Entering fifth season at Duke, Cutcliffe says bowl is achievable

lkeeley@newsobserver.comAugust 5, 2012 

Duke Boston College Football

Sean Renfree (19) and Duke are looking for a victory against Miami.____looks for a receiver during the first half of an NCAA football game against Boston College at Alumni Stadium on the Boston College campus in Boston, Saturday afternoon, Sept. 17, 2011. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)


The David Cutcliffe era at Duke will enter its fifth year Monday, when preseason practice begins. And although Cutcliffe has more wins (15) in four years than his two predecessors, Carl Franks and Ted Roof, amassed in nine (13), the Blue Devils are coming off back-to-back 3-9 seasons and are still in search of their first bowl berth since 1994. (Only Kent State has a longer bowl drought streak.)

Cutcliffe feels this year’s team features the most talent and experience since he arrived at Duke and said during July’s ACC media days that the Blue Devils “absolutely” have what it takes to secure a bowl berth.

The Blue Devils will have to wait until their Sept. 1 opener against Florida International to start trying to amass the necessary six wins. In the meantime, there are three weeks of practice, during which the Blue Devils will try to find answers for these five questions:

1 . Can Sean Renfree continue to improve?

Renfree, a fifth-year senior, was much more effective as a junior, trimming six interceptions off his sophomore year total and throwing multiple interceptions only in the 14-10 loss to Virginia Tech. In order for Duke to improve, though, Renfree will need to take another large step forward in his development, cutting down even further on the turnovers. He threw interceptions in each of Duke’s last seven losses last year).

Cutcliffe, who knows a fair amount about quarterbacks (he advised Peyton Manning, whom he coached at Tennessee, during Manning’s offseason rehab), has said that Renfree has NFL potential.

“He’s got to handle pressure,” Cutcliffe told ESPN in May. “He’s got to do the things that at times have been a problem for us. Is he a pro prospect? Definitely. I think he will get drafted. To what level depends upon this year.”

2. Other than Connor Vernon, to whom will Sean Renfree throw?

Vernon, who is set to become the ACC’s all-time leading receiver this year, is the clear No. 1 of the group. After that, though, there are a lot of question marks.

Gone is Donovan Varner, Duke’s all-time receptions leader. Brandon Braxton, the second-leading returner behind Vernon, has been moved to safety, and Blair Holliday, a projected starter, suffered critical head injuries in a personal watercraft accident July 4. That leaves sophomore Jamison Crowder (14 receptions, 163 yards) and redshirt freshman Nick Hill as second and third options for now. Only one other receiver listed on the preseason depth chart—redshirt junior Corey Gattis—caught a pass last season, and his lone reception went for minus-three yards.

Duke has two true freshmen with decent size – Max McCaffrey (6-foot-2) and Anthony Nash (6-foot-5) – who will be in the mix, along with Jack Wise and Brandon Watkins.

3. Is Kenny Anunike finally healthy, and can he stay healthy?

When Anunike, who lines up at right defensive end, went down with a season-ending knee injury after four games last year, he was leading the ACC in sacks with four. And no other Duke player recorded more than two.

Anunike did receive a medical hardship waiver, which granted him a sixth year of eligibility. (He missed his true freshman season in 2008 because of another knee injury.) But Anunike hasn’t participated in contact drills since that Sept. 24 game against Tulane, as he missed all of the spring while he recovered. If he can stay healthy, he can be a game-changer. And that’s a big “if.”

4. Can the run defense be better?

No position has been weaker than the defensive line during Cutcliffe’s tenure. Last year, Duke gave up an average of 181 yards per game, second-worst in the conference. Anunike’s presence would be a big boost to the unit, as would that of Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, who also sat out the spring with an injury. The group has added some much-needed weight. Sidney Sarmiento, the returning starter at defensive tackle, has put on 15 pounds since last season, and Dezmond Johnson, in the mix at defensive end, added 20 pounds.

The back seven is solid (though there is no replacing the graduated Matt Daniels, who is in camp with the St. Louis Rams), but if they are constantly chasing down running backs in the secondary, opponents will have a field day when they do drop back to throw.

5. Can Duke make it through the preseason with no injuries?

The Blue Devils have lost four projected starters since February (Holliday, linebacker Kelby Brown, tight end Braxton Deaver and defensive tackle Jamal Bruce). The offensive line and secondary have been especially beset with injuries. The thinnest position right now? Wide receiver. Any additional injuries there could be catastrophic to hopes of measurable team improvement.

Keeley 919-829-4556

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