There was some buzz prior to the 2011 season that the ACC’s best quarterback just might call Duke home. And no, this wasn’t Dick Vitale using quarterback as a metaphor for point guard while singing the praises of Austin Rivers.
Sean Renfree was a top 15 prospect at his position coming out of Arizona’s Notre Dame prep. He has all the tangible tools of a quality, drop-back quarterback. A quarterback coaching guru like David Cutcliffe with a player like Renfree is roughly akin to arming Beatrix Kiddo with a Hattori Hanzo sword.
After all, Cutcliffe is credited with developing the Bros. Manning, coached Brady Quinn in his 2005 breakout campaign, and coordinated Erik Ainge’s strong 2006 and 2007 seasons in which he threw for over 6500 yards and scored 50 touchdowns. At Duke, Cutcliffe guided Thaddeus Lewis to a standout senior campaign in which the Blue Devil QB threw for over 3300 yards and scored 20 touchdowns.
The partnership between Cutcliffe and Renfree just seemed destined for great things.
Alas, Renfree’s 2011 was pedestrian. He finished with an impressive 65 percent completion rating for 2891 yards, but was intercepted almost as many times (11) as he threw scores (14). That wasn’t the Herculean effort Duke needed to avoid a finish in the ACC cellar.
Now, Duke was actually on pace for the postseason early into October. Despite losing its opener to Richmond, Duke’s third straight loss to the FCS Spiders, the Blue Devils rattled off three consecutive wins. The culmination of the win streak that accounted for all Duke’s 2011 wins, was a 31-27 defeat of previously unbeaten FIU. Renfree completed 28 passes, two for touchdowns, was not intercepted and gained 335 yards.
As the Blue Devils slipped into the doldrums of a seven-game skid, Renfree’s numbers slipped. Take a one-point loss to Wake Forest two weeks later: Renfree still hit 28 targets, but was just north of 200 yards, threw zero touchdowns and was picked off.
It’s unfair to put blame on Renfree. Defenses succeeded in rendering Duke completely one dimensional, holding the Blue Devils to just 94.1 rushing yards per game. Forcing Renfree into regular must-throw situations and long yardage positions on third downs hindered how creative Cutcliffe and Kurt Roper could get with the play calling. And a more predictable offense means more aggressive defenses.
Success in 2012 will be largely predicated on the Blue Devils’ ability to establish some sort of running game. Renfree should excel, giving opportunities. But he cannot shoulder the responsibility exclusive. Leading ball carrier Juwan Thompson is back in the fold, as well as short yardage, running situation quarterback Anthony Boone. How Cutcliffe/Roper utilize Boone will be an interesting development, as the back-up carried the ball 44 times.
Success for Duke is determined by one specific goal: reaching the postseason. Duke hasn’t gone to a bowl game since 1995, coincidentally the same calendar year Blue Devil basketball last missed the NCAA tournament. Perhaps Blue Devil football’s struggle can be attributed to some sort of transitive force in which Durham has finite success, and Mike Krzyzewski usurps all for himself.
Whether mysticism — remember, we are dealing with Devils here — or something more rational, Duke football just cannot win.