DURHAM — Donovan Varner and Conner Vernon will forever be linked.
It's not just because they attended the same Miami high school, or that they both have long hair or that they share similar-sounding names. Rather, they're carving their names in Duke's record book as one of the program's most outstanding wide receiver tandems.
As the Blue Devils prepare to host Saturday's season opener against Richmond, Varner and Vernon prepare for what could possibly be a record-breaking season. They are the primary targets in an offense built for passing, and quarterback Sean Renfree has instructions to find them.
"Our system tends to grow receivers, but they have grown well with it," coach David Cutcliffe said. "It's pretty incredible that both of them have a legitimate shot at breaking the all-time career receptions record at Duke this year."
Clarkston Hines caught 189 passes from 1986 to 1989, setting the record for career receptions and receiving yards (3,318). He is viewed as the program's most accomplished wide receiver.
Both Varner, a senior with 146 receptions for 1,947 yards, and Vernon, a junior with 128 receptions for 1,719 yards, have an opportunity to join that company. They were the second-most prolific duo in school history last season, combining for 133 receptions.
Duke's student newspaper, The Chronicle, labeled the pair the "Killer V's." Yet for all their production, Duke's passing attack has not reaped a flurry of wins. The Blue Devils finished last season 3-9 (1-7 in the ACC), but Varner and Vernon, in their final college season together, believe they can help elevate Duke into a bowl contender.
"We feel we have enough talent to not only compete very well in this league, but we can also compete at a high level," said Vernon, who ranked first in the ACC last year in receptions per game (6.1) and third in average receiving yards (81.1). "Teams can't just circle Duke and chalk it up as an automatic win."
Speed and precision
From a defensive coordinator's perspective, a defense must always account for Varner and Vernon in Duke's four-receiver spread offense.
At 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, Varner - who averaged five catches (fourth-best in ACC) and 61.3 receiving yards a game last season - is primarily a slot receiver whose job is to turn inside and go over the middle. Vernon (6-1, 195 pounds), strikes from the outside, stretching defenses vertically.
But both players line up all over the line of scrimmage and run just about every route.
"You better be ready to find them, because they can hurt you," Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green said. Duke "does a good job of spreading the ball around. Either going vertical or catching the ball quick, they put a lot of pressure on your corners."
Green credits Duke's staff for the tandem's route-running ability. Green said Duke's pair rarely foreshadow their intentions coming out of breaks and maintain balance in their body position.
"They are precise," Green said. "They've got speed, and they're physical. They're tough guys. They make plays. They're the kind of guys you want on your team. The kind of guys you don't want to try and defend."
Last season, Varner pulled in 60 catches for 736 yards and a touchdown. Vernon caught an ACC-best 73 receptions for 946 yards and four scores. They often made defenses pay the price for blitzing.
"You better tackle them, too," Green said. "They're hard to bring down."
Varner is usually the smallest guy on Duke's offense.
Yet he plays fearlessly as if he stood 6-4 and weighed 220 pounds. He's what teammates call a "go-getter," meaning he doesn't let his size become a disadvantage.
If there's a linebacker to block, he powers inside for the assignment. If there's a defensive back crowding the line, he blows by him.
"I feel like I can't be stopped," Varner said. "That's just my mentality."
That's what he told college coaches during his senior season at Gulliver Preparatory School in Miami back when he was recruited as a defensive back. He wanted to play on offense, however, and wasn't hesitant in saying so.
Varner started playing football at age 6, and from his Pop Warner beginnings, he loved terrorizing defenses.
"I just love to have the ball in my hands, because I know I can make plays," said Varner, who has a knack for finding seams.
While he's often double-teamed by the safety and a nickel back, Varner uses his speed and agility to exploit holes in zone coverage.
But it's his zealous work ethic and confidence that teammates recognize more than his speed.
Over time, he's learned consistency and how to recover from dropped passes. After practice, he continues to catch extra balls from Renfree.
"It's like, 'Take a break for a second,' " Renfree said.
But Varner can't, just like he can't stop talking. A notorious trash talker - in the game, on the sideline, at dinner - he's always yapping and keeping it "crunk."
"Every time we're out, people know he was there," Vernon said.
Vernon plays the quiet role, a rarity for a wide receiver.
In fact, at first glance, he doesn't really look like a receiver, certainly not one with guess-wrong-and-you're-done speed and old-reliable hands. He might come off more like a male model, with pulled-back hair nearly to his shoulder and the fashion sense to cock his baseball cap to the side and match his T-shirt with his shoes.
Yet he's the rough-and-tumble receiver coaches have to remind to go down after making the catch.
"He's a baller," Renfree said. "You wouldn't know it, but he can go play ball with anybody. Tell him to go play backyard football, he'd go make plays."
Vernon often is Duke's first option because of the separation he creates between himself and defensive backs.
"He's fearless," passing game coordinator Matt Lubick said. "You throw him any type of ball, and he's going to go get it and take it away from the defense."
While Cutcliffe calls Vernon "the most fearless wide receiver" he's ever coached, he has asked him to make smarter decisions with the ball. Last year, the receiver fumbled occasionally while fighting for extra yards.
"Yeah, every yard matters, but the ball is more important," Vernon said.
Goals to reach
Cutcliffe said the duo could have an impact akin to Joey Kent and Marcus Nash, a tandem he coached at Tennessee. Catching passes from Peyton Manning, they set school records for receptions and receiving yards.
Along with sophomore receiver Brandon Braxton, Varner and Vernon look forward to the challenge.
"I don't know how you can stop both of them," Gulliver Prep coach Earl Smith said.
He coached them both and now marvels at their development, remembering their humble start, Varner working for every inch and Vernon improving with 300 extra catches after practice.
This season Varner and Vernon have embraced the moniker of the "Killer V's."
"It's telling a lot of defensive backs in the conference, it's going to be hard to stop us," Varner said. "Because we're going to work every play. There's a lot of great defensive backs in the conference, I think that gives us the motivation to work harder."
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