by Mike Potter
YOH FOOTBALL CENTER/DURHAM Sean Renfree seems to be a modest type of guy, as he’s pretty reluctant to stake claim to being the leader of Duke’s football team.
The redshirt sophomore quarterback has some very big shoes to fill, as he’ll be starting where Thaddeus Lewis played last season.
All Lewis did was become the Blue Devils’ all-time passing leader and lead a team that won nine games in its two seasons under Coach David Cutcliffe after averaging one win each of the past four years. Lewis has been good enough to stick around so far as a free-agent tryout with the St. Louis Rams, where he is still in camp.
“I don’t feel like one person is the leader,” Renfree said on Tuesday at the Blue Devils’ preseason media luncheon. “We have a great group of seniors on this team. Our coaches are obviously the leaders of this team. Offensively, obviously the quarterbacks always get that title. But there’s not one person that’s going to lead our team.”
Although Lewis was the incumbent starter prior to last season, Renfree did more than get his feet wet under center last season.
He came off the bench in the third quarter to complete seven of eight passes in a 35-19 win at Army, and saw action in four other games before a freak knee injury — which he suffered making a cut in the backfield without contact — ended his season.
He completed 34 of 50 passes for 330 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions.
“When I got the job I knew he was the quarterback I wanted to focus on for our system,” said Cutcliffe, who mentored Peyton Manning at Tennessee and Eli Manning at Mississippi. “I’m very pleased (he has some experience.) He’s got 50 throws and that’s not a lot, but he’s been out there between the stripes, he knows the speed of the game.
“The thing that’s the best part of him coming back was not just the physical part. He worked real hard to get back ready, but he didn’t waste his time while he was hurt. He has really mastered what we do offensively. It’s obviously the ideal situation that your only experienced quarterback stays healthy when you have three freshmen that have never played. (But) we’re not going to play frightened by it and he’s not going to play frightened, but you certainly prefer that this is one of those years when you keep your guy.”
One thing Renfree will have going for him is an experienced receiver corps, which many are calling the most talented in the ACC. Receivers Donovan Varner — who was named preseason All-ACC — and Conner Vernon and Austin Kelly combined for over 2,400 yards and 15 touchdowns.
“Thaddeus was a great player, but we have a phenomenal player in Sean Renfree and we’re excited to get the season going,” Vernon said. “Sean got us (receivers) together every other day in the off-season just getting our timing down. We want to get him into a comfort zone. He got some time last year, but now it’s his year. In the off-season we got in sync, and we basically carried it out in the fall. Now we’re pretty comfortable.
“Sean is three years into the offense now. He’s great at reading defenses. He knows this offense very well. Thad had a different (offensive coordinator) for four straight years. Sean has been in this system for three years now, and has had that time to have Thaddeus mentor him.”
Renfree said he’s just happy he’ll have such a solid receiving corps around him.
“Austin Kelly is a very physical player who has a huge range to catch the football — He’s a huge playmaker on third downs,” the quarterback said. “Donovan is extremely quick with great hands, and finds a way to get open. Conner has phenomenal ball skills. Not only is he fast, but he’s going to find a way to get the football. They’re all smart and work very, very hard.”
The Blue Devils will again have a challenging schedule, including a Sept. 18 matchup in Durham with No. 1 Alabama. The other non-conference games are against Elon and Army at home and Navy on the road. Good news is the seven-game home slate, with Miami, Virginia, Boston College and UNC all coming to Wallace Wade Stadium.
“We’ve always had the parts,” Renfree said. “We’re just getting better and better every year. I feel like people understand the offense better now. People play a lot faster when they know what they’re doing. They don’t think so much, they just go. Playing in a bowl game would mean everything to me and to our team, and that’s obviously one of our goals.”