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Duke coach David Cutcliffe looks to continue positive momentum in Durham

Posted Sunday, August 19, 2012

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Durham, NC - Back-to-back three win seasons don't wow the casual fan, but if one looks below the surface, Coach David Cutcliffe is building something in Durham. Duke knocked on the door of bowl eligibility in 2011, losing heartbreakers to Richmond (23-21), Wake Forest (24-23) and Virginia Tech (14-10) to miss a 6-6 finish by a total of seven points. The Blue Devils were ravaged by injuries in 2011 and are hoping to avoid that fate in 2012. Unfortunately, it has already started with more of the same: linebacker Kelby Brown tore his ACL in spring practice, and the entire team was dealt a blow when wide receiver Blair Holliday suffered a severe head injury in a summer water skiing accident.

Cutcliffe returns nine starters from the 2011 offense as he enters his fifth season, including senior wide receiver Conner Vernon, who has ranked among the top five in the ACC in receptions per game in each of the last three seasons and is 35 grabs away from finishing his career as the conference's all-time receptions leader. Throwing to Vernon will be quarterback Sean Renfree, who threw for 300 yards three times in 2011, finished second in the ACC in passing yards per game, and is the conference's active career leader in total offense. The offensive line is experienced and more physical, returning four starters from a group that allowed just 18 sacks -- a number that carries even more weight when you consider that Duke threw 57.5 percent of the time in 2011. When Duke does run, the dual threat of junior Juwan Robinson and senior Desmond Scott combined for 824 yards and 4.55 yards-per-carry, and scored nine times.

The defense must improve for Duke to return to postseason play for the first time since 1994 - a tall task following the loss of second-team All-America safety Matt Daniels. The 2011 group finished 11th in the ACC in yards allowed per game (425.4) and 12th in yards allowed per play (6.55), while not forcing turnovers (last in the ACC with 12) or pressuring the quarterback (a mere 16 sacks) nearly enough. Hope can be found in the healthy return of defensive end Kenny Anunike (four sacks in five games in 2011) who will need to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks with tackle Sydney Sarmiento, end Justin Foxx and linebacker Austin Gamble. There is also a veteran presence in the secondary with cornerback Ross Cockrell (20 passes defended in his first two seasons) and safety Walt Canty (88 tackles in 2011). The Blue Devils were dealt a blow in spring practice with Kelby Brown's injury, but his spot may be staying in the family -- his brother Kyler impressed in the spring and may help fill his shoes. Rookies will be handling both kicking spots for the Devils this year, adding some uncertainty to critical spots on the field.

The schedule offers little room for injury or error: Aside from home games against NC Central and Memphis (which were a combined 4-19 in 2011), every other opponent on the slate was bowl eligible in 2011. Duke will need to stay healthy, be opportunistic and improve in creating and taking advantage of turnovers to keep their positive momentum building into 2012 and beyond. - Charlie Sallwasser2011 In Review

Sometimes improvement occurs subtly, almost imperceptibly, and heading into his fifth season at Duke, David Cutcliffe's Blue Devils fit that category...Duke posted its second-straight campaign with a 3-9 overall and 1-7 ACC records...In both seasons, the Blue Devils have been close to breaking through, losing a total of eight games over the past two years by seven or fewer points, including heartbreakers last year to bowl-bound Virginia Tech (14-10) and Wake Forest (23-22)... In each season, key injuries helped torpedo the Blue Devils' hopes...2012 may be different, though, as Duke is filling weaknesses on the defensive and offensive lines as well as building quality depth to better withstand injury...S Matt Daniels was a leader in 2011, earning second-team All-America honors (Walter Camp) after ranking third nationally among defensive backs in tackles and tying for eighth in passes defended...WR Donovan Varner ended his career as the fourth-leading receiver in ACC history with 207 career catches...Varner paired with junior WR Conner Vernon to become the ACC's all-time leaders in tandem pass receptions, as the duo made 384 catches during the 2009-11 seasons...Vernon, who finished fifth in the ACC in receptions per game (5.8) and fourth in yards per game (79.7), earned second-team All-ACC honors for the second consecutive season...Daniels was a first-team All-ACC selection and P Alex King (42.1) joined Vernon on the All-ACC second team...Freshman G Laken Tomlinson was a first-team Freshman All-American by the Sporting News.Who's Gone

The Blue Devils lost seven starters to graduation: two on offense, three on defense and both PK Will Snyderwine and P Alex King ...Offensively WR Donovan Varner departs after finishing his career 17th on the ACC career reception yardage list...Also gone is LT Kyle Hill, who started 46 games for the Blue Devils and TE Cooper Helfet...Defensively, the loss of Daniels, Duke's leading tackler with 126 hits creates the biggest hole to fill, but replacements will also need to be found for NG Charlie Hatcher (31 tackles, two sacks) and CB Johnny Williams.Numbers & Notes

7 - The number of points that were a difference between Duke being 3-9 and going to a bowl game in 2011. Coach Cutcliffe's team lost three games by the combined total of seven points dropping heart-breakers to Richmond (23-21), Wake Forest (24-23) and Virginia Tech (14-10). Duke also lost a seven-point decision to Georgia Tech (38-31).

8 - Duke senior QB Sean Renfree has thrown for 300 or more yards in a game on eight occasions. Renfree also has 18 games in which he has topped the 200-yard mark in passing yardage in his career.

19 - The number of Duke players on the 2011 All-ACC Academic Football team, the most of any ACC school. Blue Devils honored were: WR Brandon Braxton, LB Kelby Brown, S Jordan Byas, CB Ross Cockrell, G John Coleman, S Matt Daniels, TE Braxton Deaver, LB C. J. France, C Dave Harding, NG Charlie Hatcher, TE Cooper Helfet, LB David Helton, DE Dezmond Johnson, QB Sean Renfree, G Perry Simmons, PK Will Snyderwine, RB Juwan Thompson, G Laken Tomlinson and WR Donovan Varner.

20 - The number of passes defended by Duke junior CB Ross Cockrell in his first two season as a starter for the Blue Devils. Cockrell has four career interceptions and 16 pass deflections.

35 - Duke senior WR Conner Vernon enters the 2012 season needing just 35 pass receptions to become the ACC's all-time leading career pass receiver. Vernon has 198 career catches and the record is held by former Clemson standout Aaron Kelly (232). He also has 2,675 career receiving yards and is 842 yards shy of the current ACC career leader, Peter Warrick of Florida State (3,517).

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Duke coach David Cutcliffe looks to continue positive momentum in Durham
Cutcliffe returns nine starters from the 2011 offense as he enters his fifth season.
photo by Gene Galin