DURHAM — Throughout Sean Renfrees career, Duke has opted to snap the ball to another, more mobile quarterback in the red zone.
Last week against North Carolina, with the game on the line and Duke on the 13-yard line, Renfree stayed put. He took four snaps, and on the final one he found Jamison Crowder his fourth option in between two UNC defenders for the game-winning score with 13 seconds remaining.
Coach David Cutcliffe said he never considered a snap to anyone but Renfree.
No. Lord, no, Ctucliffe said. We would have had a fight right there.
You couldnt be happier for a young man than I was for Sean right there.
Renfrees career hasnt been easy. Duke won three games in each of his first two seasons as the starter. There was a similar late-game moment in 2010, when Duke trailed Boston College 21-16 at home with about four minutes left. Renfree led Duke from its own 37 deep into Boston College territory, but when the Blue Devils faced first-and-goal from the 9 with about a minute remaining, he traded snaps with Brandon Connette. The game ended on back-to-back incompletions from Connette and Renfree.
The fact that Cutcliffe never even thought about swapping quarterbacks last week shows measurable growth. Renfrees teammates have noticed that, too.
Hes more comfortable, more calm in picking out his reads, running back Josh Snead said. Hes got better awareness. I feel like as you grow older you gain more awareness, so the game slows down for you a little bit.
Renfree, more of the strong, silent type, has been intense from the moment he stepped on campus in 2008. Cornerback Tony Foster, Renfrees freshman year roommate, remembers him constantly studying film, regardless of whether it was a win or a loss. Anthony Boone, his backup, joked earlier this season that the other quarterbacks were working on loosening him up.
And Cutcliffe gave his quarterback some advice this summer: Relax.
Hes his own biggest critic, and sometimes I think that can be a mistake at quarterback, Cutcliffe said. It keeps you looking back. He did a good job this summer of looking forward. And thats shown up.
Hes so conscientious. I said this in the summer, trying to be very graceful to him, hes so conscientious because he was worried about making a mistake, he felt like the weight of the program was on his shoulders. It cant be. Other players have to play.
Renfree heeded Cutcliffes advice. His preparation on the field was as intense as ever, but when it was time to relax, he did just that. He went on road trips to the beach, home to Arizona for a weekend and over to Knoxville, Tenn., with his roommate, Jeff Faris, a graduate assistant.
The change in approach has paid dividends. Not only did Renfree lead Duke on one of the most prolific drives in program history, but he has gathered national recognition for his off-the-field work as well, collecting nominations for all three major awards that honor student-athlete achievement. Sure, its nice to be recognized. But as he stood on Dukes practice field, true to form, he talked more about the work that remained.
Im definitely fortunate, but the season is far from over, he said. Theres so many more goals that I want to accomplish.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley