DURHAM — If Duke’s win over North Carolina earlier this season provided the most tangible example of the program’s progress since David Cutcliffe became coach in 2008, the comeback victory also showed how far Sean Renfree has come in his Blue Devils career.
Since Renfree arrived in 2009, he said offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has stressed the importance of quarterbacks maintaining their poise in tense situations. Occasionally overmatched as a sophomore and a junior, Renfree said he didn’t always succeed on that front.
“One player can’t go do it all,” Renfree said this week when asked to reflect on a Duke career that will see him play at Wallace Wade Stadium for the final time Saturday when the Blue Devils (6-5, 3-4) host Miami (6-5, 4-3) at 12:30 p.m. (ACC Network).
“I tried to do that a little earlier in my career and threw a lot of (interceptions) and put us in bad situations by trying to go win the game by myself.”
After Gio Bernard gave the Tar Heels a 30-26 lead in that Oct. 20 game with a dramatic touchdown with 3:12 remaining, Renfree didn’t try to force the ball into risky spots.
Instead, the senior drove his offense down the field in, considering the circumstances, almost a methodical manner. Thirteen plays and 82 yards later, the Blue Devils faced a fourth-and-2 from UNC’s 5.
By now, Renfree’s game-winning touchdown connection with Jamison Crowder is permanently etched into program lore.
“Certainly that’s a situation that says a lot about our team, especially when you look at our offensive unit – we have an older group of guys that have played a lot of games,” Renfree said. “They know what composure is and how to stay composed under tough situations.
“We looked around to each other and just encouraged each other, so it had a lot more to do with how we felt as a unit than just the quarterback or Jamison, who made the catch.”
When Renfree first committed to the Blue Devils as a high school senior in Arizona, he was seen almost as a metaphor for the promise of the Cutcliffe era at Duke. A coach whose reputation was forged in part by his work with Eli and Peyton Manning had helped recruit a touted high school quarterback to play in his system at Duke, of all places.
Renfree redshirted his first season and was the backup behind Thad Lewis his freshman season before taking over as starter for the 2010 season.
Over the past three seasons, Renfree has thrown for more than 300 yards in nine separate games. His career completion percentage of .644 is the best in program history, and Renfree is poised to finish among the top three on the Blue Devils’ career touchdown, completions and passing yards lists.
Moreover, his work off the field and in the classroom has been recognized multiple times over, most recently this week when Pop Warner National Collegiate Football Award, which honors Pop Warner alumni for their work on the field, in the classroom and in the community.
“To have started as many games, to be as effective as he has been, as humble as he has been and accomplish so much for this university – we need to celebrate Sean Renfree,” Cutcliffe said. “I think sometimes he’s been taken for granted. I don’t mean in our midst, but in our league.
“He’s a pretty special guy.”
With almost five years at Duke under his belt, Renfree will graduate in December with a master’s degree in humanities. He’ll spend the spring training for the NFL draft.
Renfree isn’t sure what’s in store if professional football doesn’t pan out. He recently won a postgraduate scholarship for his strong academic credentials, and Renfree has talked at times about pursuing medical school.
If that’s all on the extended horizon, Renfree is excited about something more immediate.
Some time in the next six weeks, Renfree will play in a bowl game for the first time.
“What I’m most pleased with is the number of games we’ve won this year and the way we’ve done it,” Renfree said. “We’ve done it as a team. Obviously, we have a large number of good players on our team this year on offense and defense that we were able to win, like I said, as a team.”