Duke spring wrap

May, 8, 2012
5/08/12
10:30
AM ET
2011 overall record: 3-9
2011 conference record: 1-7 (6th, Coastal)
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
WR Conner Vernon, WR Brandon Braxton, RT Perry Simmons, RG Laken Tomlinson, C Brian Moore, QB Sean Renfree, DE Justin Foxx, DT Sydney Sarmiento, DE Kenny Anunike, LB Kelby Brown, LB Austin Gamble, CB Ross Cockrell, S Jordon Byas, S Walt Canty

Key losses
WR Donovan Varner, LT Kyle Hill, NG Charlie Hatcher, CB Johnny Williams, S Matt Daniels, PK Will Snyderwine, P Alex King

2011 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Juwan Thompson* (457 yards)
Passing: Sean Renfree* (2,891 yards)
Receiving: Conner Vernon* (956 yards)
Tackles: Matt Daniels (126)
Sacks: Kenny Anunike* (4)
Interceptions: Matt Daniels (2)

Spring answers

1. Sean Renfree keeps improving: Coach David Cutcliffe has talked about a pro future for Renfree. Getting to pick the brain of Cutcliffe's pupil, Peyton Manning, probably doesn't hurt. Neither does turning in another strong spring, as Renfree returns for his third year as a starter hoping, once again, to help the program take the next step.

2. Offensive line is cohesive: Much of the production from last season's unit is back, and the group will only grow closer with an offseason volunteer trip to Ethiopia, where 11 of Duke's offensive linemen currently are. The unit could help pave the way for a talented incoming running back class, along with returning starter Juwan Thompson.

3. Conner Vernon ready to make plays: Cutcliffe has said it will take playmakers for Duke to take the next step, and he certainly has one in Vernon, who enters 2012 within striking distance of the ACC receiving record. Having an experienced quarterback such as Renfree throwing to him should help him in the pursuit.

Fall questions

1. Will the defense step up? It is Year 2 under coordinator Jim Knowles and his 4-2-5 scheme, and plenty of talent is back. Still, the unit loses safety Matt Daniels and ranked near the bottom of most defensive categories among ACC schools last season.

2. Can the Blue Devils handle this schedule? FIU and Stanford aren't exactly nonconference cupcakes, especially for a school that has traditionally been an ACC bottom-feeder. Time will only tell if those first two games, regardless of outcome, serve the Blue Devils well before jumping into their conference slate.

3. Is this The Year? Duke holds the longest current bowl-less drought, having not played in the postseason since 1994. Three of Duke's nine losses last season came by a combined seven points, perhaps suggesting that the team was closer to breaking through than many would think. There is plenty of returning talent in key spots, but a tough schedule and recent history suggest that it will still take a huge effort for the Blue Devils to extend their season.

Matt Fortuna | email

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