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2011 Duke Preview
Duke QB Sean Renfree
Duke QB Sean Renfree
Posted Jun 25, 2011 2011 Preview - Duke Blue Devils

Duke Blue Devils

Preview 2011

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By Richard Cirminiello

Head coach: David Cutcliffe
4th year: 12-24
Returning Lettermen
Off. 20, Def. 20, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 19
Ten Best Duke Players
1. WR Conner Vernon, Jr.
2. WR Donovan Varner, Sr.
3. PK Will Snyderwine, Jr.
4. S Matt Daniels, Jr.
5. QB Sean Renfree, Jr.
6. NG Charlie Hatcher, Sr.
7. LB Kelby Brown, Soph.
8. TE Cooper Helfet, Sr.
9. CB Ross Cockrell, Soph.
10. RB Desmond Scott, Jr.
2011 Schedule

Sept. 3 Richmond
Sept. 10 Stanford
Sept. 17 at Boston Coll.
Sept. 24 Tulane
Oct. 1 at FIU
Oct. 15 Florida State
Oct. 22 Wake Forest
Oct. 29 Virginia Tech
Nov. 5 at Miami
Nov. 12 at Virginia
Nov. 19 Georgia Tech
Nov. 26 at North Carolina

There’s no doubting the progress that David Cutcliffe is making in Durham. Now, it just needs to start translating the gains into victories.

Duke is a better football program because Cutcliffe is its head coach. The Blue Devils have improved in many phases, from the way they practice to the way they train. However, wins have been hard to come by. The program has just a dozen over the last three years after going 3-9 in 2010. Unfortunately, finding talent for the sidelines has been much easier than finding talent for the field.

It’s no surprise that Duke’s biggest gains under Cutcliffe have occurred on offense, increasing its scoring output in each of his three seasons. The noted quarterback guru has recruited the position well, landing the likes of current pupil Sean Renfree. On the brink of realizing all of his potential, the junior has a chance to become one of the ACC’s more prolific passers. He’ll get plenty of help from his veteran receivers, TE Cooper Helfet and wideouts Donovan Varner and Conner Vernon.

The Blue Devils will move the ball, but will it be enough to counteract one of the nation’s worst defenses? Stopping the other team has long been a problem. A dearth of talent, depth, and size has plagued the program for many years, and while the Blue Devils can point with pride to the likes of S Matt Daniels, NG Charlie Hatcher, LB Kelby Brown, and CB Ross Cockrell, it’s unlikely to be enough, especially versus the better offenses on the schedule. The school that averaged 43 points in last season’s three victories will likely need to survive shootouts once again this fall.

As coaching candidates go, Duke is not going to do better than Cutcliffe, so patience is a necessity. That said, winning a couple more games and competing for bowl-eligibility in November would do wonders for a program on a perennial uphill climb to respectability.

What to watch for on offense: Getting more mileage out of the Cooper. Senior TE Cooper Helmet was a pleasant surprise in his debut out of Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College, catching 34 balls for 380 yards and two touchdowns. This season, the Blue Devils would like to leverage his soft hands and athleticism even more. With outside receivers Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner garnering so much attention, Helfet will get lots of opportunities to beat linebackers in one-on-one situations.

What to watch for on defense: Brown bagging it. The coaching staff can’t stop raving about sophomore LB Kelby Brown, a budding rock in the middle. He’s the type of player the defense can build around for the next three seasons. Though marred by an ACL injury late last fall, he fashioned a terrific debut in 2010. A seven-game starter, he played with great instincts and range, making 63 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss, and four fumble recoveries. He’ll be a cornerstone player in Durham in 2011 and beyond.

The team will be far better if… it produces more defensive pressure. Duke has to do a better job of getting to the quarterback after ranking last in the ACC and 113th in the country in 2011. If the Blue Devils spend more time in opposing backfields, everyone on defense is going to benefit. The secondary will get a much-needed break and takeaways are liable to come with greater frequency.

The Schedule: The Blue Devils have an honest shot of starting out 3-2 going into the off week with winnable games against Richmond, Tulane, and FIU to go along with a home game against Stanford and the ACC opener against Boston College. The other games against the Atlantic are against Florida State (uh oh) and Wake Forest (okay), while two of the big Coastal dates agaisnt Virgina Tech and Georgia Tech are at home. Three of the last four games are on the road, but the final date is up the road at North Carolina.

Best offensive player: Junior WR Conner Vernon. Vernon is coming off his best season as a Blue Devil, catching a team-best 73 passes for 973 yards and four scores. The Second Team All-ACC selection is a savvy receiver, running tight routes and rarely allowing the ball to hit the turf. At 6-2 and 195 pounds, he has the size and long arms to provide the quarterback with a wide catch radius.

Best defensive player: Senior S Matt Daniels. As the enforcer of the secondary, the 6-1, 205-pound Daniels sets the tone for the Blue Devils around him. He’s racked up 176 tackles over the last two seasons, including a career-high 93 a year ago. Playing with the desired combo of size, speed, and attitude, he’s a leader through example. After just missing out on the All-ACC Team the last two years, he should get the recognition he deserves in his Duke finale.

Key player to a successful season: Junior QB Sean Renfree. Now that he’s entering his second season as the starter, the Blue Devils need Renfree to become a leader and the face of the program. Although he set the table in 2010, throwing for 14 touchdowns and more than 3,000 yards, he needs to become more efficient and productive in 2011. Throwing 17 interceptions and enduring long dry spells will no longer be acceptable for the junior.

The season will be a success if ... the Blue Devils win the six games needed to bowl for the first time since 1994. Enough with the baby steps and the moral victories. Duke needs to get over the hump in 2011 by unleashing the passing game and getting modestly better on defense. Sure, it’s going to take an upset or two, but that’s where the bar needs to be set for as long as Cutcliffe is the head coach.

Key game: Nov. 12 at Virginia. One of the more winnable road games on the schedule, Duke will have to have it in order to have a realistic shot at bowl-eligibility a few weeks later. The Blue Devils survived a track meet last fall, holding off the Cavaliers in Durham, 55-48. Even if they can get to 3-1 in non-conference games, a manageable quest, the Devils will still need to cultivate three ACC conquests to get to six wins.

2010 Fun Stats:
- Average yards per catch: Duke 11.0 – Opponents 16.1
- Sacks: Duke 12 – Opponents 25
- Third quarter scoring: Duke 40 - Opponents 120

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