2010 Duke Preview – Offense
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Posted Aug 3, 2010

CollegeFootballNews.com 2010 Preview - Duke Blue Devil Offense

Duke Blue Devils

Preview 2010 - Offense

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What You Need To Know: Under David Cutcliffe, Duke has made steady progress offensively, but does that cease now that all-star QB Thaddeus Lewis is gone? The Blue Devils are looking to one of three underclassmen, likely sophomore Sean Renfree, as his successor. Whoever gets the ball will take comfort from an underrated corps of receivers led by Donovan Varner, Conner Vernon, and Austin Kelly. Overall unit improvement, however, will require more support from other areas, such as a ground game that was dead last nationally in 2009. Desmond Scott and Josh Snead are young backs, with exciting futures, but the onus falls on a flimsy front wall to give them the room they'll need to make plays.

Returning Leaders
Passing: Sean Renfree
34-50, 330 yds, 4 TDs, 2 INTs
Rushing: Desmond Scott
70 carries, 262 yds, 1 TD
Receiving: Donovan Varner
60 catches, 1,047 yds, 8 TDs

Star of the offense: Junior WR Donovan Varner
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore QB Sean Renfree
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore G Brian Moore
Best pro prospect: Junior T Kyle Hill
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Varner, 2) Vernon, 3) Huffman
Strength of the offense: The receivers and tight ends
Weakness of the offense: Inexperience at quarterback, the running game, red zone scoring


Projected Starter: David Cutcliffe's highest priority in the offseason will be to replace Thaddeus Lewis, a two-time All-ACC selection and one of the best to ever play in Durham. It won't happen overnight. It does, however, help immensely that the school has recruited the position so well recently. The early favorite is 6-3, 210-pound sophomore Sean Renfree , who sat out the spring to recover from ACL surgery. As the backup a year ago, he saw action in five games, going 34-of-50 for 330 yards, four scores, and two picks. He throws a great ball and has the football IQ to become Cutcliffe's next star pupil once he gets more reps.

Projected Top Reserves: Keeping Renfree from becoming content will be 6-3, 185-pound redshirt freshman Sean Schroeder , another quality prospect the Blue Devils plucked off the West Coast. A lefty, he's more of an accurate and precise passer than someone who'll wow you with his powerful cannon. He also has a nice command of the offense and won't make the kind of mental mistakes that often plague young quarterbacks. Above all else, he has a good feel for the position and his role in the huddle. Cutcliffe maintained his trend of going cross country to populate his stable of quarterbacks, signing Brandon Connette out of Santiago (Calif.) High School. The 6-2, 210-pounder injected himself into the competition by enrolling in January. Another heady pro-style quarterback, he'll have to be an extremely quick learner to avoid being redshirted in his first season.

Watch Out For .... the progress of Renfree's recovery. As the frontrunner in this competition, the health of his knee will be a closely-monitored topic between now and the Sept. 4 opener with Elon. Although he's coming along nicely and isn't expected to endure any setbacks, missing a chance to develop any chemistry with his receivers in the spring will make August critical for the passing game.
Strength: The future. Renfree was pursued by Boise State and a number of 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 right now. This is a quality collection of pro-style passers, whose best days are ahead of it.
Weakness: Inexperience. The future is bright, but the present is a little scary. The downside of Lewis' consistency and durability is that no one else got a chance to perform anything but mop-up duty. Renfree's handful of appearances and 50 career passing attempts make him the veteran, which will haunt Duke at times in this season of transition.
Outlook: Class is in session. The Blue Devils have three young and upwardly-mobile hurlers, who are ready to soak up as much knowledge as possible from Cutcliffe, one of the game's best developers of quarterbacks. It promises to be an interesting process that continues right through to the end of the regular season. With the best combo of experience and talent, this should be Renfree's job, provided he can play catch up in the summer.
Rating: 6

Running Backs

Projected Starters: Duke is once again in need of a workhorse, a perennial quest in these parts. After finishing last nationally in rushing, the staff is determined to run the ball better, particularly with an inexperienced starting quarterback. Junior Jay Hollingsworth is the veteran of the backfield, earning letters in each of the last two seasons. He led the team in rushing in 2008 and was second to Scott last fall, running for 179 yards on 54 carries. At 5-11 and 200 pounds, he brings some pop between the tackles and is also a capable receiver out of the backfield.

Projected Top Reserves: Sophomore Desmond Scott had 262 yards and a touchdown on 70 carries and 18 catches for 147 yards in his debut from local Hillside (NC) High School. That he led the team in rushing underscores the problems the Devils have on the ground. One of the highest-rated recruits to ever choose Duke, the 5-10, 185-pounder offers hope and just enough explosiveness and versatility to be a terrific all-purpose option.

The pile-mover of the backfield is 5-9, 215-pound sophomore Patrick Kurunwune , who had 149 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries last year. Running with good leverage and leg drive, he's tough between the tackles and difficult to bring down around the goal line.

Watch Out For .... rookie Josh Snead . The 5-9, 180-pound jackrabbit played in the spring as if he plans to be the third straight Blue Devil true freshman to lead the team in rushing. While not very big, he's plenty quick, with the burst of speed to jet through the secondary with even a little daylight. He will definitely be a part of the offensive plans in 2010.
Strength: Young backs. The Blue Devils have won some intense recruiting battles the last years in order to land Snead and Scott, respectively. Scott, in particular, had offers to play at places, like Georgia, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Both underclassmen have the speed and big-ability to ignite the running game if they can get proper support up front.
Weakness: Big plays. While the ability may be there, the production clearly is not. No, it's not entirely their fault, but the backs averaged just a little over three yards a carry in 2009, a familiar result in Durham. Of the 339 carries a year ago, just one went for more than 25 yards, the second straight year that's happened.
Outlook: David Cutcliffe is determined to run the ball with more consistency this fall. How he plans to do that, however, remains to be seen. Although he actually has a decent stable of young backs, you're not going to know it if the offensive line doesn't improve markedly. The Blue Devils are excited about the potential of Scott and Snead, though neither is a threat to become the school's first 1,000-yard rusher since Chris Douglas did it in 2003.
Rating: 6


Projected Starters: With last year's top six pass-catchers back, Duke boasts one of the ACC's best collections of receivers. Leading the brigade in the slot is junior Donovan Varner , a first team All-ACC performer coming off a breakthrough year. He performs as if he's channeling Carolina Panther Steve Smith, playing much bigger than his 5-9, 170-pound frame and with the mentality that he can't be stopped. Outstanding after the catch, he led all receivers with 65 grabs for 1,047 yards and eight scores.

Lining up at one of the two outside spots will be 6-2, 195-pound sophomore Conner Vernon , a returning Freshman All-American in his first year on campus. A pleasant surprise so early in his career, he debuted with 55 receptions for 746 yards and three scores. A playmaker, who can make the tough grab in traffic as well as the spectacular one, he's headier than most second-year players.

On the opposite flank is the veteran, 6-2, 200-pound senior Austin Kelly , who finally had his breakout year last fall. Third on the team with 54 catches for 625 yards and four touchdowns, he's a possession receiver, with deceptive speed. He'll be the new quarterback's best friend, running good routes and catching everything thrown his way.

Ultra-consistent throughout his career, 6-4, 250-pound senior Brett Huffman is back for his third year as the starting tight end. Proven to be a quality pass-catcher on intermediate routes and near the end zone, he enters the year with 33 career receptions, including 18 a year ago for 167 yards and three touchdowns. He's added some muscle, which should help with run blocking.

Projected Top Reserves: Now that Johnny Williams has moved to cornerback, depth will come from a pair of redshirt freshmen, Tyree Watkins and Corey Gattis . Watkins is a 6-1, 195-pounder, with a smooth stride, good hands, and the ability to elevate above defenders. He has go-to skills at some point in his career.

While Watkins will vie for playing time on the outside, Gattis will back up Varner on the inside. A 5-11, 170-pound flash in the open field, he has blazing speed and the change-of-direction to make defenders look silly. He's the type of playmaker who could force the staff to concoct ways to get the ball in his hands.

In 6-2, 250-pound senior Brandon King , Duke has an ideal veteran tight end to back up Huffman. A terrific blocker, who has also played some fullback in short yardage, he has a knack for the end zone, turning five of his 26 career catches into touchdowns.

Watch Out For .... Varner to be even more prolific than a year ago. A first-time starting quarterback will spend a lot of time looking for his security blanket, an inside receiver with great hands. In Durham, that guy is Varner, which means he could see another spike in production after leading the team with 65 catches.
Strength: Proven talent. The Blue Devils will have an absolute luxury on offense this fall, three returners who had 50 receptions last season. In Varner, Vernon, and Kelly, they've got an ideal mix of talent, with quality tight ends and up-and-coming redshirt freshmen to provide some cover to the trio.
Weakness: Proven backups. While the staff is optimistic about the futures of Watkins and Gattis, neither has played a down at this level. In an offense that likes to go four-wide and rotate liberally, it's going to need at least one of the redshirt freshmen to step up and play beyond his tender age.
Outlook: After doing a tremendous job of regrouping in the aftermath of Eron Riley's graduation, Duke is ready to fully reap the benefits in 2010. And not a moment too soon. Breaking in a new quarterback will be a smidge easier because of the presence of Varner, Vernon, and Kelly, one of the more underrated pass-catching trios in the country.
Rating: 7.5

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: Even the return of four starters won't quell concerns about a questionable offensive line. The anchor will once again be senior C Bryan Morgan , a durable two-year starter at the pivot. While certainly no road grader at 6-3 and 260 pounds, he's extremely agile, quick off the snap, and has the best technique of the linemen.

Over at left tackle, the program is keeping its fingers crossed that it has a budding star in 6-6, 290-pound junior Kyle Hill. A former tight end, with terrific athleticism and footwork, he's bulked up considerably and made a nice transition to the line. While still growing and learning, he started all 12 games last season and has the kind of trajectory that could eventually find him playing on Sundays.

The Devils have a looming question at right tackle that might not be answered until the season begins. First in line to replace Jarrod Holt will be 6-7, 320-pound junior Jon Needham , who got on the field for 224 plays and earned his first letter in 2009. He has an enormous wingspan, but will need to improve his footwork to handle some of the ACC's faster edge rushers.

Once he recovers from toe surgery, 6-7, 305-pound senior Mitchell Lederman is expected to regain his spot at left guard, where he started seven games before getting hurt in November. A versatile blocker, who's also spent some time at tackle, he has the long arms needed to jam opposing linemen, but needs to become more physical on running plays.

After doing a solid job and earning Freshman All-ACC honors, sophomore Brian Moore is looking to build on his debut as the starting right guard. Although he hadn't played a down in two years, he shook off the rust and quickly became one of Duke's most promising young blockers. Just 6-4 and 270 pounds, he's physical and plays considerably bigger than his size.

Projected Top Reserves: If he can't beat out Lederman for a starting assignment, 6-3, 310-pound senior Brandon Harper will be the most experienced reserve and the first man off the bench. A converted defensive tackle, with three letters, he made the switch to offense in 2009, appearing in all 12 games and starting five at left guard.

His redshirt season now in the past, 6-4, 275-pound G Dave Harding is pining for a chance to be a part of the rotation. One of the program's top recruits from 2009, he's a tenacious blocker, with the kind of attitude that this offensive line craves. If he can add a little more weight and continue learning, he's liable to shake up the depth chart by the summer.

Watch Out For .... Moore to take another step toward being one of the team's best blockers. In his first season of action, he improved throughout the year, a trend that's going to be carried into 2010. He has the right makeup and the fundamentals to become an asset on the right side.
Strength: Athletic ability. No, the Duke offensive linemen will not blow you off the ball, but they sure do move well on their feet. The unit is flush with undersized, agile athletes, who get out of their stances in a hurry. Cutcliffe demanded that his blockers be in shape, which has resonated throughout this group from the moment he arrived.
Weakness: Run blocking. At the point of attack, the Blue Devils are no match for far too many opponents. They just don't get an adequate push up front, which goes a long way to explaining why the program was last nationally in rushing and averaged just over two yards a carry.
Outlook: While there are no doubts that the staff has recruited its way to better overall talent, this unit remains a work-in-progress and a potential stumbling block to success. The keys this fall will be to make some kind of progress at opening holes and for Hill and Moore to make quantum leaps in their development.
Rating: 5.5

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