Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Football [Print without images]

Thursday, October 25, 2012
Duke WRs provide test

By David M. Hale
NoleNation

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The usual advice from veteran cornerback Xavier Rhodes is fairly one-sided, Nick Waisome said. It doesn't much matter who's on the other side of the field. Success and failure, Rhodes assures him, is determined by Waisome's skills, not the receivers.

Conner Vernon
Conner Vernon could set the ACC's all-time receiving yards record this weekend against Florida State.
This week though, Rhodes was a bit more cognizant of the receivers he and his sophomore teammate will be tasked with stopping. It's not that Florida State's secondary is intimidated by Duke's passing game. It's just that players such as Duke's Conner Vernon have a way of sneaking up on unsuspecting defenders.

"I've heard from Xavier that he's a technician at route-running," Waisome said.

Vernon wasn't a five-star recruit or a household name coming out of high school. Even now, he takes a backseat in the ACC to DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and a handful of other top receivers.

But barring an unforeseen disaster, Vernon's name will top the ACC record books before the season ends for most career receiving yards. In fact, he's just 94 yards short of surpassing Florida State's Peter Warrick for the record, something he could certainly manage to accomplish this week on the same field where Warrick built his legend.

That information, however, hasn't been circulated throughout the Seminoles' secondary.

"I didn't even know," Waisome said. "We don't keep up with the records. ... It doesn't matter to me. I'm going to go out there and do my job."

And the job for Waisome, Rhodes and the rest of FSU's defensive backs will be much tougher than simply protecting the record book this week.

Vernon and teammate Jamison Crowder are tied for second in the ACC with 51 catches apiece, and Duke's passing game has been the biggest reason for the program's sudden revival.

While Hopkins and Watkins provided the marquee matchup for Florida State's secondary earlier this season, the Duke duo might provide the biggest challenge.

"They're disciplined, they're talented, they're technique sound, they run their routes precise," Rhodes said. "The coaches know how to use their receivers, and the quarterback has good chemistry with his receivers."

It's not just a matter of soft competition either. In Duke's two losses -- to Stanford and Virginia Tech -- Crowder has 18 catches for 239 yards. He made the catch in the end zone to secure a win over North Carolina last week, too.

Meanwhile, Vernon has gone over the 100-yard plateau three times this season, including last week against UNC, and has 12 100-yard games in his career.

That immense success is built in part on talent -- deceptively fast, as several FSU players called him -- but largely on attention to detail.

"He's such a technician," Jimbo Fisher said of Vernon. "When he sticks that foot in the ground, and the angles and leverage he plays with, and how he gets the shoulder, and he's got tremendous hands -- he's precision when he runs routes. As a coach, you really enjoy watching him play because the time and the dedication it takes to get to that level, you really appreciate how he plays."

It's a challenge, Fisher said, because Vernon and Crowder have a tendency to lull corners into a false sense of security before breaking free at just the right moment to make a big catch.

But Waisome sees it a bit different. Speed, strength, athleticism -- those traits allow for a dangerous amount of freelancing from receivers. The technicians, on the other hand, make his job easy.

"It can also be a way of being able to read the route," Waisome said. "If he's technical, it's going to be text book."

Still, that puts the pressure to read those routes and know what comes next squarely on the shoulders of Waisome, Rhodes and the rest of the secondary. Other defensive backs have likely hoped for the same advantages, and Vernon and Crowder have managed to make plenty of them pay.

So while Rhodes is still happy to preach about confidence and execution by his fellow cornerbacks winning the day, he also knows the task this week requires a bit of extra attention.

"You've just got to keep your eyes on them," Rhodes said. "Don't get too physical or too relaxed because they know how to take advantage. They're very smart, and you've got to be on point."