NCF Nation: Donovan Varner
Here are the highlights of our conversation:
What’s different about Duke football this year? What can Duke fans be encouraged about?
Conner Vernon: Definitely just how young of a team we were last year, and how a lot of them have really grown up a lot and shown flashes of greatness early. That’s something Coach Cut [David Cutcliffe] has preached a lot about this offseason, about being great, and that good isn’t good enough anymore. A lot of guys have stepped up big, and a lot of young guys have stepped up big. My impression is that that’s created a lot of competition with the older guys and we’re looking forward to starting [today].
CV: That’s something we’re going to figure out and we’ll find that out as a team. The competition level is going to keep going up at practice, which is going to push more guys. That’s what we need. We have a great recruiting class coming in and last year’s class, a lot of those guys have stepped up and it’s going to be fun. That’s what I think he’s trying to get at, letting guys know we have a lot of guys coming in who are great and are going to push us to the limit and it’s going to be good for all of us.
Just from a personal standpoint, how badly do you want to see all of this hard work finally translate into a bowl game this year?
CV: Oh, more than anything I’ve ever wanted. Not only do the players who have been here for the last four or five years, coaches, staff, Duke University itself, the fans and alums, it’s time to put Duke back on the map, get to that bowl and get over the hump. This whole university and the people around it definitely deserve it.
Because you guys have been so close under Cutcliffe, but it hasn’t happened, why is everyone still believing and buying in?
CV: Because it shows. It shows out there. I’m sure you can ask any team in the ACC that it’s shown and it’s something that they can’t take Duke for granted anymore. Even though the win-loss column may not show it, you can tell teams are respecting Duke a lot more. It’s only going to get better.
I look at what you guys have coming back on offense and it seems pretty good with Sean Renfree being in his third season as a starter. What do you think you guys are capable of this year offensively?
CV: The sky is the limit for us. We have some set offensive goals and we’re hoping to achieve them, but from a passing standpoint and running standpoint, we look very good.
Without [Donovan] Varner and [Cooper] Helfet it seems like you’re the main man out there. How do you feel your role will change out there, not that you haven’t been a productive part of Duke’s offense in recent years?
CV: I think I’m going to have to take more of a leadership role. Cooper and Donovan were leaders on the offense, along with Sean. Just them being seniors as a group and gone, it’s kind of like it’s my turn now. I would say just trying to take more of that role and it’s definitely going to be my biggest challenge this offseason.
You’re 34 catches away from setting a league record, and 842 yards away from another league record. How much do you think about those things and care about them, and are they goals of yours for the season?
CV: They’re definitely subplots of this trip, my four years here. But definitely my first and foremost goal is putting Duke football back on the map and getting to that bowl game and having more wins than losses this year. If the record comes, great, but the only record I’m really worried about is the one for Duke’s team at the end of the year. I’ll do everything in my power to make that happen, and I’m sure if we’re in a bowl game this year those records will be right there behind it. I’m looking forward to the challenge, but Duke comes first before the individual records.
Duke relies on its passing game, and quarterback Sean Renfree's 64-yard touchdown pass to Donovan Varner in the second quarter is exactly the kind of play Virginia's defense can't allow. Both teams have struggled on third downs, but two factors could be the difference in the second half: Turnovers and Virginia's ability to run the ball. Perry Jones is averaging 5.9 yards per carry, and he's also got three catches for 30 yards. Virginia has already lost a fumble, but neither quarterback has thrown an interception. Yet.
If Virginia is going to snap this three-game losing streak to the Blue Devils, it's going to need to counter Duke's passing game in the second half, win the turnover battle, and continue to run the ball well.
1. Virginia Tech’s defensive changes. Coordinator Bud Foster has revamped his starting lineup in preparation for Georgia Tech’s spread option offense. Jack Tyler will get his first start of the season at middle linebacker, and defensive end J.R. Collins will move to defensive tackle. Tyrel Wilson will take Collins’s spot at defensive end, and for the second straight year, cornerback Kyle Fuller will play linebacker. There are a lot of redshirt sophomores in the lineup who will get their first look at the Jackets’ unique offense. How they handle that -- some in new positions -- will be critical.
3. The ACC standings. This is a critical week for the conference race. Clemson can clinch the Atlantic Division with a win over Wake Forest, Virginia Tech can eliminate Georgia Tech and Miami with a win in Atlanta, and Georgia Tech can move into a tie for first place with Virginia with a win.
4. Clemson running back Andre Ellington: He missed the Georgia Tech game with an ankle injury, and Clemson in turn missed him. Ellington is not only the team’s top rusher, but his ability to block and hang onto the ball should be a noticeable upgrade to Clemson’s offense against Wake Forest.
5. Standout receivers in Death Valley. The ACC’s top two receivers in receptions/per game will highlight Saturday’s matchup. Wake Forest junior wide receiver Chris Givens is 68 receiving yards away from tying Ricky Proehl’s single-season record of 1,053 which he set during the 1989 season. Clemson’s Sammy Watkins is No. 2 in the ACC at 108 receiving yards per game, while Givens leads with 109.4.
6. Miami running back Lamar Miller against the nation’s No. 3 rushing defense. Florida State is holding opponents to just 78.89 rushing yards per game, but Miller is coming off a 147-yard performance against Duke and became the program’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2002.
7. Florida State’s receivers against Miami’s secondary. A total of 10 Seminoles with at least five receptions are averaging more than 10.5 yards per catch. No team in the nation has more receivers averaging 10.5 yards per reception with a minimum of five catches. Miami’s defense can’t key in on one player, and the Canes rank No. 95 in pass efficiency defense.
8. Duke’s passing game against Virginia’s defense. The Hoos are No. 20 in the country in pass efficiency defense, and Duke has the No. 3 passing offense in the ACC. Virginia safety Rodney McLeod had three interceptions last weekend against Maryland, but Duke receivers Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner are two of the best in the league.
9. NC State receiver T.J. Graham. He needs 55 yards to break the ACC career kickoff return mark. Earlier this season, Graham became the first Wolfpack receiver with three consecutive games with more than 100 yards since Jerricho Cotchery had five straight at the end of 2003.
10. Maryland’s red zone defense. Over the past four games, Notre Dame has converted 17 red zone trips into 15 touchdowns. That is the highest touchdown percentage on red zone visits for the Irish over any four-game stretch since 2000. As much as Maryland’s defense has struggled this year, the Terps have fared well in the red zone, and are tied for No. 20 in the country in red zone efficiency defense.
1. Turnovers at Miami. Miami’s past two opponents have both turned the ball over on their first touch. North Carolina fumbled a kickoff, and Georgia Tech started with an interception. UVa had four turnovers last weekend in the loss to NC State and is No. 107 in the country with 18 turnovers lost this season.
3. BC’s bowl streak. The Eagles have already lost six games this season; a loss to Maryland would make them ineligible to compete in a bowl game for the first time since 1998. BC’s active streak of 12 consecutive bowl games is tied with Oklahoma as the seventh longest in college football and is the longest in school history, and its streak of non-losing seasons is the longest in the modern era of BC football.
4. Maryland’s quarterbacks. Coach Randy Edsall said his starter will be a game-time decision, as both Danny O'Brien and C.J. Brown have been competing for the starting job this week. O’Brien played well at Florida State when he relieved the injured Brown, but Brown replaced O’Brien in the starting lineup for the Clemson game two weeks ago.
5. Clemson’s record books. With an average game on Saturday, Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins could establish four freshman records, three at the ACC level and one school record. Watkins needs just five receptions, 35 receiving yards and one touchdown reception to become the ACC freshman record holder in all three areas. He also has 1,391 all-purpose yards and needs just 25 to break C.J. Spiller’s Clemson freshman all-purpose yards record for a season.
6. Long scoring drives in Atlanta. Clemson’s No. 76-ranked rushing defense could be conducive to Georgia Tech hanging on to the ball for some pretty long drives on Saturday. Over the past two weeks, Georgia Tech has produced touchdown drives consisting of 20 plays (last week at Miami) and 19 plays (at Virginia). For the season, the Yellow Jackets have five touchdown drives of 90 yards or longer and four touchdown drives that lasted at least 9 minutes, 15 seconds.
7. NC State CB David Amerson vs. FSU QB EJ Manuel. Florida State is ranked No. 115 in the nation in turnover margin, and NC State is ranked No. 7. Much of the Wolfpack’s success is a credit to Amerson, who leads the nation with eight interceptions. FSU is tied for No. 111 in the country in interceptions with 11.
8. UNC’s secondary against Wake Forest WR Chris Givens. One of the Tar Heels’ weaknesses this season has been their pass defense, which ranks No. 101 in the country and is allowing 263.38 yards per game. Givens is fourth in the FBS in receiving yards per game (126.57) and tied for fifth with eight TDs.
9. Tar Heels turnovers. North Carolina had six turnovers last weekend in the loss to Clemson, and ball security has obviously been stressed at practice this week. Did it work? Wake Forest is ranked No. 21 in the country in turnover margin. UNC is No. 103.
10. Hokies' D vs. the ‘Killer V's.’ The best thing Duke has had going for it is its passing game, thanks to the duo of Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner. They have combined for 334 receptions as teammates, the third-highest total by a duo in ACC history. Virginia Tech’s defense has been one of the best in the country, but the Hokies continue to rely on youth and inexperience because of injuries.
2. FSU’s running game and offensive line. Florida State won its first two games convincingly, but if there were any areas that showed some need for improvement, it was up front and in the running game. The offensive line needs to do a better job of sustaining its blocks, and the running backs need to work harder to create their own yards.
3. Miami quarterback Jacory Harris. All eyes will be on Harris as he makes his first start since a forgettable performance in the Sun Bowl last year. Harris threw four interceptions against Ohio State last year, but first-year coach Al Golden is confident enough in him to name him the starter ahead of Stephen Morris.
4. Turnovers in Chapel Hill. UNC turned the ball over five times last week, and Virginia had five turnovers – all interceptions – the last time these two teams met. UNC’s secondary is still looking for its first interception of the season, and UVA quarterback Michael Rocco threw one in last year’s meeting.
5. Virginia Tech’s punters. There’s a competition still going on. Scott Demler won the starting job this summer, but has punted 10 times for an average of 35.1 yards, with a long of 44. Danny Coale is still an option, and coach Frank Beamer said they could give true freshman Michael Branthover a look.
6. NC State’s defense. South Alabama is in a transitional phase to FCS status, and will become full members in 2013. You would think that even with a few injuries, the Wolfpack could show some improvement. NC State has allowed an average of 422 yards of total offense, and 27. 5 points per game.
7. Maryland’s pass defense. West Virginia has yet to really find a replacement for Noel Devine and the running game has struggled, leaving too much depending on the arm of Geno Smith. Fortunately for West Virginia, he’s good enough to get it done. Smith has completed over 66 percent of his passes and will challenge Maryland’s secondary.
8. Defense in Death Valley. There hasn’t been much of it for either Clemson or Auburn, so somebody will have to show improvement. Clemson ranks No. 90 in the nation in total defense, and Auburn is 111th. Both teams are allowing over 200 yards rushing per game.
9. Clemson’s offensive line: The Tigers allowed four sacks against Wofford, and failed to pick up a fourth-and-1. The pass protection has to improve, and earlier this week, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said left guard David Smith struggled, and fans could see more of Mason Cloy and Brandon Thomas at the guard positions.
10. BC’s secondary vs. the ‘Killer V’s’: The Eagles’ depleted secondary could have its work cut out for it against Donovan Varner and Conner Vernon. BC learned this week that cornerback C.J. Jones will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. Jones is the third player in what was projected to be BC’s starting secondary who won’t be in the lineup for various reasons.
1. Virginia Tech: With Jarrett Boykin and Coale returning, the Hokies’ passing game has a chance to flourish this fall. Boykin, Coale and Dyrell Roberts were the team’s top three receivers last year for the second straight season, combining for 113 catches, 1,882 yards and 11 touchdowns. Add to that Marcus Davis, D.J. Coles, E.L. Smiling -- it’s a bottomless cup of depth and talent.
2. Duke: Conner Vernon has 128 catches in his first two collegiate seasons and Donovan Varner ranked fourth in the ACC in pass receptions (60) and seventh in yardage (736). Their combined 274 receptions are the most of any active duo in the ACC. They are the top two returning leaders in catches per game, and Vernon is the ACC’s returning leader in receiving yards per game. The Blue Devils also have sophomore Brandon Braxton (14 catches), who could make a name for himself as the third option this year.
3. Florida State: Every Seminole who caught a pass last season returns. Bert Reed, Taiwan Easterling and Rodney Smith return with a combined 50 career starts. Reed ranks second among all returning ACC receivers with 141 career receptions. Willie Haulstead had 38 catches last season, Smith had 31, and there’s plenty of rising talent like Christian Green.
4. North Carolina: Like Florida State, North Carolina returns all of its receivers, including two who redshirted last season. Dwight Jones, who had 946 yards and 62 receptions, leads the group, but Erik Highsmith (25 catches, 348 yards and three touchdowns) must be accounted for as well. Defenses also can’t forget about Jheranie Boyd, who is a deep threat.
5. Miami: The Canes will miss the production of Leonard Hankerson, but they don’t have to if one or two of the other players show more consistency. Travis Benjamin has big-play capabilities and averaged 17.3 yards on his 43 catches last season. There is no shortage of other options with LaRon Byrd, Aldarius Johnson, Tommy Streeter, Allen Hurns and Kendal Thompkins. Which one will rise to the occasion?
6. Clemson: It was the DeAndre Hopkins show last season, and he should again highlight the Tigers’ passing game. As a true freshman, Hopkins had 52 catches, the most by a first-year player in school history. Jaron Brown returns with 10 career starts, and the Tigers also have Marquan Jones (21 catches) and Bryce McNeal (19).
7. Maryland: The Terps have to replace their top two receivers from a year ago in Torrey Smith and Adrian Cannon, and no clear frontrunners emerged this spring. Quintin McCree leads all returners with 16 catches, followed by Kevin Dorsey (15), Ronnie Tyler (13), Kerry Boykins (10), and Tony Logan.
8. Boston College: True freshman Bobby Swigert led the Eagles last year with 39 catches and four touchdowns in five starts. The Eagles are hoping to get a significant boost from the return of Colin Larmond Jr., who missed all of last season with a knee injury, but the young group should be better regardless because of the experience gained last season.
9. Virginia: The Cavaliers will miss Dontrelle Inman, who averaged 16 yards per catch on 51 receptions, but returning starter Kris Burd finished fifth in the ACC last season in pass receptions (58). The group will also get a boost from the return of Tim Smith, who missed almost all of last season with an injury, and Matt Snyder (30 catches) and Ray Keys (three catches).
10. NC State: NC State has to replace its top two receivers from a year ago, and T.J. Graham is the team’s leading returning receiver with 25 catches. Steven Howard, Jay Smith and Quintin Payton all have experience, and redshirt freshman Bryan Underwood, Tobias Palmer and Everett Proctor have also been competing for playing time.
11. Wake Forest: Chris Givens (35 catches, 13.7 average), Michael Campanaro (10 catches) and Danny Dembry are the lead candidates to start, but the Deacs are missing a spark like Kenny Moore (2007) and D.J. Boldin (2008) provided. There were too many dropped passes in the spring game, so this group has some work to do in summer camp.
12. Georgia Tech: Yes, Georgia Tech throws the ball, just not often enough or efficiently enough to be anywhere but last place on this list. Stephen Hill led the Jackets last year with 15 catches for 291 yards and three touchdowns. He should show progress this fall now that there’s no pressure on him to be the next Demaryius Thomas. If he doesn’t show more consistency, the Jackets could turn to Daniel McKayhan, Tyler Melton or Jeremy Moore.
Bowl eligibility: Both Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech can become bowl eligible this weekend if they win. So far, Florida State is the only ACC team to have reached the six-win mark. NC State is also one win away, but the Pack have a bye week.
Turnovers in Miami. They’ve been the Hurricanes’ downfall in three straight losses to UNC, as Miami has 10 turnovers to UNC’s one during that span. But UNC isn’t the only team that can force mistakes. If UNC quarterback T.J. Yates is finally going to slip up again, there’s a good chance it happens on Saturday against a defensive line that helped Miami lead the nation in tackles for loss and rank fourth in the country in sacks.
The red zone in Miami. North Carolina leads the ACC in red zone offense having converted on 22 of 24 trips inside the 20-yard line. The Tar Heels have scored 16 touchdowns and made 6-of-7 field goal attempts. UNC is the only team in the ACC that hasn’t turned it over in the red zone this season. Miami hasn’t been as fortunate. The Canes have lost possession six times inside the 20, including three turnovers. Miami has scored 15 touchdowns in 26 trips in the red zone, but UNC and Miami have the No. 2 and No. 3 red zone defenses in the ACC, respectively.
BC running back Montel Harris. He needs just 65 more yards to reach 3,000 in his career and only three BC players before him have ever reached that number. Derrick Knight, BC’s all-time leading rusher, was the last to do it in 2003. Harris will be the first player in school history to reach it as a junior. The milestone could be an early birthday gift, as he turns 21 on Oct. 30, the day the Eagles host Clemson at Alumni Stadium. He ran for 142 yards in last year’s 19-17 win over the Terps, and he ran for 191 yards in the loss at Florida State last weekend while averaging 7.3 yards per carry. FSU was able to keep him out of the end zone, though, and the Terps will be challenged to do the same.
Georgia Tech quarterback Joshua Nesbitt. He needs 44 more rushing yards to break the ACC career record of rushing yards by a quarterback. After rushing for 106 yards against Middle Tennessee, Nesbitt has 2,718 yards. The record is held by former Clemson standout Woodrow Dantzler (2,761, 1998-2001). How long can the Tigers’ D protect their record books?
Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers. Georgia Tech’s offensive line will have its hands full with this guy. He’s leading the nation in sacks and tackles for loss.
Quarterbacks in the Commonwealth. Duke quarterback Sean Renfree can’t afford five interceptions against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, and Virginia quarterback Marc Verica is looking to shake off the three picks he threw last week against UNC and rebound against Eastern Michigan. And Tyrod Taylor? Well, he can move into fourth place in career passing yards at Virginia Tech with 144 more yards.
Virginia Tech’s secondary against Duke’s receivers. The Hokies’ pass defense hasn’t exactly been stellar this year, and it’s no secret that Duke is going to throw the ball. The Blue Devils have three of the ACC’s top receivers in Conner Vernon, Donovan Varner and Austin Kelly. The Hokies’ Jayron Hosley leads the ACC with four interceptions.
Virginia’s running game. The Cavaliers’ rushing defense hasn’t been very good, but Eastern Michigan’s is worse. Expect Keith Payne and Perry Jones to boost their stats. Eastern Michigan is allowing 228 rushing yards per game.
Clemson safety DeAndre McDaniel got the most votes, being named on 48 of the 52 ballots, while North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn (47 votes) and Virginia Tech tailback Ryan Williams (45) were the next highest. Virginia and Wake Forest were the only two schools not represented here.
WR Donovan Varner, Duke
WR Torrey Smith, Maryland
TE George Bryan, NC State
T Anthony Castonzo, Boston College
T Chris Hairston, Clemson
G Rodney Hudson, Florida State
G Thomas Claiborne, Boston College
C Sean Bedford, Georgia Tech
QB Christian Ponder, Florida State
RB Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech
RB Montel Harris, Boston College
DE Robert Quinn, North Carolina
DE Allen Bailey, Miami
DT Marvin Austin, North Carolina
DT Jarvis Jenkins, Clemson
LB Alex Wujciak, Maryland
LB Quan Sturdivant, North Carolina
LB Luke Kuechly, Boston College
CB Kendric Burney, North Carolina
CB Brandon Harris, Miami
S DeAndre McDaniel, Clemson
S Deunta Williams, North Carolina
PK Matt Bosher, Miami
P Matt Bosher, Miami
SP Torrey Smith, Maryland
QB -- Christian Ponder, Florida State
RB -- Jonathan Dwyer, Georgia Tech
RB -- Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech
WR -- Demaryius Thomas, Georgia Tech
WR -- Donovan Varner, Duke
TE -- George Bryan, NC State
TE -- Michael Palmer, Clemson
OL -- Jason Fox, Miami
OL -- Anthony Castonzo, Boston College
OL -- Rodney Hudson, Florida State
OL – Sergio Render, Virginia Tech
OL -- Cord Howard, Georgia Tech
K -- Matt Bosher, Miami
Spc -- C.J. Spiller, Clemson
DL -- Derrick Morgan, Georgia Tech
DL -- Robert Quinn, North Carolina
DL -- Nate Collins, Virginia
DL -- Ricky Sapp, Clemson
LB -- Cody Grimm, Virginia Tech
LB -- Luke Kuechly, Boston College
LB -- Quan Sturdivant, North Carolina
LB -- Alex Wujciak, Maryland
CB -- Kendric Burney, North Carolina
CB -- Brandon Harris, Miami
S -- DeAndre McDaniel, Clemson
S -- Deunta Williams, North Carolina
P -- Brent Bowden, Virginia Tech
There are plenty of things worth keeping an eye on this week in the ACC. Here are a few of them:
1. Injured quarterbacks. Wake Forest’s Riley Skinner is listed as day-to-day for the Georgia Tech game with a mild concussion, and FSU’s Christian Ponder is expected to play through the pain of bruised ribs at Clemson. Whether or not Ponder’s pain will be noticeable will have an effect on the outcome of the game, and Wake’s chances of beating Georgia Tech increase significantly if Skinner is in the game. Their health, though, is the first priority, and right now neither is 100 percent.
2. Teams of destiny. Georgia Tech, Duke and Clemson each control their own fate if they win out, and while Georgia Tech is favored heavily to beat Wake Forest, the other two games are less convincing. If Duke pulls off the win at rival UNC, it sets up a showdown next week against the Yellow Jackets in the Coastal Division. And right now, the Atlantic Division is the Tigers’ to lose, but FSU has momentum -- and Ponder -- on its side. If there’s going to be a shakeup again in the conference standings, it starts this week in Death Valley and Chapel Hill.
3. Final bowl chances. For NC State and Maryland, who happen to be playing each other on Saturday in Raleigh, this is it. Both of them have to win out in order to become bowl eligible, but somebody’s gotta lose. The Terps (2-6) need four more wins, as does the Pack (3-5), which needs seven wins for bowl eligibility because it scheduled two FCS schools. Whoever comes out on top keeps their bowl chances alive for at least one more week. Right now, they’re on life support.
4. Clemson safety DeAndre McDaniel. He is tied for the national lead in interceptions with seven in eight games. He also leads Clemson in tackles and is trying to become the first Tiger to lead the team in both categories in the same year since 1982 when College Football Hall of Famer Terry Kinard accomplished the feat. McDaniel will be a great matchup for Ponder, who averages an ACC-best 306.6 passing yards per game.
5. Duke’s Killer V’s. Sophomore Donovan Varner and freshman Conner Vernon, former high school teammates at Gulliver prep in Miami, have been instrumental in Duke’s three-game winning streak. Over the past three games, Varner has caught 22 passes for 387 yards and one touchdown while Vernon has 22 receptions for 291 yards and two scores. On the season, Varner has a team-best 42 receptions for 660 yards and five touchdowns while Vernon has set a new Duke freshman record with 38 receptions for 562 yards and three touchdowns.
6. Virginia Tech’s time of possession. Part of the Hokies’ problem over the past two losses was that they couldn’t sustain drives and their defense was on the field for too long. In the past two games, opponents have run 141 plays to the Hokies’ 101 while controlling the clock for 74:36 to the Hokies’ 45:24, a difference of 29:12. Can Virginia Tech stop that trend against East Carolina?
7. Virginia’s pass defense vs. Jacory Harris. The Cavaliers’ defense hasn’t been their problem this year. They’ve allowed just four passing touchdowns all season, including one to Duke last week, and the Blue Devils entered the game with 18. Only Air Force, Penn State and Nebraska have allowed fewer (three). Miami is averaging two touchdown passes per game and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple has kept things entertaining with throwing downfield whenever the mood strikes him.
8. Third downs in Atlanta. Both Georgia Tech and Wake Forest are two of the ACC’s best teams when it comes to converting third downs. The Jackets lead the ACC with 54.2 percent and the Deacs are third with 45.3 percent. It’s no coincidence then, that Georgia Tech and Wake Forest rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the conference in time of possession. Both defenses have struggled this year, so the one that’s on the field the longest will have the uphill battle.
9. Records in Death Valley. C.J. Spiller needs one reception to become Clemson’s career leader in receptions by a running back, and he needs one kickoff return for a touchdown to set an all-time NCAA record. Kyle Parker needs one touchdown pass to break Charlie Whitehurst’s record for touchdown passes by a Clemson freshman in a season. He also needs just 132 yards passing to break Whitehurst’s freshman passing yardage record. He can also break the school record for starting wins by a freshman quarterback.
10. Ryan Williams’ rebound. Williams was so devastated by his costly fourth-quarter fumble in last week’s nationally televised Thursday night loss to North Carolina that he didn’t go to classes on Friday. How he responds against East Carolina in another nationally televised Thursday night game will be critical.
Following his team’s 28-17 win over Virginia on Saturday, Duke freshman wide receiver Conner Vernon sent his former high school coach, Earl Sims, a text message that read, “Sorry about what happened in Charlottesville.”
With seven catches last week at Virginia, Vernon broke Duke’s single season freshman record for receptions with 38.
Sims, who was a linebacker at Virginia from 1997-2001 and is now coaching Gulliver Prep in Miami, was disappointed his alma mater lost, but he understood that Duke’s win – with the help of two of his former Gulliver Prep players – wasn’t a fluke.
Vernon and Donovan Varner, a sophomore who also played for Sims, are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in the ACC in receptions per game, and each have had three 100-yard receiving games this season. They’re a major reason why quarterback Thaddeus Lewis is having such a standout season, why Duke’s passing offense ranks fifth nationally, and why Duke controls its own destiny in the Coastal Division heading into Saturday’s game against rival North Carolina.
“The old Duke, even though it’s present in our minds, isn’t there anymore,” said Sims “This is a totally new everything. When you hear Duke, you don’t think, ‘Oh, it’s a stat game,’ or anything like that. It’s something you have to definitely prepare for. I think they’ll no doubt do something for recruiting as far as receivers, as far as anybody from Florida, as far as maybe even Gulliver. More of our athletes may look towards Duke. They’re doing a phenomenal job as far as the coaching staff, and everybody. The fact that those guys are playing that early, I think they’ll definitely do something to help spark recruiting.”
Vernon and Varner represent the future of Duke football, and the early success of coach David Cutcliffe’s staff in ushering in talented players from winning programs. Wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery, whose recruiting turf includes South Florida, was the lead recruiter for both Vernon and Varner.
“I had a lot of other scholarship offers, but I felt like me and coach Montgomery had this vibe, and I knew I could come in and be an impact,” Varner said. “ … I can’t even explain in words how good it feels to be a part of this. I never knew that it could be so big, but at the same time it’s an everyday grind. We’re just going to keep trying to continue to build on top of our success.”
Duke enters Chapel Hill on Saturday riding a three-game conference winning streak for the first time since 1994. Over the past five games, Duke is averaging 433 yards of total offense, including 347.5 passing yards and 33.8 points.
Varner is tied for third in the ACC with five touchdown receptions this season. Vernon ranks second in the NCAA among freshmen in both receptions per game (5.17) and receiving yards per game (76.50). Varner and Vernon are No. 2 and No. 3 in the conference in receiving yards per game, respectively.
“Having Conner here with me is a lot of fun,” said Varner, who has a team-high 42 receptions this year. “We have a bond on the field. It helps us to settle down on the field and depend on one another to make big plays.”
The Miami pipeline has made a difference in Duke’s offense, as Lewis, a Miami native, talked a lot with Varner during his recruiting process, and Varner was then in Vernon’s ear during his.
“A lot of people didn’t really give them an opportunity and a chance,” said Lewis. “Other major universities said Donovan was an athlete, but they really wanted to use him on defense. Coach Montgomery saw something in Donovan a lot of people didn’t see, he saw him line up at receiver one time. He knew he had the ball skills. And Conner, he was a year younger than him, he said he could be as talented as anyone in the country.
“You can tell that Duke is definitely going to compete with everyone in the country for the top-notch recruits all over the country. This is a place where a lot of young guys like Conner and Donovan will see the things they’re doing right now. It’s going to attract the same attention as other major colleges around the country.”
Right now, though, they have the attention and respect of North Carolina.
Here are the ACC's top five performers for Week 9:
North Carolina's defense: The UNC that showed up in the first half against Florida State was the one that showed up for all four quarters of a 20-17 upset over No. 13-ranked Virginia Tech on Thursday night. The Tar Heels proved they really are as good as advertised, as they held the Hokies to only 95 rushing yards and 11 first downs. Virginia Tech struggled on third downs and had two turnovers.
FSU quarterback Christian Ponder: He should be the ACC's first-team all-conference quarterback at this point. Ponder led the Seminoles to their second straight fourth-quarter comeback in a 45-42 win over NC State, and he did it with significantly bruised ribs. A lot of other quarterbacks out there would've been out at halftime. This was a tough call, because Bert Reed and Jermaine Thomas also had outstanding games, but Ponder gets the nod for his toughness.
Miami quarterback Jacory Harris: Never count this guy out, even if he's not having a good day to start, because it's how he finishes that counts. Harris led his team to a come-from-behind 28-27 road win over Wake Forest on Saturday and pulled the Canes out of a 17-0 hole. He finished with 330 yards and three touchdowns, including the game winner with 1:08 to go.
Duke's Gulliver Prep duo: For the second straight week, former high school teammates Donovan Varner and Conner Vernon recorded over 100 receiving yards each, this time in a 28-17 road win over Virginia. Varner finished with seven catches for 113 yards, his third straight game with over 100 receiving yards. He is averaging 129 yards per game over the past three games. Vernon had seven catches for 103 yards and one touchdown, and he became Duke's all-time leader in receptions by a freshman Saturday. Vernon has three 100-yard receiving games in his first season. Duke only had three 100-yard receiving games by freshmen all-time entering the season.
Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt: Vanderbilt's defense did a good job on Georgia Tech's triple option, forcing the Yellow Jackets to expand their playbook, and Nesbitt was able to get it done. He rushed for two touchdowns and threw for two more, leading Georgia Tech to a 56-31 win. He completed 6 of 13 passes for 193 yards and no interceptions.
Did you know that UNC backup quarterback Bryn Renner’s father, Bill, was a punter at Virginia Tech (1979-82) before playing in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers? Yep. He led the Hokies in punting average in 1981 and 1982.
There’s nothing like kicking off the weekend with a Thursday night game in Lane Stadium, so let’s start there …
1. UNC’s rushing receivers. The Tar Heels have been looking for yards from everyone, and against Florida State last week, receivers accounted for 109 rushing yards. Greg Little had 48, Johnny White added 40 and Jheranie Boyd chipped in 21. The Tar Heels also got a spark in their running game last week from tailback Shaun Draughn, who ran for a season-high 126 yards, and the Hokies’ rushing defense has struggled this year compared to seasons past and is ranked 76th in the country.
2. UNC’s front seven vs. Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Williams. The Tar Heels had 22 sacks all of last year, and they already have 17 sacks this year. They’re also piling up the tackles for loss, and while FSU quarterback Christian Ponder had his way with what was the No. 1 ranked pass defense in the country, UNC held FSU to just 43 yards rushing last week. They’ve held five of their seven opponents to under 100 rushing yards, and the Hokies have the No. 17 ranked rushing offense in the country.
3. Miami’s linebackers without Sean Spence. The Canes will have a different look at Wake Forest this week without Spence, who will miss the game with a knee injury. Taking his place will be Ramon Buchanan, who filled in for Spence when he was hurt during the Clemson game. Most of Buchanan’s experience has been on special teams this year. Meanwhile, running back Kevin Harris is expected to return for the Deacs after missing the past five games with a groin injury.
4. Shootout in Raleigh. This game could look like a 2008 Big 12 matchup -- all offense. NC State quarterback Russell Wilson and FSU quarterback Christian Ponder have both done enough to win this season, but haven’t gotten the support from their defenses. If that’s the case again on Saturday, it could be a very high-scoring game, as both teams are averaging about 30 points per game.
5. Field position in Vanderbilt Stadium. Vanderbilt running back Warren Norman leads the SEC and ranks 13th nationally in all-purpose yards per game (157.5 ypg) and 16th nationally in kickoff returns (29.04 ypa). Georgia Tech sophomore Jerrard Tarrant leads the ACC in punt return average (19.9 ypa). Both teams have a plus-five turnover margin, and statistically, Vandy has fared well stopping the run. The Jackets will obviously present a different challenge, but Norman can help compensate by giving the offense a good starting point.
6. C.J. Spiller’s backups. One week after the biggest performance of his life, Spiller is likely to have a limited role Saturday against Coastal Carolina. There’s no need to risk getting him hurt against an FCS team the Tigers should be able to beat without him. It’s a great opportunity to rest Spiller for the FSU game and give Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper some more experience.
7. Duke’s receivers. Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis has been getting all the pub, and deservedly so, but he couldn’t do it without somebody on the receiving end. For the first time in school history, Duke has four wide receivers with 25 or more pass receptions in a single season. Austin Kelly, Conner Vernon, Johnny Williams and Donovan Varner have made it a much deeper group.
8. Virginia’s defensive adjustments. In a week’s span, the Cavaliers have had to study two completely different offensive schemes in Georgia Tech’s run based triple option and Duke’s high-flying passing attack that leads the ACC in passing offense with 322.57 yards per game. This is what UVA excels at, though, as the Cavs have the ACC’s top passing defense. Virginia ranks fifth nationally, allowing just 151.29 yards per game. They haven’t allowed more than 190 passing yards in a game this season.
9. A new interception streak. At the beginning of the season, it was NC State’s Russell Wilson. Now it’s Virginia quarterback Jameel Sewell who is on a roll without an interception. Sewell has not been intercepted in his last 141 pass attempts, dating to the Southern Miss game. The school record for consecutive passes without an interception is 231.
10. Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly. If you haven’t seen him play yet, it’s time, as he’s already drawn comparisons to Mark Herzlich and is currently the leading freshman tackler in the nation with 10.38 tackles per game. Kuechly leads BC with 51 solo tackles, 58 assisted. He had a game-high and career-tying 14 tackles against the Irish and had one pass breakup, and he’ll face another top quarterback this week in Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich
It wasn't a very revealing week in the ACC, but the conference did pick up some wins. Here are a few things we can gather from the Week 2 performances:
1. Georgia Tech’s offense can be defended. Clemson had outgained Georgia Tech 319-91 in total yards into the fourth quarter since falling behind 24-0. B-back Jonathan Dwyer -- the ACC’s reigning player of the year -- was held to just 66 yards on 18 carries. After the first quarter, the Tigers committed to stopping the option, and Georgia Tech was unable to score a touchdown for the rest of the game.
2. The ACC is resilient. It wasn’t always pretty (more like Ugly Betty), but the ACC did what it had to do to bounce back from last week’s losses. Wake Forest responded from its loss to Baylor against a tough Stanford team, Duke rebounded from its loss to Richmond on the road against Army, Maryland was able to stave off James Madison after its loss to Cal, and both Virginia Tech and NC State took out its aggression from Week 1 losses to the SEC and beat up on Marshall and Murray State, respectively. Florida State also got a win after losing to Miami.
3. Clemson looks like a true threat in the Atlantic Division. Despite its loss to Georgia Tech, the Tigers had no shame in their second-half performance on Thursday night, as they came back from a 24-point deficit to lead 27-24 lead in the fourth quarter. The coaching staff made a comeback, along with the team, and did a better job of getting the ball to their playmakers than their predecessors did. Unlike last year in Atlanta when the Tigers were embarrassed by Alabama, this team didn’t quit on coach Dabo Swinney. Clemson’s performance, coupled with Florida State’s poor play, leaves the door wide open for the Tigers.
4. UNC desperately needs to keep its blockers healthy. The Tar Heels were noticeably weaker up front without starting center Lowell Dyer (shoulder) and offensive guard Jonathan Cooper (ankle), and they missed the blocking of fullback Bobby Rome, who stayed home with H1N1 symptoms. They weren’t able to get anything going on the ground and finished with just 35 rushing yards. T.J. Yates was sacked six times and UNC was held scoreless with just 134 yards of total offense through three quarters.
5. Duke has a winning backup quarterback. For all of the questions and inexperience surrounding backup quarterbacks in the ACC this year, look no further than Durham for a dependable No. 2. In his first collegiate action, Sean Renfree came off the bench in the second half to complete 7 of 8 passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns to lead Duke to a come-from-behind 35-19 win over Army. With Duke trailing 10-7 midway through the third period, Renfree threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Brett Huffman on his first collegiate pass to give the Blue Devils the lead -- their first of the 2009 season. On Duke's next possession, Renfree engineered a nine-play, 78-yard drive that ended with a 31-yard touchdown to Donovan Varner for a 21-13 lead early in the final period.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Duke coach David Cutcliffe made a difference in his first season, winning four games in 2008. While that might sound like a disastrous season for many, the Blue Devils won as many games last season as they had in the four previous seasons combined. Still, it wasn't good enough for Cutcliffe, who thought they were capable of winning more. He discusses that and more in our interview this week:
|Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images|
|While his program showed signs of improvement in 2008, David Cutcliffe knows there is still work to be done.|
Ok, let's go ahead and get this one out of the way. Can Greg Paulus really throw the football well enough to be a college quarterback?
David Cutcliffe: Greg can throw the ball. I haven't seen him throw it in person, but I saw him on high school tape, and he threw the ball a lot and effectively. My dealings with him, I kind of started that. I actually called Mike Krzyzewski first, just to say, 'Hey, I'm going to call Greg.' I wouldn't do it without telling Mike first. We had six practices left, and he could play a little receiver. It would be very difficult for him to start for us at quarterback. He just decided if it wasn't pure quarterback he wasn't interested in it, so we'll see what happens, but you don't bet against a competitor. Ever. He is definitely a fierce competitor.
Do you have a pretty good relationship over there with Coach K? Or do you guys not really see each other much?
DC: Absolutely, great. I'm one of his biggest fans. I have watched him practice, I love to hear him teach, I love conversations with him because he is the epitome of a coach. He's always teaching. I just think he's a master, I really do. I enjoy everything he does with his program.
About your program, what is the biggest change you've seen since you took over?
DC: People starting to believe we can win at Duke, most importantly our players, but not unimportantly our fans. Our fans, we're creating a little expectation. People say you're crazy, well I don't think so. I don't know if you'd call it revitalizing, because it basically had gone dead. Part of beginning a program is to make people believe we can win at Duke.