween. The Midshipmen have not missed a beat since Paul Johnson left the program for Georgia Tech two years ago, and under Ken Niumatalolo, Navy won 10 games last season. Expectations for another solid year are just as high this time and with dynamic quarterback Ricky Dobbs, some experts have tipped Navy to be the next mid-major team to break into a BCS bowl game. Coming off huge matchups the previous weeks against Miami and Virginia Tech, Duke will need a good showing against Navy to build momentum for the tail end of the season.
9/18: ALABAMA 9/25: ARMY 10/2: Maryland 10/16:MIAMI 10/23: Virginia Tech 10/30: Navy 11/5: VIRGINIA 11/13: BOSTON COLLEGE
Winnable ACC games: Wake Forest (September 11) Last season was a disappointment for Jim Grobe’s DeaSee schedule on page 10
11/20: Georgia Tech 11/27: NORTH CAROLINA
faith robertson/Chronicle file photo
Duke needs to win six of its 12 games to make a bowl game this year. While some games appear nearly unwinnable, such as September 18th’s matchup against Alabama, others offer a chance for the Blue Devils to rack up some W’s.
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ACC FOOTBALL PREVIEW FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2010 | 3
After finishing last in 2009, Duke reboots by Laura Keeley THE CHRONICLE
LOOKS LUXURY LOCATION
When talking about Duke’s attempt at running the ball last year, head coach David Cutcliffe doesn’t mince his words. “I don’t think I’d call what we were a year ago a running game,” Cutcliffe said. Regardless of what it’s named, Duke’s 2009 rushing unit averaged 63.5 yards per game, the lowest average out of all 120 teams in the FBS. In contrast, defending ACC champion Georgia Tech averaged 295.4 yards per game in its run-oriented offense, more than quadruple the Blue Devils’ figure. The coaching staff expects to improve on the performance of last season, with Cutcliffe saying this year’s set of backs is the strongest the team has fielded in his three years. He has also said that an added emphasis on the running game, which includes screen plays and “the little stuff” often forgotten, will hopefully develop a balanced offense to take some of the pressure off new starting quarterback Sean Renfree. Part of the offseason improvement plan focused on what happens before the running back receives the ball. The offensive line needed to change its mindset to one more focused on running plays, and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper helped by simplifying the blocking assignments. There is a huge difference in technique between protecting the pocket so the quarterback can throw—which the Blue Devils were
able to do last year—and creating holes for a running back, said starting left tackle Kyle Hill. ‘’Every play you want to win,’’ the redshirt junior said. “When you get that run play, it’s time to gear it up and hit this guy and move him. It’s a little bit of a mentality you have to get used to and use to move that other guy.” The offensive line, which has the advantage of returning four starters, spent time with the running backs getting back to basics and focusing on footwork. The repetition has prepared the line and the backs to get out of their pre-snap positions faster, Hill said, and “cut loose.” Like the offensive line, the running back corps will feature many familiar faces. Duke’s top three rushers from last season are all back, with sophomore Desmond Scott, last year’s leading rusher, assuming the starting role. Scott turned 70 attempts into 262 yards last season, a figure he plans to better this year. “Being 120th is unacceptable,” Scott said. “We are coming out in practice and competing every day, and once you compete, it makes everyone better. It’s going to make us better on game day on those Saturdays because you are going to see how hard we have been working.” Scott, junior Jay Hollingsworth, redshirt sophomore Patrick Kurunwune and true freshmen Josh Snead and Juwan Thompson spent more time in the film room as
Michael Naclerio/Chronicle file photo
Duke’s coaching staff expects Desmond Scott to help the Blue Devils improve on last year’s poor rushing numbers. well. Cutcliffe expects both Snead, who enrolled early last spring, and Thompson to make film of their own right away. A reliable running game will make redshirt sophomore quarterback Renfree’s job easier. He said a reliable running game can be a quarterback’s best friend, because it can keep the defense off-balance and open passing lanes. “We’ve done a great job, at least in this camp, improving the running game and making sure it plays a big factor in this first game, and I think it really will help sell the
offense,” Renfree said. “I would expect about a 50-50 balance—at least that’s what the plan is.” In order to achieve that parity, the coaching staff will need to stay true to the game plan of limiting Renfree’s throws. If Renfree proves to be as effective at completing passes as his predecessor Thaddeus Lewis, though, this might be difficult. “It’s kind of hard for coach Roper, when you feel like you can complete passes, it’s See Running game on page 10
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ACC FOOTBALL PREVIEW
4 | FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2010
opinion: dueling columnists
Is Duke bowl-bound?
The Chronicle’s Andy Margius and Nicholas Schwartz debate whether the Blue Devils will make their first bowl game in 16 years.
Coaching prowess, explosive offense final pieces of bowl puzzle For the first time in 16 years, the Blue Devils will make it to a bowl game. Remember where you heard it first. True, Duke has failed to have a winning season since its last bowl game back in 1994—in a bowl that has since been renamed—yet the promise brought on by head coach David Cutcliffe ushers in a confidence that this team will be different. Winning Andy nine games in two years with players whom he never even recruited, Cutcliffe has proven his ingenuity and leadership. With his skill and experience, the Blue Devils have the first piece of the proverbial puzzle: quality coaching. Offensively, Duke remains one of the most talented passing teams in the ACC. Returning their top three wideouts from last season, among them 2010 first-team preseason All-ACC Donovan Varner, the Blue Devils will be able to find openings in the field. And with Cutcliffe recruit Sean Renfree now at the helm, passing should see an even greater improvement. Last season, Renfree demonstrated his unbridled potential with an average passer rating of 141.8. With another year under the belt for star receivers Conner Vernon and Austin Kelly, the aerial assault will be even stronger than last season. Then there is the running game, which looks significantly more promising. The offensive line returns four of five starters and their veteran experi-
ence will play a part in opening up more holes for sophomore Desmond Scott. Scott is strong and versatile, and with a year under his belt, his impact will surely be larger this season. While struggling defensively last year, Duke again show signs of improvement this season. Returning two productive starters in senior Patrick Egboh and junior Charlie Hatcher, the defensive line will be respectable. A talented secondary, made up of Chris Rwabukamba, Matt Daniels, Ross Cockrell and Lee Butler, boasts speedy Blue Devils who look to fill holes voided by departures last season. Finally, and this is most key, the schedule this season gives Duke the opportunity to make a bowl game. Sure the Blue Devils have they have one of the country’s toughest schedules, but at least this season all 12 games count towards bowl eligibility (thanks, NC Central!). Plus, with the schedule given—call me an optimist—Duke has a reasonable chance to win six games. Elon, Wake, Army, Maryland, Virginia and Boston College are all possible victories. Though not an easy feat to say the least, Duke will go bowling this season. Offensively the Blue Devils are on the verge of becoming an ACC threat. With a quality coach, a rising team, and a friendly schedule all ahead this season, Duke will once again put up a banner in Wallace Wade Stadium—and it won’t be for a high graduation rate.
Easy there, Andy—you have to walk before you run Everyone knows the saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Well, neither were the football programs of recently bowl-competitive teams like Stanford, Northwestern or Wake Forest. Those optimists predicting Duke to similarly break out this year and make noise on the national scene may want to think twice before placing any bets. Though bowl games are within sight, the Blue Devils have to prove they can avoid a let-down season before fans get their hopes up. There’s no question that Duke football is on the rise and that head coach David Cutcliffe’s recent decision to stay in Durham can give pigskin fans starved of success for more than a decade the right to anticipate big things from the Blue Devils. It’s important, however, to not have unrealistic expectations for a Duke team that is just three years removed from a one-win season. A 45-34 loss to Wake Forest last November marked the end of a storied career for former Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, and simultaneously, the beginning of the Sean Renfree era. Renfree, a Cutcliffe recruit with a few touchdowns under his belt already, has a big arm—and even bigger shoes to fill. With a 10,000-yard career passer gone, Renfree is tasked with replacing the prolific production of his predecessor Lewis, who averaged over 277 yards per game in 2009. While top targets Donovan Varner and
Conner Vernon return, even the most ardent Blue Devil fans will be hard-pressed to expect Renfree to lead the ACC in passing as Lewis did a year ago. In fact, Renfree is not just tasked with guiding Duke through the air, but also compensating for a rushing attack that was simply nonexistent in 2009. Though Duke was 18th nationally in passing yardage a year ago, the Blue Nicholas Devils ranked dead last in the FBS in rushing with 63.5 yards per game. Sophomore Desmond Scott has yet to show his effectiveness against ACCcaliber defenses. If he and his copatriots don’t get better, play action will be useless and defenses will be able to zero in on the redshirt sophomore quarterback. If that’s not enough to get you worried, the Blue Devils will once again face a tough slate of opponents, and any slip-ups early in the season could prove fatal in the long run. In total, Duke plays five teams of the AP’s preseason top 25, and another two that received votes. That includes a visit from reigning national champion Alabama and trips to face No. 10 Virginia Tech and No. 16 Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Maryland. Both the talent and the desire are in place for the Blue Devils to become bowl eligible, and there’s no questioning the ability of Cutcliffe to get the most out of his players. But you have to learn to walk before you can run, and right now the reborn Duke football program is still in its infancy.
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ACC FOOTBALL PREVIEW FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2010 | 5
aROUND THE ACC BC no longer overlooked Boston College often gets overlooked in the ACC since the Eagles play in the same division as traditional powers Clemson and Florida State. But any team who thinks it can simply gloss over Boston College would be seriously mistaken. The Eagles have finished no worse than second in the Atlantic Division since joining the conference in 2005, and Boston College reached the ACC Championship game in both 2007 and 2008. 2009 was supposed to be a rebuilding season under first-year head coach Frank Spaziani, but he and then-freshman quarterback Dave Shinskie defied expectations and guided the team to an 8-4 regular season record. This year the Eagles may have enough pieces in place to make another run at the conference title, boasting a miserly defense and one of the best rushing attacks in the ACC. Shinskie, a 26-year-old sophomore who spent seven years pursuing a pro baseball career before returning to footballlast year, returns as the starting quarterback. His 2,049 passing yards and 15 touchdowns in 2009 were both school records for a freshman, but he also threw 14 interceptions and only completed 51.7 percent of his passes. With standout running back Montel Harris in the fold, however, Shinskie will be handing off much more than he throws the ball. Indeed, he may not receive snaps at all when Boston College opts to run its bazooka offense—Spaziani’s version of the wildcat. Harris was second in the ACC in rushing last season with 1,457 yards and set two school records when he ripped apart N.C. State for 264 yards and five touchdowns in a 52-20 victory. If the Eagles ever run into trouble on the offensive side of the ball they can rely on a defense that boasts sophomore linebacker Luke Kuechly, the ACC’s leading tackler last season, and senior Mark Herzlich, who received ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2008. Herzlich missed all of 2009 battling Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, but he fought off the disease and was cleared to play. And if Herzlich can defeat cancer, Boston College will no doubt believe it has the ability to take down some serious ACC contenders this year. —by Jeff Scholl
Amid scandal, UNC plays on Scandal or no scandal, one thing’s for sure—this year’s No. 18 North Carolina Tar Heels are talented. Scouts Inc.’s top 32 NFL Draft prospects for next year features three Tar Heels, including junior defensive end Robert Quinn, the No. 2 overall prospect. The defensive unit is expected to start seven seniors, three juniors and a lone underclassman in sophomore linebacker Kevin Reddick. And all this talent returns from a defense that ranked 13th out of all Division I teams in points per game allowed last season. Intimidating, to be sure. But one crucial factor could throw a wrench in North Carolina’s ACC title hopes, and it’s not the threat of NCAA sanctions stemming from alleged agent tampering. It’s actually the other side of the ball—the Tar Heel offense. As dominating as the Tar Heel defense was last season, the offense was that underwhelming. North Carolina ranked 83rd in the nation in scoring offense in 2009 and just 102nd in passing yards per game. And as much as Tar Heel faithful might wish, one can’t win a scoreless football game. But there is hope for the North Carolina attack, as the Tar Heels are experienced on that side of the ball as well. Quarterback T.J. Yates, wide receiver Greg Little and running backs Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston are all seniors, while the offensive line is also anchored by a group of upperclassmen including junior Carl Gaskins and seniors Mike Ingersoll and Alan Pelc. And the men in the trenches will be crucial for North Carolina, which is expected to rely on its two senior backs to anchor the offense. Draughn was averaging 4.6 yards a carry before an injury against Duke ended his junior campaign, while Houston accounted for nine touchdowns on the ground last season. For the Tar Heels, defense might indeed win a championship this season—but only if the offense does its part. —Scott Rich
Defending champs mount title defense The close of the 2009 season was bittersweet for the Yellow Jackets. While they took home the ACC Championship, they were forced to deal with the departure of four key players: Jonathan Dwyer, the team’s leading rusher; Demaryius Thomas, the first receiver selected in the 2010 NFL Draft; Derrick Morgan, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year; and Morgan Burnett, arguably the best safety on the squad. Regardless of these players leaving, Georgia Tech seemed to retain enough talent to earn a No. 16 ranking in the AP preseason top 25 and become a leading contender to win the ACC title this year. Senior quarterback Joshua Nesbitt is the team’s biggest asset coming into the season. Last year, Nesbitt played almost every snap for an offense that averaged more than 422 yards from scrimmage and scored more than 33 points per game—both tops in the conference. He also proved himself a dual threat, rushing for 1,037 yards and 18 touchdowns in addition to his 1,701 yards and 10 touchdowns through the air. And though he will have to deal with the loss of Dwyer and Thomas, Nesbitt’s new offensive arsenal will include a few talented athletes whose performance has been overshadowed in recent years. Topping this list includes running back Anthony Allen, a senior who spent his first two years of college at Louisville. Though Allen lacks the explosiveness of Dwyer, he did rush for more than 1,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in his two seasons with the Cardinals. Allen averaged an incredible 9.7 yards per carry last year for the Yellow Jackets. In addition, look for sophomore receiver Stephen Hill to have an immediate impact for the Georgia Tech offense. With Thomas gone, Hill will likely be Nesbitt’s favorite target this season. At 6-foot-5, the sophomore will be a big target and has the speed and agility to be dangerous. —Vignesh Nathan
Switch from 4-3 to 3-4 doesn’t faze Blue Devils by Dan Ahrens When defensive linemen Vince Oghobaase and Ayanga Okpokowuruk graduated this past May, Duke’s traditional 4-3 defensive alignment went out the door with them. The duo were two of the Blue Devils’ strongest defensive players up front, yet even with them the squad ranked 74th in the FBS against the run. It was clear that something needed to change. That transformation came this offseason, when defensive coordinator Marion Hobby and head coach David Cutcliffe decided to overhaul their strategy for the defensive front seven by abandoning a four-linemen system for a more dynamic 3-4 scheme. They hope to be able to use the new look to attack the opponent’s offense in different ways. “As a coach you’re always going to look at personnel, and the guys here fit that package a little bit more,” Hobby said. “We’ve got to get our best 11 on the field, and they happen to be more linebackers than linemen.” While the 3-4 seems like the right move on paper, such a drastic change can be difficult to implement. Luckily, even though some in the defense had played in the 4-3 for three years, the players were open to the change, and many threw themselves into preparations over the summer. “We’re often asking our players here as coaches, how do they feel about [decisions],” Hobby said. “One thing’s for sure, none of us are going to play. We want to make sure they’re okay with what we’re doing.” Redshirt junior nose tackle Charlie Hatcher and senior defensive ends Wesley Oglesby and Patrick Egboh faced some of the biggest challenges, as each needed to learn how to handle extra blockers. “It’s a little bit different working inside,” Egboh said. “Everything’s a lot faster and the guys are a lot bigger. But I think the guys are adjusting to it pretty well. They’ve given us a lot of reps and more practice. It’s becoming easier and easier for us.” While the defensive linemen find themselves in bigger roles individually, the new scheme undoubtedly reflects an aspect of Duke’s program that has become increasingly prominent throughout the past couple of years: Speed. “This really allows us to showcase our speed,” Hatcher said. “We either have another linebacker or a hybrid defensive end which lets us play faster and more aggressive.” Given that Cutcliffe has placed such a premium on speed in recruiting, any system that showcases that athleticism should play right into Duke’s hands. Already it has paid dividends as sophomore Austin Gamble, a Cutcliffe recruit, has claimed a starting spot. Joining him will be the senior trio of Damian Thornton, Adam Banks and Abra- ham Kromah. “I think that when you have a lot of big linebackers on your team it really helps you,” Hobby said. “We’ve done a really good job, we’re a faster team than we’ve been in the past, we’ve got some [veteran] guys up front with some good size on them that can really play in this conference.” For Duke to be successful this year, they will need every bit of that size. In Georgia Tech, Navy and Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils will face three of the nation’s top-14 running attacks from a season ago. Especially with a new quarterback and a running game still looking to find its legs on offense, the margin for error could be alarmingly small. Thankfully for the Blue Devils, they have seniors in key spots to help pull them through the adversity of their new system and new personnel. “When you have some of the guys here that have played a lot of ball, when you have a Damian Thornton, Patrick Egboh, a Charlie Hatcher and a Wesley Oglesby, it helps,” Hobby said. “We don’t have a lot of seniors, but we have them in the right spots, which makes all the difference.”
to score an
Class is now in session for Duke’s quarterbacks by Tom Gieryn THE CHRONICLE
margie truwit/The Chronicle
One of the most important classes at Duke this fall semester can’t be found in ACES. It’s not on file at the registrar’s office. Its enrollment this semester is limited to just four students. There is no classroom available for its sessions, so the four meet nearly every morning at 7:15 in an office on the second floor of the Yoh Football Center. The instructor is quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper. Welcome to QB 101. “A lot of learning goes on in there,” redshirt sophomore Sean Renfree, who will be the Blue Devils’ starting quarterback this season, said. “A lot of life lessons that Coach Roper wants us to learn.” “The quarterback-quarterback coach relationship is a special one…. It had better run really deep,” Roper said. “That relationship has developed in that room.” So every morning, Renfree wakes up early for the daily meeting. He’s joined by Roper, a student coach and Duke’s other three quarterbacks: redshirt freshman Sean Schroeder and freshmen Brandon Connette and Anthony Boone. There’s a lot to learn. Among the four quarterbacks, only Renfree has even used up a single year of his eligibility. “Right now… we have a lot of youth,” Roper said. “And youth, while it’s a good thing—it’s sometimes a process to bring it along.” But progress is being made. The four quarterbacks and their coach have already developed a close relationship, a n d Renfree said all four look up to Roper. Naturally, there’s plenty of competition between the four, but that doesn’t prevent a positive relationship from developing. “They understand that they’re on the same team…. Their ultimate goal is the same thing,” Roper said. “And that takes a mature young man to really understand that, but these guys do.” So meet Sean Renfree the man. His natural tendency is to deflect attention. When he introduces himself, it’s “I’m Sean.” A firstname basis from the start. No pomp or circumstance. Just Sean. Ask him how he’s handling the expectations of following in the footsteps of Thaddeus Lewis, the most prolific passer in Duke football history. “There seems to be more pressure,” Renfree says, as if he hadn’t really noticed the heightened expectations until you posed the question. Ask him what some of his strengths are as a quarterback. He stammers and talks around an answer. “I’d like to think I have a good arm,” he finally says. That’s as much braggadocio as you’ll ever hear from him. Ask him what his goals are for the upcoming season. “We have a lot of older guys on the team, and just being able to let them make the plays,” he says. No mention of passing yards or personal accolades. “Just throw them the ball, let them run with it, and do simple things like that.” He even admits a little nervousness heading into the start of the season. But as usual, he deflects. “Obviously, I don’t know why I’m so nervous because I know I have great guys on the offense and a great coach that’s going to make me feel comfortable out there. I think the nerves will be gone by the first series.” Now meet Sean Renfree the quarterback. He was selected to the 2008 PARADE All-America team his senior year of high school in Scottsdale, Ariz., and ranked as the tenth-best quarterback recruit in the nation by Scout.com. He redshirtSee quarterbacks on page 11
ACC FOOTBALL PREVIEW
8 | FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2010
THE BOYS ARE BACK
Need a primer on the Cutcliffe era? More than a week before the start of the 2010 season, Duke had already sold out its season ticket allotment. These increased sales were a major sign of how much the Duke football program has changed in the two-plus years since head coach David Cutcliffe took the helm back on December 15, 2007. Along with the volume of ticket sales, something else has changed within Wallace Wade: expectations. Cutcliffe arrived in Durham to a tremendous amount of fanfare for a school with a long and storied tradition as a basketball program, but nothing more than a neglected football program that had become the laughingstock of the entirety of Division I-A. Ted Roof had given Blue Devil supporters very little to buzz about by posting a 6-45 record in his four-plus years at the school. Even the most ardent supporters of Duke athletics had stopped showing up to see Duke get squashed week after week. And Duke students went Jason to Tailgate and then stumbled back to their dorm rooms to watch the ABC telecast of that particular weekend’s national showdown. However, almost immediately after arriving on campus, Cutcliffe was making his presence felt in a variety of ways and letting the Blue Devil faithful know that times were changing. He began by immediately proclaiming to anyone that would listen that he was on a mission to warp Duke into perennial ACC contention. Whether it was speaking to boosters to encourage donations, to students to encourage attendance or to the media to proclaim his plan, it was clear that Cutcliffe was confident in his vision for the program. And the results begin to speak for themselves quickly. At one of his first meetings with his players, the new coach demanded that they lose a collective 1,000 pounds to improve late-game performance, and the team responded to the challenge. In the season opener his first year against James Madison, a crowd of 32,571 showed up in the rain to watch the new look Blue Devils dominate in a 31-7 win. After opening up the ACC slate with a 31-3 blowout of Virginia and moving to 3-1 overall, there was speculation that Duke might be bowl-bound in Cutcliffe’s inaugural season. However, after several subsequent tough defeats and road woes down the stretch, the team finished at 4-8. This was still a smashing success relative to the one combined win in the two previous seasons. Many people were beginning to take notice. Highly touted recruits that before wouldn’t have considered the Blue Devils were on campus for visits, and 4-star local running back Desmond Scott picked Duke over a collection of other offers. Duke alums Steve Brooks and Bob Pascal were impressed by the immediate progress and opened up their wallets to the tune of $10 million to upgrade facilities. Year two, though, didn’t begin as quite the smashing success. The Blue Devils faltered in their season opener to Division 1-AA Richmond and had an early season blowout loss at Kansas, a top 25 opponent. There were plenty of highlights, many of which came from signal caller Thaddeus Lewis, who became just the second ACC quarterback in history to throw for 10,000 yards in a career. But Duke finished with four straight losses, and Cutcliffe was unable to turn a 5-3 midseason mark into a bowl berth. Now we enter year three, and Cutcliffe is back after spurning an offseason courtship from Tennessee. He now faces the burden of lofty expectations, a new phenomenon in Durham since his arrival. With three years worth of players he recruited on the roster and talented quarterback Sean Renfree taking over, for many it is bowl game or bust this year. While bust would not mean Cutcliffe’s job—there is almost certainly no one who would be a stronger candidate—he will learn what so many other leaders in society know. If you provide people with progress and better-thananticipated performance, humans’ natural greedy inclinations will lead to them wanting and expecting more. In the past, Duke football was nothing more than a losing boxscore to check in the paper on Sunday morning. Now people are filling Wallace Wade Stadium, in sellout numbers, no less, expecting victories. Hopefully, Cutcliffe will be able to reward this increased interest.
margie truwit/The Chronicle
Donovan Varner, preseason All-ACC, and Conner Vernon, a freshman All-ACC team member last year, return as the ACC’s top receiveing duo.
After a record-setting first year, Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner return— and they’re ready to again take on the ACC. by Vignesh Nathan THE CHRONICLE
They play the same position, attended the same high school, and their names even sound tantalizingly similar. However, the most important similarity between sophomore Connor Vernon and junior Donovan Varner is the prominent role they played last year in helping the Blue Devils become competitive in the ACC. Yet both feel more can be done. “This team is, bar none, compared to last year, better,” Vernon said. “We lost a lot of guys that were big guys, but this year we’ve had a lot of guys step up.” Added Varner, “I think we’re going to surprise a lot of teams this year. We’re going to win some games this year that people don’t expect us to [win]. I am expecting a bowl game this year.” Varner, the older of the two, came into Duke with head coach David Cutcliffe. The past two years have seen him transition from an inexperienced freshman, catching 21 passes for 164 yards, to an All-ACC sophomore season, when he caught 65 passes for 1,047 yards and eight touchdowns. Vernon, on the other hand, will only be entering his second year of college. However, nothing about his performance last season hinted at his relative inexperience. In just his first collegiate start, he resoundingly surprised Blue Devil fans, catching four passes for 128 yards against a nationally ranked Virginia Tech team. His season statistics were equally impressive, including 55 receptions for 746 yards, landing himself atop many of Duke’s freshman records. Going into the upcoming season, Vernon will now pose an even more dangerous threat to opposing defenses after having logged a full year of experience under his belt. Varner and Vernon’s tandem approach will separate the Blue Devils’ offense from most of their opposition’s. Last season, the “Killer V’s,” as they nicknamed themselves, became the most prolific duo of wide receivers in Duke history. Their success is easily understood: If defenders try too hard to cover one of these receivers, the other will be open for the deep pass. However, if the secondary manages to adequately cover both, a huge vulnerability to any secondary playmakers will exist. The Blue Devils can easily exploit this weakness by finding the open wide-out down the field, or relying on their short-yardage offensive schemes. The only concern regarding the duo’s performance this upcoming season is how well they will adjust to new quarterback Sean Renfree. For the entirety of each of their college careers, they have been receiving passes from former Blue Devil Thaddeus Lewis. Lewis was known for his strength and accuracy, and the Duke faithful have not seen enough of Renfree to know whether he will measure up to his predecessor. Varner and Vernon, though, are not worried about the redshirt sophomore. “When [Lewis] was injured, [Renfree] would always come up,” Vernon said. “Then this fall and spring that relationship was taken to the next level and we basically went out everyday.” Despite their murderous name, the Killer V’s are a welcoming bunch. “Now Sean is our guy here,” Vernon said.
ACC FOOTBALL PREVIEW FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2010 | 9
the special teams
Who’s new ?
Impact freshmen look to make their mark by Matt Levenberg THE CHRONICLE
faith robertson/Chronicle file photo
Nick Maggio lost his starting job to Will Snyderwine last year, but Snyderwine has been inconsistent in practice.
Debate over kicker starts off season by Scott Rich THE CHRONICLE
During the Ted Roof era, Duke’s special teams were anything but. Consequently, David Cutcliffe emphasized improving the most under-appreciated unit in football after he took over as Duke’s head coach. This season, fans could finally see some results. “We’re expecting big things out of the specialists,” associate head coach for special teams Ron Middleton said. “They’ve put the work in during the offseason to get that done.” Indeed, the Blue Devils have the talent at nearly every critical position to be solid in the kicking game. Redshirt junior Will Snyderwine returns after setting Duke single-season records for both field goals made and field goal percentage. Meanwhile, punter Kevin Jones
Will Snyderwine’s field goal made and attempts in 2009. Despite those numbers last year, his starting jobs is now in jeopardy.
39.3 Length of starting punter Kevin Jones’ average punt last year. 108 Total yards Johnny Williams returned off punts last year. His longest run, 48 yards, came against N.C. Central. 5 Field goals by Snyderwine against Virginia last year.
ranked second in the ACC in average punting yardage just two seasons ago and a plethora of speedsters are now competing to return kicks. But there are also signs of distress. After Snyderwine struggled during spring practice and training camp, Cutcliffe reopened the kicking position to competition and has yet to name either Snyderwine or presumed-backup Nick Maggio, who was 2-for-4 in field goal attempts last season, as starter for the season opener. Jones, meanwhile, saw his punting average drop more than a yard and a half last season and was at one point benched in favor of backup Alex King. To Middleton, the gap between talent and production comes down to one crucial variable—confidence. “Football is a thinking man’s game, but you can overthink it also,” he said. “With [specialists] most of the time it’s between the ears. Just hoping that they go into the season confident, knowing that we have confidence in them, and they’ll rise to the occasion.” While competition and uncertainty might impede upon the kickers’ confidence, it has been a plus for the kick return game. Cutcliffe’s emphasis on recruiting speedy playmakers has yielded an abundance of possible return men, giving the Blue Devils depth at a critical position. Running backs Desmond Scott and Josh Snead, receivers Donovan Varner and Conner Vernon and others are all competing to return kicks. “The talent pool has definitely increased,” Middleton said. “We have some speed and quickness. Everyone of them wants to do it, but only one maybe two at a time can be back there.” As exciting as Duke’s offense may be this year, putting points on the board could prove difficult without the punters and kick returners providing good field position and the kickers putting the ball through the uprights. Indeed, if this season’s Blue Devils are to be special, so must the special teams.
Last season it was Conner Vernon. Two years ago it was Johnny Williams and Jay Hollingsworth. During his first two seasons, head coach David Cutcliffe has been able to evoke solid production from talented freshmen. This year, Duke’s rookie class boasts several candidates for impact seasons. As of late, newcomers have been particularly effective in the receiver spots. In 2009, freshman Vernon burst onto the scene to the tune of 746 yards and three touchdowns in 11 games, earning first team freshman All-ACC honors by Sporting News. This year, Vernon, alongside Austin Kelly and Donovan Varner, have a few freshmen waiting in the wings for their shot on the field—even if it comes at Vernon’s expense. “They’re making plays, we know our job is not safe,” Vernon said. “We may have a deeper rotation than last year.” Redshirt freshmen Corey Gattis and Tyree Watkins and true freshman Brandon Braxton all possess the talent to get reps this season. Watkins even led the team in receiving during the spring scrimmages. At the quarterback position, a contender for playing time may have some Duke fans remembering former scrambling quarterback Zack Asack, although
Duke’s coaches feel this iteration possesses a better arm. True freshman Brandon Connette will get the opportunity as early as the Elon game to make plays with his feet. “We are going to play Brandon [Connette],” Cutcliffe said. “He has some skills that he brings to the table that allows us to use him in certain situations.” Connette showed flashes of his athleticism during the spring scrimmage when he rushed for 91 yards, gaining seven yards per carry and accounting for two touchdowns, one through the air and one on the ground. The coaches have been impressed with Connette’s rushing ability, and he could see time in short yardage situations. “He can do a lot of different things, especially throw the ball,” starting quarterback Sean Renfree said. “He is an explosive athlete who can make plays.” Duke’s passing game last year was not helped up by Duke’s rushing attack, ranked 120th in the FBS in yards per game. It returns junior Jay Hollingsworth and sophomore Desmond Scott, who both led the team in rushing yards during their respective freshman seasons. They will be spelled by talented freshman backs Joshua Snead and Juwan Thompson. See newcomers on page 10
margie truwit/The Chronicle
Anthony Boone, a 225-pound freshman, will probably not play this year, yet still holds much athletic prowess.
10 | FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2010
ACC FOOTBALL PREVIEW
schedule from page 2
to start. Question marks abound throughout the roster and quarterback is no exeption, as it seems to be for many of the ACC’s lower rung squads. London handed senior Mark Verica—who did not play against Duke last year and was less than impressive two years ago in a 28-point loss to the Blue Devils—the starting nod.
mon Deacons as a 5-7 record prevented them from qualifying for a bowl. This year could also be a struggle as recordbreaking quarterback Riley Skinner, who graduated with the ACC record in completion percentage, has questionable impact replacements. With wins against Maryland and N.C. State, the Blue Devils showed last year that they could beat rebuilding ACC teams, like Wake Forest is this season. Maryland (October 2) Head coach of the Terrapins Ralph Friedgen might be in the hottest seat in the ACC after last season’s 2-10 record, the most losses in one year in the school’s history. With many uncertainties—namely a non-battle tested defense—Maryland should be a team the Blue Devils can handle on the road. VIRGINIA (November 6) The 2010 season marks the beginning of the Mike London era in Charlottesville and expectations are not lofty
NORTH CAROLINA (November 27) A few weeks ago expectations for the 2010 Tar Heels were reminiscent of the expectations placed on some of Mack Brown’s former teams in Chapel Hill. Now in the midst of a scandal involving agents and academic fraud, it is hard to know how this season will turn out for North Carolina. Marvin Austin, Greg Little, Robert Quinn and Bruce Carter all have question marks surrounding their future with the team. One player sure to start for the Tar Heels, however, is TJ Yates, who in his previous three years has been suspect in leading the talented offense around him, and who threw for 15 interceptions last season. The possible absence of impact players like Austin and Quinn, added to the presence of Yates, could prove to be the key in Duke taking the Victory Bell.
Photo Credit/The Chronicle
Jay Hollingsworth, the most senior back on the team, will back up Desmond Scott this year as Duke tries to build an effective running attack.
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running game from page 2 hard not to want to throw 70 balls a game and stop and run,” Cufcliffe said. “But we have to run the football to make ourselves better as a team. We have to call it and stick to it enough to find out just how good we can be running the ball. We have some threats back there in the backfield right now.” The offense as a whole takes the questions about Duke’s ability to run the ball as a personal challenge, Hill said. The offensive line, Scott and his fellow backs are ready to show the fruits of their offseason labor— after all, no one likes dwelling in the cellar. “Coach Cut really believes in the running game,” Kurunwune said. “That’s where most of our focus has come from because no one wants to be 120th running the ball. That’s where our motivation has come from.”
newcomers from page 9 Snead boasts good speed and ran a 4.40 40-yard dash this spring, the fastest of any running back on the team. He also turned heads this week when he broke a long run in a scrimmage. Cutcliffe indicated that both Snead and Thompson will be active and will see game action early. Much of the success of the running game will be determined by the offensive line, which as a unit returns four of five starters, losing only Jarrod Holt. Redshirt freshman Perry Simmons is slated to take his place. Simmons has good size, and Cutcliffe said he has done a tremendous job at improving this offseason. While the offense returns nine of 11 starters, the defense only returns six. One part of the plan to rebuild the defense is speedy redshirt freshman August Campbell, a linebacker and relative newcomer to football who ran a 4.43 40-yard dash during the spring. Joining Campbell will be redshirt freshman Kevin Rojas, who has good speed too, and who earned most improved defensive player during spring practices, “ Campbell, Rojas, and Gamble are in the 4.5 [40 yard dash] range,” Cutcliffe said. “They are what you are looking for athletically. Now, we are looking for the consistency we need to win.” Both players have worked to improve their physicality, one of the main goals of the defense as a whole. “Rojas has gotten much more physical, we all are working on it,” Campbell said. “We need to be more firm in our gaps.” With the defense moving to the 3-4, much of the success will depend on how quickly the linebackers can move sideline to sideline. Campbell and Rojas both have the speed to do so, and consistency will determine which one gets more snaps during each game. Regardless of the system, however, the talent of Duke’s underclassmen on both sides of the ball bode well not only for 2010 but for years to come.
ACC FOOTBALL PREVIEW FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2010 | 11
or: proof we suck
Boise St. Donovan Varner Terrelle Pryor Desmond Scott
Conner Vernon Kellen Moore
Horny Frogs Sean Renfree Andrew Luck
Editor: Andy Moore Managing Editor: Jeff Scholl Features Editor: Laura Keeley Online Editor: Scott Rich Photo Editor: Margie Truwit Associate Editors: Chris Cusack, Alex Krinsky, Tom Gieryn, Patricia Lee, Jacob Levitt, Andy Margius, Stuart Price, Danny Vinik, Tim Visutipol Senior Associate Editors: Sabreena Merchant, Felicia Tan, Dan Ahrens, Kevin Fishner, Vignesh Nathan, Jason Palmatary, Nicholas Schwartz. The Blue Zone is the section’s daily presence on the web, featuring constant updates on all Duke-related stories. It can be read online at:
Don Draper President Rupp
quarterbacks from page 7 ed the 2008-09 season, and served as Lewis’ backup last season. He appeared in five games, playing a total of 92 snaps. He made his debut coming off the bench against Army and connected on seven of eight passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns, leading Duke to a 35-19 comeback victory. His season would end early when he tore his ACL in November against Georgia Tech. The numbers he racked up before the injury were sparkling, though. He completed 34 of 50 pass attempts for 330 yards, four touchdowns and just two interceptions. His 141.8 passer rating would have ranked him fourth in the ACC and 26th nationally had he kept up his pace over a full season. Renfree achieved his success by utilizing an excellent football IQ and lethally accurate arm.
“I’ve been in this offense two years now, and there’s times where I’m lost, but he knows.” — Conner Vernon “He’s been very accurate up to this point in practice,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “He has tremendous arm strength and vision and understands our offense extremely well.” Added Roper, “He can put [the ball] into small spots and his accuracy has been really good.” Renfree has an easygoing style that carries over onto the field. “You could be in a room with him and not even know he’s there,” Conner Vernon, one of Renfree’s favorite targets, said. “But when he’s out on the field and in the huddle, making sure we’re getting to the line, making sure everyone’s set, making sure everyone knows what they’re doing—I’ve been in this offense two years now and there’s been times where I’m lost, but he knows.” “I’ve never been a huge rah-rah guy who says a whole lot
Austin Gamble Austin Gamble Killer V’s
Do the Heisman on that hoe
of stuff,” Renfree admitted. Rather than chew out a teammate with everyone watching, he’d rather approach them off the field. He’s still got plenty to learn in QB 101, though. He wants to continue improving his consistency: Last year, he played some poor games, such as his one-snap performance against North Carolina when he threw a pick. And he’ll have some work to do to keep up with the speed of the game this season. “You can never play fast enough,” he said. Renfree’s not the only promising student in Roper’s QB 101 class. Freshman Brandon Connette has already taken over the role as Renfree’s backup despite setting foot on campus just last winter. He enrolled in January in order to participate in spring practice with the team. “He’s an intelligent guy who’s working at being a quarterback too,” Roper said. “But one of his strengths is obviously his feet.” Cutcliffe said that Connette could see some snaps as early as the first game to give the team a dual threat quarterback under center. Behind Connette stands Sean Schroeder, whose work ethic and experience make him an ideal role model for Connette and Boone. He also possesses a tough attitude, and though he may not see much action this year, he prepares every week like he will play. Roper’s newest pupil is Boone, whose physical tools have been evident ever since Scout.com rated him one of the top five players at North Carolina’s scouting combine for high school seniors. The team has expressed plenty of excitement about his raw ability. “He’s got a rocket,” Renfree said. “He can really throw the ball around.... Once he understands the offense and how it’s supposed to work, his physical abilities are really going to take off.” The final exam for QB 101 is still yet to come. Roper is excited for the season to start, but he’s not ready to make note of any benchmarks just yet. “We’re still so young that I don’t know if we’ve defined anything,” he said. “There’s a challenge in front of us, and hopefully somewhere during the season we have a defining moment for these guys.” The Duke football season will depend on their passing grade.
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lawson kurtz/Chronicle file photo
Renfree has been praised by his coaches for his strong football IQ .
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ACC FOOTBALL PREVIEW
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