Duke Beat: Excitement, but Questions Remain

Duke Football Opens Practice with Lots of Excitement but Many Questions Loom

The Blue Devils opened their camp for the 2012 college football season on Monday, and there is quietly a lot of excitement and expectations.

However, there are almost as many question marks about this team, and it may be a while before any of us have any answers. Certainly the first game on September 1 is the earliest we will know some of the answers.

Who catches the passes?

The obvious answer to this question is Conner Vernon, but as good as Vernon is he can’t be the only player quarterback Sean Renfree throws to this season.

The devastating injury to projected starter Blair Holliday leaves a lot of question marks. Gone is record-setting receiver Donovan Varner, who graduated. Tyrell Watkins was dismissed from the team and Brandon Braxton was moved to safety.

With Holliday out, Watkins out and only Vernon left, it will be up to some inexperienced guys and possibly a freshman to step up. Expect to see a rotating platoon of receivers including return specialist Jaimson Crowder, Nick Hill, Brandon Watkins, and Corey Gattis. Also look for big freshman Anthony Nash to try and get on the field and make an impact, and at 6-foot-5 he certainly is a big target for Renfree.

Things are no better at tight end, where the projected starter, Braxton Deaver, is out for the season with an injury. So you have a lot of inexperience there as well.

David Reeves and Issac Blakeney got the bulk of the snaps in spring practice with Jack Ferrell, Deaver’s projected backup, missing due to injury. Duke is even flirting with the idea of moving backup quarterback Brandon Connette to tight end at times.

With Duke being primarily a pass-oriented team, it will be key for some of these inexperienced receiving targets to contribute, but this is a question that will take some time to be answered.

Sean Renfree

Can Sean Renfree finally deliver?

Sean Renfree came into Duke a fairly highly regarded quarterback. He initially committed to Georgia Tech under then-coach Chan Gailey, but when Gailey got his walking papers, Renfree chose Duke and new coach David Cutcliffe, a known quarterback guru who had coached the Manning brothers.

Renfree’s career, though, has been a mixed bag.

He has thrown for more than 6,000 yards in his three years at quarterback and 31 touchdowns but also has thrown 30 interceptions and only has six wins to his name as a two-year starter.

Many fans are still on the fence with Renfree and after some solid play by Anthony Boone at the end of last season, some were wondering if there would be an open competition in the spring for the starting spot.

But Cutcliffe has stuck with Renfree as his starter, though once Duke is in third and short and in the redzone, things seem to change. Expect Renfree to still get the bulk of the snaps, and the fate of Duke’s season, at least on the offensive side of the ball, falls on his shoulders.

Will injuries ruin the season?

Duke has already suffered a slew of injuries, and many of them are season ending. They have lost a starting wide receiver, starting linebacker, starting nose guard, and starting tight end for the year.

They are still banged up at the defensive end position, and the season hasn’t even started. Fortunately for Duke there is much more depth than they have had in the past. However, any more significant injuries, especially at critical positions like quarterback or receiver, will likely derail the season.

Can the kicking game come through?

If you watched any Duke football last season or were a fan of the Blue Devils, you had to make jokes about the kicking game to prevent yourself from crying.

Will Snyderwine was named to the preseason Lou Groza watch list, but was anything but a Lou Groza candidate. He suffered an injury early that nagged him all season, and by the season’s end his confidence was shot and it showed.

This season Duke has more options, such as redshirt freshman Will Monday, who is expected to handle the punting duties but who is an equally capable place kicker. They also have incoming freshman Ross Martin, who was highly touted as a place kicker.

That aspect of the game will be critical, especially in close games. Down the stretch last season in close games Duke fans and even the coaching staff didn’t seem to have much confidence in the kicking game, and that proved to be costly in several situations. The hope is that won’t be the case this season.

Will the defense be able to slow anyone down?

Duke ranked pretty much dead last in the ACC last year in most defensive categories and didn’t fare much better in the national picture.

Still the defense was better and should be improved this year in its second year in defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ 4-2-5 scheme. If they can get some of the better players like Kenny Anunike and Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo back at 100 percent from last season’s injuries, that can only help.

The secondary lost its best player in Matt Daniels to graduation but it should be one of the most experienced and skilled groups for Duke’s defense. If the Blue Devils can shut down opposing offenses’ passing games then it will have to slow down the run, something it hasn’t done in pretty much forever.

Will Duke actually make a bowl game?

ESPN and Sports Illustrated are just two major sports news organizations that have decided they feel this is the year that Duke will finally reach a bowl. Whether those predictions are realistic predictions or attempts to say something outlandish just to look smart should it happen, remain to be seen.

The facts are Duke hasn’t played in a bowl game since the 1994 season. They haven’t posted a winning record since that same season. The schedule that is in front of them is daunting: 10 of their 12 games are against bowl eligible teams from last season.

They play the meat of the ACC in Clemson, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Miami; add in Stanford in non conference, and there is not a lot of room for the required six wins it would take.

David Cutcliffe has said this is his biggest, fastest, and best team since coming to Durham, but it is also one of, it not the most, difficult schedules. This could indeed be a much better Duke team, but until they actually beat a team they aren’t supposed to beat, it could just end up being another season where the Blue Devils fall short.

— Mike Kline

Mike Kline is the operator of DukeSportsBlog.com, a site dedicated to coverage and analysis of Duke Football and Basketball from a fan’s perspective. He is also a regular contributor for DukeReport.com. Mike does a monthly podcast with Jim Oliver of Duke Report focusing on Duke Basketball and occasionally football. Mike is a long time Duke football and basketball fan. A former journalist, Mike is now a mild mannered middle school teacher by day and blogger by night. Follow Mike on Twitter at @DukeBlogMKline

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