by Mike Potter
BROOKS FOOTBALL BUILDING/DURHAM Despite his very public struggles in a couple of tough losses for Duke over the past few weeks, Sean Renfree is still Duke’s starting quarterback and Coach David Cutcliffe is happy about that.
He and the Blue Devils (1-5, 0-3 ACC), who have lost nine straight games against Division I-FBS opposition, will get another big challenge on Saturday at noon, when they face Virginia Tech (5-2, 3-0) at Lane Stadium.
The Blue Devils haven’t won any of the six meetings with Virginia Tech since the Hokies joined the ACC, but the two games in the Cutcliffe era have both resulted in respectable losses.
“We have had good work,” Cutcliffe said Tuesday at his weekly press luncheon about the way the Devils have responded to the Miami loss. “I was extremely impressed with our players and the way they went about their business Sunday night — very spirited, refusing to hang their heads, we had a great meeting. We’re so close in so many areas and I’m hoping that’s part of it because there’s confidence involved in that. We’ve made more than enough mistakes to last an entire season, and that’s resulted in the record that we have. But there was a lot of intensity and a lot of contact, and they’re willing to do what it takes to get better.
“We obviously are facing a huge challenge going to face an extremely talented Virginia Tech team, a very physical team. We were very physical today but it’s certainly going to call for that when we go to Blacksburg. We need a good, solid week’s worth of work and I believe we’ll get that.”
Duke’s defense has been steadily improving this season, but anyone who has been paying much attention to the situation knows that for the Blue Devils to win the offense has to be good. And that all starts with Renfree, who this season is 139-for-244 for 1621 yards with 10 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
“I’ve talked to a number of people,” Renfree said about his recent struggles. “I hit a bump in the road and obviously I’ve talked with Coach Cutcliffe for a little bit. I’ve talked with a number of people from my family. I talked to (Thaddeus Lewis, Duke’s all-time passing leader and last season’s starter now on the St. Louis Rams’ practice squad) last night, and a number of my old coaches.
“But I’ve heard a lot of good things from a lot of people. I know the support is there. My mindset is pretty good right now. I feel pretty comfortable going into this week. I’ve been making a list of things people were telling me. … Obviously knowing Thad’s personality, he’s a fun-loving guy. He said ‘Man, you’re running the show. Just go have fun. Nobody else can force you to throw here or there. Just go have fun and play like you’d play in the backyard with all your buddies. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself.’”
Cutcliffe joked of Renfree’s ears, “He’d better listen to (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach) Kurt Roper, his dad and me, and the rest of you, to hell with you!”
But seriously, folks …
“I don’t think there’s any question that a quarterback is considered a leader naturally on a team, not just because of their position but their commitment,” Cutcliffe continued. “I think all players realize how hard that quarterback has to work, particularly this day and time, to prepare mentally, to prepare physically, to know everyone’s assignment — all of those things. So it puts you in a position where your team depends on you.
“Sean is challenged, he’s a big boy, he’s taking the challenge on, and he’s not running from it. He understands the responsibility. I think our squad has confidence in him. I can’t make that happen, nor can he. But you earn their confidence by displaying an undaunted belief in who you are and what you do and how you go about your business.
"And ultimately what it does come down to is performance on game day. You have to face that reality. But all he can do — he can’t fix this mentally, he can’t fix this in one day or (with) some bit of advice from anybody, me included. You have to fix it one day at a time. It has to become habit. And great habits, great habits, great habits ultimately produce great results. I think our team will feed off Sean Renfree, because I believe in my heart Sean Renfree will fight through this.”
The Blue Devils also need a good defensive effort on Saturday, especially going against Hokie quarterback Tyrod Taylor who Cutcliffe called “the best dual-threat quarterback in the country.”
Linebacker and tri-captain Abraham Kromah said he likes the progress the once-maligned Blue Devils’ defense has been making.
“I feel like we’ve made some very positive strides on defense and a lot of it can be attributed to our coaching and guys just doing what they’re supposed to do, and practice habits,” Kromah said. “We’re doing what we’re supposed to do in practice. We gain confidence during the week and we’re able to do the same during the game. I feel like we have a sense of urgency. We’re all concerned about each other, and figuring out how we can expand our roles to help the team.
"Virginia Tech presents a lot of challenges. Any time you have a mobile quarterback who can pass as well, that presents a lot of challenges. We have to practice hard and study hard and have to do what we can to get ready.”