ACC spring practice preview: Duke

Duke Blue Devils
2009: 5-7 (3-5)

Head coach David Cutcliffe and the Duke Blue Devils opened spring football practice on February 14 — the earliest start in major college football and a full 35 days before the official first day of spring on March 20. Eighteen starters will return to Durham in 2010 for a squad that finished with the school’s highest win total since 1994.

Replacing four-year starter and two-time All-ACC selection Thaddeus Lewis at quarterback will be the Blue Devils’ top priority as they enter next season. Sean Renfree, a redshirt freshman last season who completed 68 percent of his throws for 330 yards and four scores in six games, is all but certain to take over despite recovering from a torn ACL in his right knee and being limited to only throwing in recent workouts. Renfree’s recovery is going smoothly and he will be able to go full strength this summer and fall, so expect him under center in the fall.

To ease his transition into the starting role, Renfree will have three very good weapons at the wide receiver position.

Donovan Varner hauled in 65 passes for 1,047 yards and eight touchdowns while becoming a first-team All-ACC pick in 2009. He was only the third player in Duke history to have 1,000-plus receiving yards in a single season. Conner Vernon earned first-team Freshman All-America honors after catching 55 passes for 746 yards and three scores, while Austin Kelly finished with 54 catches for 625 yards and four scores.

Four starting offensive linemen also return, along with the top three Blue Devils rushers — although the Duke ground game was nonexistent throughout much of the season. Expect former top recruit Desmond Scott to carry more of a load and enjoy a more productive campaign in 2010.

The Blue Devils have six starters back on a defensive unit that held five opponents to less than 20 points for the first time since 1994. However, the team allowed 49, 34 and 45 points in its last three contests.

So enter new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, formerly Cornell’s head coach. Cutcliffe hopes that Knowles can improve the pass rush and that former wideout Johnny Williams can make a smooth transition to cornerback, while Kenny Anunike can help at defensive end after moving from tight end.

Cutcliffe certainly sees potential in his young players at Duke, electing to take his name out of the running for the Tennessee job when Lane Kiffin bolted to USC. Could he lead the school to its first bowl game since 1994?

The Blue Devils will conclude spring workouts with their annual Spring Game on Saturday, March 27 at Wallace Wade Stadium.

The team opens the 2010 season at home against Elon on September 4.

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