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Duke Preview - Where's The Progress?
Duke WR Conner Vernon
Duke WR Conner Vernon
Posted Jun 10, 2012 2012 Preview - Duke Blue Devils

Duke Blue Devils

Preview 2012

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By Richard Cirminiello

Head coach: David Cutcliffe
Fifth year: 15-33
Returning Lettermen
Off. 18, Def. 25, ST 1
Lettermen Lost: 22
Ten Best Duke Players
1. WR Conner Vernon, Sr.
2. QB Sean Renfree, Sr.
3. DE Kenny Anunike, Sr.
4. LB Kelby Brown, Jr.
5. S Walt Canty, Sr.
6. CB Ross Cockrell, Jr.
7. OG Laken Tomlinson, Soph.
8. RB Desmond Scott, Sr.
9. OT Perry Simmons, Jr.
10. DT Sydney Sarmiento, Jr.
2012 Schedule

Sep. 1 FIU
Sep. 8 at Stanford 
Sep. 15 NC Central
Sep. 22 Memphis
Sep. 29 at Wake Forest 
Oct. 6 Virginia 
Oct. 13 at Virginia Tech 
Oct. 20 North Carolina
Oct. 27 at Florida State 
Nov. 3 Clemson 
Nov. 10 OPEN DATE 
Nov. 17 at Georgia Tech 
Nov. 24 Miami

Under fifth-year head coach David Cutcliffe, Duke is pushing the rock uphill ever so gradually. However, those seeking signs of progress will have to look someplace other than the standings.

The Blue Devils are better conditioned. The talent pool is a little deeper on Signing Day. The kids are coached up better than any recent staff in Durham. The results on the field? Not as prosperous as planned. After winning nine games in his first two seasons, a breakthrough in these parts, Cutcliffe has gone 3-9 in consecutive years.

Last season’s edition showed a glimmer of hope, jumping out to a 3-2 start, but failed to win any of its final seven games. The perennial ACC also-ran hasn’t been to the postseason since 1994, and a lot of the enthusiasm that surrounded the hiring of the new staff has dissipated. Duke needs a breakthrough in the worst possible way.

The good news around Durham is that the Blue Devils will be flush with returning starters and veterans on both sides of the ball when the season begins. The quarterback, Sean Renfree, enters his third year as the starter, WR Conner Vernon is a record-breaker and both lines are dominated by upperclassmen.

The key for Duke will be to finally parlay all of that experience and know-how into a more competitive product on the field. Better all-around execution and a few more big plays would certainly help the cause; the Devils have been far too methodical and plodding with the ball, while sacks and takeaways have eluded them on defense.

Duke needs to be more than just a year older in 2012. It has to be a year better. If it hasn’t already, the window of opportunity to rally an apathetic football base at a renowned basketball school is on the verge of shutting. The coach is entering his fifth year. The depth chart is veteran-laden. If the Blue Devils are unable to break through this fall with a tangible step forward, it might be another few years before they can once again dream realistically of bowl-eligibility.

What to watch for on offense: Renfree or not, here he comes. The upcoming season will be the final one for QB Sean Renfree, the third-year starter who has been a microcosm for the program—he’s made progress on the field, but has yet to put it all together. On the one hand, he threw for nearly 3,000 yards in 2011, while cutting down his picks, but on the other, he was tenth in ACC passing efficiency. It’s put up or shut time for Renfree who needs to become a more productive and dangerous passer, for the sake of his team and for his future in the game.

What to watch for on defense: Safety first. In an attempt to get his 11 best athletes on the field at the same time, coordinator Jim Knowles is tinkering with the use of three safeties instead of three linebackers. The Blue Devils will employ a rover, a bandit and a strike, a trio of athletic, hard-hitting defenders designed to cover as much of the field as possible. While the run defense could be a little more susceptible, the pass D is expected to get a boost from an alignment that’ll utilize five defensive backs instead of four.

The team will be far better if… it does a much better job of producing big plays on defense. The Blue Devils combined for just 29 sacks and takeaways a year ago to rank among the least disruptive programs in America. While this unit doesn’t figure to be stout any time soon, it must be a little bit feistier by pressuring opposing quarterbacks and halting drives with turnovers. A general improvement on this side of the ball will go a long way toward raising the program’s overall competitiveness within the ACC.

The Schedule: The Blue Devils need to be hot early with FIU, NC Central, and Memphis at home, because there aren't too many winnable games the rest of the way. Going to Stanford won't help the cause, but that's the lone tough non-conference game. Not only do the Blue Devils have to face both Florida State and Clemson from the Atlantic, but they have to do it in back-to-back weeks. It's not like there are dreams of winning the ACC title, but along with a trip to Tallahassee, going on the road to deal with Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech is just plain nasty. The off week comes before a trip to Georgia Tech, but it's too late in the season and it comes after hosting Clemson.

Best offensive player: Senior WR Conner Vernon. Vernon has continuously honed his craft in Durham, adding muscle and sharpening his fundamentals as a Blue Devil. The 6-1, 195-pounder has been a model of consistency for the program over the last two seasons, catching 143 passes for 1,929 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s a quarterback’s best friend, hanging on to difficult throws even as he’s crossing the middle of the field. This fall, Vernon has the added responsibility of being the leader of an impish collection of receivers that’ll need to grow up real fast.

Best defensive player: Senior DE Kenny Anunike. While Anunike sports a limited resume on defense, he has the highest ceiling on this side of the ball. The converted tight end was on his way to the All-ACC last September when his breakout season was cut short by a season-ending knee injury. At the time, he led the league in sacks, bagging a pair each versus Stanford and Boston College. After being granted an additional year of eligibility, he’s determined to pick up where he left off, and grab the attention of curious NFL scouts.

Key player to a successful season: Senior CB Lee Butler. With Anunike back, the pass rush will be better. Now it’s up to the secondary to start carrying a little more weight. Junior Ross Cockrell is the team’s best cover guy, which could entice opposing quarterbacks to target Butler’s side of the field. The senior has played a lot of football at Duke, earning three letters and starting 20 games, but has too often shown a penchant for getting beat over the top and for being a little too soft in coverage.

The season will be a success if ... Duke wins the six games needed to bowl for the first time in 18 years. New year. Same goal. The Blue Devils—and their backers—have had enough with baby steps and moral victories. It’s time for this seasoned program to produce the kind of tangible gain that has a profound impact on attendance, fan interest and recruiting. Cutcliffe’s job should not be in jeopardy, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t need to get the school into the postseason real soon.

Key game: Sept. 29 at Wake Forest. With a non-conference schedule that includes home games with Florida International, N.C. Central and Memphis, the Blue Devils have a realistic shot of opening 3-1. However, this is the same school that tanked after getting to 3-2 a year ago. If Duke is going to be different in 2012, and is poised to make a serious run at bowl-eligibility, it’ll go on the road and snap a 12-game losing streak to the Demon Deacons.

2011 Fun Stats:
- Average yards per rush: Duke 3.1 – Opponents 4.9
- Red zone touchdown %: Duke 55% – Opponents 68%
- First quarter scoring: Duke 55 - Opponents 111
- 2012 Duke Preview | 2012 Duke Offense
- 2012 Duke Defense | 2012 Duke Depth Chart