DURHAM — Sean Renfree was a perfect 10-for-10 passing in Duke’s scrimmage Tuesday night, but when the Blue Devils’ first-team offense got inside the 5-yard line, the snaps went to Brandon Connette instead, who ran for a pair of touchdowns.
At least this year, Renfree gets to stay in the huddle.
As the latest of Duke coach David Cutcliffe’s quarterback protégés, Renfree enters his senior year one of the ACC’s most accomplished passers – but still about five yards short of the total package.
Two years ago, Cutcliffe would take Renfree out of the game near the goal line to bring in the more mobile Connette into the game. (Connette ran for eight touchdowns.) Last year, with Connette hurt, Anthony Boone often played that role. (Boone ran for four touchdowns.)
This year, with the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Connette playing just about every position on the field, Duke is using Connette and Renfree in the backfield together at the goal line. In Tuesday’s scrimmage, Renfree would line up to take the snap, then go in motion before the ball was snapped directly to Connette.
That forces opponents to prepare for both Renfree’s passing threat and Connette’s running threat, but it also keeps Renfree off the sideline and in the huddle, where a No. 1 QB belongs, at a time when his leadership matters the most.
“Whatever I can do for the team, I want to be out there,” Renfree said. “It does make teams prepare for us differently.”
Cutcliffe rightly mocks the notion that he’s “vulturing” Renfree’s touchdowns, but there is a more serious question to ask: How can a quarterback be the voice of authority in the huddle when he isn’t even on the field for some of the game’s most important plays?
There’s a serious answer to that question: Duke has to do whatever it can to score points, by any means necessary, a commitment Cutcliffe has redoubled this season. He also wanted to save Renfree, who already missed one season with a knee injury, from the pounding that goes on in that part of the field.
“You get in the red zone with our circumstance, against the physicality of certain defenses, it’s hats and numbers and trying to create a way to score touchdowns,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s worked, quite often for us. It has nothing to do with Sean and a decision to, quote, take him out.”
Cutcliffe is right about it working. Connette in particular provides a dangerous running threat at the goal line. Even with Boone filling in, Duke missed him last season.
Nevertheless, it always seemed a little odd, Renfree trotting off the field with the game in the balance. This year, with Connette and Renfree in the game together, Duke may have found a better balance in the huddle.
“It definitely helps with the fluidity of the offense, to keep a consistent person back there,” Duke guard Dave Harding said. “We work with Sean a lot in the offseason and he’s really committed to improving his game and we know that and appreciate that.”
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