When David Cutcliffe first came to Duke in December 2007, one of his first major moves was securing the commitment of Sean Renfree, a PARADE All-American quarterback from Arizona. The next year, Renfree was joined in Durham by Conner Vernon, a wide receiver out of Miami. Both were sold on the idea of turning around a long-struggling program.
Over the next four years, the two had the sometimes thankless task of leading the Duke offense. Both experienced back-to-back 3-9 seasons in 2009 and 2010 that were marked by games that slipped away late. This year, though, in their final college season, Renfree and Vernon captained one of the most prolific offenses in Duke history, and, more important, led Duke to its first bowl berth since 1994.
The duo has already left their mark in Duke football history. Renfree is one of four Duke quarterbacks to throw for more than 9,000 yards and holds the school record for completion percentage (.643), and Vernon is the most productive receiver in school and ACC history, setting records for career catches (273) and receiving yards (3,630) this season. Both will play their last game in a Duke uniform Thursday against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.
They discussed their journey in a recent interview with The News & Observer.
Q: How is it to still be playing football for Duke at this time of year?
Sean Renfree: Its exciting. Usually at this time Im at home looking for something to do. Im glad to still be on the team and playing and give us an opportunity to go win. Obviously, bowl games are exciting, lots of fun stuff to do, so Im glad to be here.
Conner Vernon: Im in the same boat. Like he said, Id either be at home right now doing nothing or figuring out what Im going to do next in life. So being able to still be here, still able to be a kid and not having to grow up is definitely fun and exciting.
Did it get annoying earlier in the season when people kept asking you about trying to go to a bowl?
Renfree: To me, it was just exciting that people around here were getting excited about football and our potential and thinking that we were getting good enough to go to a bowl. But I mean, obviously, football players are focused one game at a time. To be looking that far ahead is kind of pointless. Overall, it was exciting that people thought we had that potential.
Vernon: We knew what kind of potential we had. I didnt really get involved with what they were saying either. It was always the same thing over and over again. It was more focusing on what we could control. Theyre going to say what they want to say. We were just thinking one game at a time and not looking, going, OK, if we win this game and this game and this game, were good, and then weve got to surprise a team we shouldnt beat. To go to a bowl, you just have to take it one game at a time.
Was there one victory where you got more excited and thought this year really could be different?
Renfree: Besides the Carolina one? To me, it was the Wake (Forest) game. We always played them tough and then freaking found a way to lose at the end of the game. We kept it even there and then found a way late to win. That kind of propelled us and put us at a good position at that point in the season to make a push for a bowl and have a good season.
Vernon: Id probably say the FIU game, the first game. With the way we played, and, at the time, FIU was coming into the season receiving votes in the polls. They were a real good team last year. It came down to the fourth quarter last year against that team, and we knew what kind of challenge that was coming in. After that beating we handed to them, it just showed the potential of that team in all phases of the game. If you really look at it, that score could have been worse than it was. They scored 12 points with six minutes left in the game.
Now that were a few months removed from it, the Carolina win is almost bigger than it was at the time, because that was the sixth and last win. What stands out from that game?
Renfree: Obviously that last play when we scored, but I think we came out and played well as a unit. Its hard to think of one play that really stands out to me, but we did well on third down, throwing and catching it, we ran the ball effectively. That last drive kind of just caps it all.
Vernon: Obviously that last drive speaks for itself. Just overall, even in that game, too, you can say shoulda, coulda, woulda all day long, but if you think about it, we dominated that game all game long. We were in the red zone four times (technically one drive ended on the 25) and had to kick four field goals. If we score two out of those four times, Carolina isnt even in the game. And if we score all four of those times, its a blowout. And then how we won in the fashion we won, it was just great.
Now that you guys are going to a bowl, do you think you would have felt unfulfilled leaving Duke without that experience?
Renfree: In my opinion, yeah. Everybody wants to play in a bowl and leave on a high note and play at a high level.
Vernon: Thats why you play college football. Not only to go to a bowl game, but to compete for championships. Not going to a bowl would have been disappointing. I wouldnt have dwelled on it. I would have been upset, but what Sean and I accomplished at Duke was, I think, a lot more than people expected. I could have left knowing that we made this program, this senior class made this program, better than when we started. I would have left happy about that. But knowing that we are the first senior class to go to a bowl game since 1994 and have the opportunity to be the first class to win one since 1961, that could have a lot more impact.
You mentioned that Duke hasnt won a bowl game since 1961, against Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl. How important is it to end that streak?
Renfree: Pretty big. (laughs). Its pretty prolific, considering how long its been.
Vernon: Its something that hadnt been done in a long time, 50-plus years. To leave that mark, to be that senior class, youre making history. Thats definitely a goal we have during this whole bowl preparation, we definitely keep that in the back of our head. To make a memory like that would obviously be something youre not going to forget.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley