2011 Duke Preview – Offense
Duke WR Donovan Varner
Duke WR Donovan Varner
Posted Jun 25, 2011

CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Duke Blue Devil Offense

Duke Blue Devils

Preview 2011 - Offense

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What You Need To Know: The Blue Devils continue to make strides under the watchful eye of David Cutcliffe, but not enough to truly impact the standings. The running game, for example. It was improved compared to 2009, but still ranked 104th in the country. The staff would love to get more out of backs Desmond Scott and Josh Snead, but the airways will continue to be the preferred mode of transportation in Durham. Budding QB Sean Renfree is back for his second year as a starter, flanked by a terrific supporting cast that includes receivers Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner, and TE Cooper Helfet. Renfree's quick release will be particularly useful when playing behind an offensive line that's marginal, at best.

Returning Leaders
Passing: Sean Renfree
285-464, 3,131 yds, 14 TDs, 17 INTs
Rushing: Desmond Scott
120 carries, 530 yds, 3 TDs
Receiving: Conner Vernon
73 catches, 973 yds, 4 TDs

Star of the offense: Junior WR Conner Vernon
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior QB Sean Renfree
Unsung star on the rise: Senior TE Cooper Helfet
Best pro prospect: Vernon
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Vernon, 2) Senior WR Donovan Varner, 3) Helfet
Strength of the offense:The receivers and tight ends, the passing game
Weakness of the offense: The running game, turnovers, lack of big plays, stalling in the red zone


State of the Unit: Sure, the Blue Devils suffered through severe growing pains a year ago, the first without Thaddeus Lewis, but everyone is back. And a year older. Duke ranked 22nd nationally in passing offense, but 90th in passing efficiency, the result of too many picks and too few big plays. There's unquestionable talent in Durham and one of the game's best quarterback coaches in Cutcliffe. Now it's time to start putting it all together.

Sean Renfree returns for his second year as the starter, looking to build on his debut. The 6-5, 225-pound junior went 285-of-464 for 3,131 yards, 14 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, adding four touchdowns on the ground. He throws a nice ball and has a feel for the game that portends a breakthrough season. He has a quick release and good footwork, the base tools Cutcliffe needs to mold him into one of the ACC's better passers.

With Renfree safe atop the depth chart, the competition will be for the backup job. Sophomore Brandon Connette held the job last year, starting the Miami game and playing mostly as a situational runner. A physical 6-2, 225-pounder, he motored for 321 yards and eight touchdowns on 78 carries. Sophomore Sean Schroeder will be playing from behind after failing to appear in a game in 2011. A 6-2, 190-pound lefty, he's more of a precision passer than a flamethrower.

Watch Out For .... more Connette. He provided the offense with a unique wrinkle a year ago, especially on short yardage and goal-line situations. While not ready to compete as the starter or frighten defenses with his passing, he forms a perfect complement to Renfree behind center. Think Tim Tebow in the early years.
Strength: The future. Renfree was pursued by Boise State and Pac-10 programs. Schroeder got looks from a bunch of schools on the West Coast. And Connette could have been in Palo Alto instead of Durham today. This is a quality collection of passers, whose best days are in front of it.
Weakness: Lack of big plays. Renfree spent most of last year dinking and dunking his way downfield, completing just one pass of more than 50 yards. The Blue Devils were a misleading third in ACC passing yards, yet were a dismal 11th in yards per completion.
Outlook: Duke is moving in the right direction at the position, which will be evident in 2011. Everyone is a year older, the receivers are fantastic, and Cutcliffe is always teaching. Bottom line? It should be a big year for Renfree, who'll cut down on his turnovers and move closer to becoming an ACC all-star.
Rating: 6.5

Running Backs

State of the Unit: It's been years since Duke has been home to a capable running game or back a who can carry the load 20-25 times. Expect that trend to continue in 2011. While last year's top rushers return, it's from a group that ranked 104th in the country on the ground and averaged 3.4 yards a carry. Since no one is guaranteed a job, the competition for touches ought to be stiff through the summer.

Junior Desmond Scott has led the team in rushing the last two seasons, but has hardly been prolific. In 2010, the 5-9, 185-pounder went for 530 yards and four scores on 120 carries, rarely popping into daylight. He did, however, catch 34 balls for 266 yards as a safety valve for the quarterbacks. A key local recruit from two years ago, he has the versatility and quickness to be a more valuable weapon when the line does its job.

Sophomore Juwan Thompson used a nice spring to jump up and grab the No. 2 job for now. The 5-11, 215-pounder brings some much-needed power and pop to the backfield. Also nipping at Scott's heels are 5-10, 200-pound senior Jay Hollingsworth , 5-9, 220-pound junior Patrick Kurunwune , and 5-9, 185-pound sophomore Josh Snead. Hollingsworth and Kurunwune provide some punch in the running game in short yardage situations. Snead has the highest ceiling among the likely backups. Third on the team with 221 yards and a touchdown on 45 carries in his debut, he makes quick cuts and defenders miss in the open field.

Watch Out For .... Snead to push Scott for playing all year. The two are similar backs, but Snead has a little extra giddy-up and provided an offensive spark when he got on the field last fall.
Strength: Pass-catching skills. In an offense that leans a little heavier on the passing game, the Blue Devil backs are well-schooled at swinging out and watching the ball into their hands. Scott caught 34 passes a year ago, and Snead will be used in a similar fashion, particularly on third downs.
Weakness: Productivity. While not all their fault, the offense needs more production and big plays out of the backs. At just over three yards a carry and a single bolt of more than 50 yards, the running game makes Duke predictable for opposing defenses and a liability to the passing attack.
Outlook: The staff wants to run the ball better, but that'll require help from both the blockers and the backs. The young runners, namely Scott, Thompson, and Snead offer hope for the next couple of years. While neither are workhorses, or likely to be the school's first 1,000-yard rusher since Chris Douglas did it in 2003, both have playmaking potential when sprung into space.
Rating: 5.5


State of the Unit: If there's a reason to truly get excited about the 2011 season, it's because of this group of pass-catchers. Duke is well-fortified at wide receiver and tight end, bringing back all but one of last season's top six receivers. Even better, everyone has now had ample time to develop chemistry with QB Sean Renfree, which is going to make the entire unit more efficient this fall.

Leading the way at "X" receiver is 6-2, 195-pound junior Conner Vernon , who had a team-high 73 catches for 973 yards and four touchdowns in 2011. A second team All-ACC selection, he knows how to find the soft spots in defenses and isn't afraid to go into traffic in order to make plays. Renfree is very comfortable looking for No. 2, especially on third down, a trend that isn't likely to stop.

Duke's other playmaking receiver, 5-9, 175-pound senior Donovan Varner, does his damage out of the slot. An All-ACC first teamer in 2009, his numbers declined last season to 60 receptions for 736 yards and a touchdown. Still, he's no less dangerous, especially after adding muscle heading into his salary run season. The kind of receiver who has always played bigger than his frame, he's terrific after the catch and has some of the best hands in the conference.

The Devils began 2010 with adequate depth at tight end. And that was before anyone factored 6-4, 235 senior Cooper Helfet into the equation. A pleasant surprise in his first year out of Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College, he caught 34 passes for 380 yards and two scores, earning honorable mention All-ACC. A quality athlete and former lacrosse player at Johns Hopkins, he's in an ideal position to exploit defenses that give too much attention to Vernon and Varner.

Now that Austin Kelly has graduated, there's an opening at "Z" receiver waiting to be filled. The frontrunner is 6-1, 200-pound sophomore Brandon Braxton, who started five games and had 14 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown as a rookie. He has the size and long arms to be one of the future stars of this group. Braxton's stiffest competition will come from 5-10, 200-pound senior Josh Trezvant . A journeyman and special teamer, he caught a career-best seven passes for 65 yards in 2010.

Sophomore Tyree Watkins returned from a knee injury last year to make seven grabs for 34 yards. The sturdy 6-0, 200-pounder will continue his ascent and search for reps as a key reserve behind Vernon on the outside.

Watch Out For .... a rebound year from Varner. He's way too talented to catch just a single touchdown pass. Plus, with NFL scouts already beginning to size him up, watch for him to once again become Durham's version of Carolina Panther Steve Smith.
Strength: Proven talent. Duke has been building to this point for the last couple of seasons. Varner and Vernon were green when they first started a couple years back, but now they're seasoned veterans. Add in the emergence of Helfet, and Renfree will have all kinds of options running routes.
Weakness: Proven backups. While the staff is optimistic about the futures of its young kids, if Braxton starts, there won't be a backup on the roster who caught more than seven balls last year. It's incumbent upon Watkins and others to prepare as if their number could be called at any time.
Outlook: If the Devils are going to create matchup problems this fall, it'll come from this group. The receivers are experienced, talented, and much closer to being on the same page as Renfree. As long as the staff isn't forced to look down the bench too often, Vernon, Varner, and Co. will be the catalysts of one of the ACC's most consistent corps of pass-catchers.
Rating: 8

Offensive Line

State of the Unit: The Blue Devils must replace a pair of starters from an offensive line that struggled in all facets, especially at creating holes in the running game. The biggest offseason storyline has 6-2, 275-pound junior Brian Moore making the shift from guard to center, replacing long-time starter Bryan Morgan. A promising blocker, he'll use the next few months to get accustomed to making clean snaps and being one of the vocal leaders of the units.

If there's an anchor of this group, it's durable 6-6, 290-pound senior Kyle Hill , who enters his fourth season as a starter. Although he needs to progress in pass protection, he has the athletic ability and light feet of a former tight end. He's still learning and honing his technique, but has the potential to parlay his final season on campus into all-conference recognition and a shot at the NFL.

The other returning regular up front is 6-5, 300-pound sophomore Perry Simmons , a starter in all 12 games at right tackle last season. He's raw, but has a bright future once he can achieve greater consistency. His likely partner on the right side at guard is 6-4, 285-pound sophomore John Coleman , who lettered a year ago as a reserve and got on the field for 104 snaps. Over at left guard, 6-4, 285-pound sophomore Dave Harding has an edge after starting the final four games of 2010. A tenacious blocker and key get from 2009, he's added muscle in an attempt to hold up better at the point of attack. Coming off the bench, 6-7, 320-pound senior T Jon Needham is the lone projected backup with a letter on the resume.

Watch Out For .... redshirt freshmen G Laken Tomlinson and T Takoby Cofield . Two of the best recruits from the 2009 class, both players have the talent and desire to challenge for starting jobs immediately. Tomlinson, in particular, could have played at a bunch of Big Ten schools, and is capable of narrowing the gap on Coleman in a hurry.
Strength: Athleticism. No, the linemen won't bully you off the ball, but they certainly are light on their feet and flexible, by design. The unit is flush agile athletes, who get off the blocks quickly. The staff demanded that its blockers be in shape, which has resonated throughout this group.
Weakness: Run blocking. At the point of attack, Duke is often no match for far too many opponents. The Devils just don't get an adequate push up front, which goes a long way to explaining why the program had just one 100-yard game from a back in 2010.
Outlook: Yes, Duke has recruited a much better caliber of lineman since David Cutcliffe arrived, and the line progressed last year. It just wasn't enough. The unit needs to take another big step forward for the balance of the offense to evolve. One key will be the play of Moore, who's being entrusted with a much greater degree of responsibility.
Rating: 5.5

- 2011 Duke Preview | 2011 Duke Offense
- 2011 Duke Defense | 2011 Duke Depth Chart
- Duke Previews   2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006