2012 Duke Preview - Offense
Duke OG Laken Tomlinson
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Duke Blue Devil Offense
Preview 2012 - Offense
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What You Need To Know: The Blue Devils continue to move the ball under David Cutcliffe … and sputter when it matters most. The offense has the potential to turn the corner, especially with QB Sean Renfree and WR Conner Vernon back, but only if it executes more consistently in the red zone. Renfree, now entering his third year as a starter, has one final campaign to put it all together and become a more dangerous downfield passer. Vernon is the team's best player, a precise route-runner who doesn't drop balls. More help, though, will be needed from a necrotic running game, a young cast of receivers and a veteran line. Seven starters, led by the right side of T Perry Simmons and G Laken Tomlinson, bolster a front wall that needs to finally play up to the level of its considerable experience.
Star of the offense: Senior WR Conner Vernon
Passing: Sean Renfree
282-434, 2,891 yds, 14 TDs, 11 INTs
Rushing: Juwan Thompson
110 carries, 457 yds, 7 TDs
Receiving: Conner Vernon
70 catches, 956 yds, 6 TDs
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior QB Sean Renfree
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore RG Laken Tomlinson
Best pro prospect: Vernon
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Vernon, 2) Renfree, 3) Tomlinson
Strength of the offense: Veteran quarterback, potential at receiver, veteran O-line
Weakness of the offense: Passing efficiency, the ground game, run blocking, big plays
While Duke stakes claim to the most experienced quarterback in the ACC, it's looking for more than just longevity from its man behind center. Senior—and third-year starter—Sean Renfree
has had a productive career in Durham, but has yet to ascend to an all-star level. The 6-5, 230-pound captain has a nice base of talent, from his poise and mastery of the system to his quick release and good footwork. Now, the Blue Devils will be looking for more big plays, as will Renfree, who's hoping to take his game to the next level in 2013. As a junior, he further etched his name into the school record book, but threw for 14 touchdown passes and 2,891 yards on 282-of-434 passing; his 11 picks, however, were a sharp reduction from the prior year.
Itching to become Renfree's successor in 2013 are a pair of athletic and versatile sophomores. Anthony Boone has grabbed a lead for the No. 2 job, building on a solid debut. In 2011, he completed 30-of-53 passes for 298 yards, a touchdown and a pick. The 6-0, 230-pounder, with the powerful right arm, also bulled his way to four scores and 129 yards on the ground.
Like Boone, 6-2, 225-pound Brandon Connette possesses the versatility to entice the coaches to find ways to get him on the field. The Offensive MVP of the spring will be seen this fall at wide receiver and tight end as well as quarterback. He just makes things happen, and was missed after separating his shoulder last September. Connette's value was most evident in 2010, when he rushed for eight scores as a short-yardage weapon.
Watch Out For .... for the coaches to maximize the myriad talents of their three quarterbacks. Renfree is the starter and the clear-cut most polished passer in the stable. However, the Blue Devils aren't nearly potent enough to warrant ignoring the unique talents of Boone and Connette as powerful short-yardage ballcarriers and even pass-catchers.
Strength: Experience. There's no replacing live reps, and Renfree has had a slew of them while at Duke. He's grown up alongside head coach David Cutcliffe, one of the game's top quarterback coaches, and is a very heady player. The fact that no other passer in the ACC has taken more snaps than Renfree is a huge benefit for a team that'll need his veteran leadership.
Weakness: Passing efficiency. The Blue Devils haven't had problems moving the ball through the air the last two seasons, but capping drives with touchdowns has been a major concern. Duke was 22nd and 28th in passing yards in 2010 and 2011, respectively. However, it was just 90th and 77th in passing efficiency over that time, the result of too many picks and too few big plays downfield.
Outlook: Cutcliffe has been building to get to this point, when he'd have a veteran under center who is his protégé. The time has arrived for Renfree to become the kind of complete player who ignites the offense, and intrigues pro scouts. If all goes as planned, this could be the most interesting and versatile collection of quarterbacks that the Blue Devils have had in a very long time.
In a century of playing football, the Blue Devils have produced just five 1,000-yard backs, and none since Chris Douglas did it in 2003. The current collection of backs doesn't appear capable of breaking the streak of futility. Senior Desmond Scott, a veteran of three letters, is in the best position to buck the trend on the ground. A year after rushing for 367 yards and two scores on 72 carries, he has elevated to the top of the depth chart. A shifty and versatile 5-9, 190-pounder, he can make people miss, but has yet to match his signing day hype.
Breathing down Scott's neck will be 5-11, 230-pound junior Juwan Thompson , last season's leading rusher. One of the offense's best combinations of size, speed and north-south power, he turned 110 carries into 457 yards and seven scores in 2011. He also caught 22 passes for 182 yards and a score on swing passes out of the backfield.
The health of sophomore Josh Snead ought to be monitored in the coming months. Not long ago considered the future at the position in Durham, he missed all of 2011 with a foot injury. Sharp as a rookie, the 5-9, 190-pounder showcased the quick cuts and balance that helped make him such a coveted recruit.
Watch Out For .... a healthy Snead to push for playing time as the season unfolds. Scott and Thompson are decent backs, but neither has a particularly special quality about them. Snead, however does, which could be enough for him to cut into the production of his two elders.
Strength: Hands. In an offense that leans a little heavier on the passing attack, the Blue Devil backs are well-schooled at swinging out and watching the ball into their hands. Scott and Thompson combined for 47 receptions a year ago, and Snead can be used in a similar fashion, particularly on third downs.
Weakness: Productivity. While not entirely their fault, the offense has got to find a way to produce more big plays on the ground than in the last decade. Ranked 115th in rushing a year ago, the Blue Devils averaged just slightly more than three yards a carry, while failing to snap off a run of more than 50 yards.
Outlook: Duke wants to run the ball better. What else is new? It harbors a decent enough collection of backs, but true progress won't come until they get better support from the offensive line. While the Blue Devils are not going to be road graders between the tackles, even an extra 25 or 30 yards a game on the game could provide a jolt of balance to the offense.
The supporting cast is a little thinner, but the leading man remains in Durham. Back for one final engagement at "X" receiver is All-ACC senior Conner Vernon . The three-year starter will begin his finale on the verge of breaking just about every school receiving record, and a couple of league ones as well. He was consistently good once again in 2011, catching 70 balls for 956 yards and six scores. The slender, 6-1, 195-pounder does a nice job of finding the defense's soft spots, is not afraid to test the middle of the field and has very soft hands. Vernon is not the fastest guy on the roster, but doesn't need to be to school defensive backs.
Now that Donovan Varner has graduated, Brandon Braxton has moved to safety and Tyree Watkins was dismissed in the spring, the Devils are looking for a No. 2 receiver. Jockeying for the opening at "Y" receiver is sophomore Jamison Crowder , who caught 14 balls for 163 yards and a touchdown in his debut. At 5-9 and 175 pounds, he has the size and quickness of a young Varner.
One of the surprises of the receivers has been redshirt freshman Nick Hill , who has jumped more experienced teammates en route to the starting nod at "Z". The 6-2, 215-pounder from Nashville has the length, long stride and sound fundamentals to become the No. 1 target in 2013.
Sophomore Blair Holliday will spend this season backing up Vernon in the hopes of replacing him next fall. At 6-3 and 195 pounds, he's another rangy target, with the fluid athleticism to beat defensive backs on myriad different routes.
The Blue Devils like to make use of the tight end in the passing game, good news for Cooper Helfet's successor, Braxton Deaver . The 6-5, 230-pound sophomore is a glorified wide receiver at the position, using his size and speed to gain an edge on linebackers. He's on the mend from knee surgery, looking to build on last year's eight catches for 107 yards.
Watch Out For .... a big year out of Deaver. Helfet caught 43 passes last season, and while Deaver needs more experience to reach that level of production, he's capable of getting there in a relatively short time. The sophomore is going to be too tall for safeties and too quick for linebackers.
Strength: Length. Crowder aside, the Blue Devils are largely comprised of long and lean receivers, with the quick feet and sharp cuts to shake free from defenders. The program has done a nice job in recent years of recruiting good athletes, and transforming them into fundamentally sound wide receivers.
Weakness: Proven players after Vernon. No. 2 is going to get his touches, but will he have to do so with two or three defenders draped on him? Duke is very young at wide receiver and tight end, especially now that Braxton has switched sides of the ball, and Watkins got the boot. Hill or Crowder must step up and offset some of the lost production from Varner's graduation.
Outlook: Vernon is going to get his 70+ catches and postseason accolades. The key for the Blue Devils passing game is to make sure that he's not a solo act. QB Sean Renfree is at his best when he has multiple options, which will put a premium on Hill, Crowder and Deaver playing above their pay grade. Ideally , the kids mature quickly, setting the table for a smooth transition to life after Vernon in 2013.
Duke went young up front in 2011, so the offensive line will be littered with returning starters. The lone departure is Kyle Hill who leaves a hole at left tackle. Working hard in the offseason to replace him is 6-4, 310-pound sophomore Takoby Cofield , a former three-star recruit from the 2010 class. He started a pair of games in 2011, and is one of the best all-around athletes among the offensive linemen.
Over at right tackle will be 6-5, 305-pound junior Perry Simmons , who's about to enter his third year as a starter. One of the strongest and most durable of the program's blockers, he was in on a team-high 927 snaps last season.
One of the most interesting battles of the summer will feature a face-off between a pair of returning senior centers, 6-2, 285-pound Brian Moore and 6-4, 285-pound Conor Irwin . Moore has started 27 career games as a Blue Devil, 24 at guard, but an arm injury limited him to just three games in 2011. He's the kind of heady, vocal player that Duke likes at the pivot. Irwin has largely been a journeyman throughout his career, though did start a pair of games after Moore got hurt last fall. He's a grinder who'll need to raise the level of his play to win this job in August.
The versatile Dave Harding is expected to move back to left guard after filling in for Moore at center in 2011. One of the line's more tenacious blockers, the physical 6-4, 290-pounder started six games at center and three at left guard a year ago.
In 6-3, 315-pound sophomore Laken Tomlinson , the program believes it has a budding cornerstone at right guard. The Chicago native and coveted, three-star recruit from 2010 started all 12 games a year ago, laying a nice foundation for the future. He's a very physical drive blocker, with three years remaining to sharpen his technique and turn the heads of NFL scouts. The Blue Devils will have outstanding depth on the right side with 6-4, 290-pound junior John Coleman , who has earned a pair of letters, while starting nine games in 2011. He'll be the first man off the bench in the event that injury once again strikes the interior.
Watch Out For .... Tomlinson to begin playing like a borderline All-ACC performer. The sophomore has a high ceiling to go along with the physicality and nasty streak more typically seen in the Big Ten. After getting his feet wet in 2011, he's set to take the next big step toward becoming the run blocker Duke desperately needs.
Strength: Veterans. When the season begins, the Blue Devils will feature an impressive seven blockers with starting experience, an uncommonly high number for this program. There'll be no surprises, and just enough deep on the B team to persevere in the event of a serious injury to one of the regulars.
Weakness: Run blocking. While Duke's linemen are good athletes, at the point of attack, they have a difficult time holding their blocks and creating space for the backs. The shortcoming was once again painfully evident in last season's results, which saw the Blue Devils average just 94 yards a game and 3.1 yards per carry.
Outlook: While the offensive line has improved since David Cutcliffe arrived, it has not evolved as quickly as anyone would prefer. The Blue Devils are recruiting a better caliber lineman, and transforming him in the weight room, yet the numbers have been uninspiring, especially when run blocking. This unit has to be better than a year ago simply based on experience, a reason to have cautious optimism heading into 2012.
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