DURHAM, N.C. — Duke senior wide receiver Conner Vernon has been named to the 49-member Biletnikoff Award Watch List. The Biletnikoff Award is presented annually by the Tallahassee Quarterback Club Foundation to the most outstanding wide receiver in college football.
A senior from Miami, Fla., Vernon is the nation’s active leader in pass receptions (198) and receiving yards (2,675) and enters the 2012 season with a streak of 35 consecutive games with at least one catch. Last year, he caught 73 passes for 956 yards and six touchdowns to become the first player in ACC history with multiple seasons of 70-plus receptions.
Vernon will open his final season in Durham within reach of the ACC’s all-time records for receptions and receiving yards, currently standing 33 catches shy of Clemson’s Aaron Kelly’s league standard of 232 and 841 yards away from the conference yardage mark of 3,517 held by Florida State’s Peter Warrick.
Vernon is one of eight representatives from the ACC on the list, joining Jheranie Boyd (North Carolina), Michael Campanaro (Wake Forest), Marcus Davis (Virginia Tech), Willie Haulstead (Florida State), Erik Highsmith (North Carolina), DeAndre Hopkins (Clemson) and Allen Hurns (Miami (Fla.)).
Previous winners of the award include Bobby Engram (1994; Penn State), Terry Glenn (1995; Ohio State), Marcus Harris (Wyoming; 1996), Randy Moss (Marshall; 1997), Troy Edwards (Louisiana Tech; 1998), Troy Walters (Stanford; 1999), Antonio Bryant (Pittsburgh; 2000), Josh Reed (LSU; 2001), Charles Rogers (Michigan State; 2002), Larry Fitzgerald (Pittsburgh; 2003), Braylon Edwards (Michigan; 2004), Mike Hass (Oregon State; 2005), Calvin Johnson (Georgia Tech; 2006), Michael Crabtree (Texas Tech; 2007 & 2008), Golden Tate (Notre Dame; 2009) and Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State, 2010 & 2011).
The Tallahassee Quarterback Club Foundation, Inc., (TQC Foundation), the creator and sponsor of the Biletnikoff Award (presented annually to the nation’s outstanding college football receiver), is an independent, charitable organization … for more visit GoDuke.com
Are you ready for some football, Blue Devil Nation? Saturday afternoon will be your last chance until September 1st to see some Duke Football, so get your fill. The Blue Devils will take to the field on Saturday at 1PM in Wallace Wade Stadium for their annual spring game. BDN’s Football Friday is here for your preview.
First of all, highs in the upper 70s, with a slight chance of isolated thunderstorms. Should be a perfect spring day for some football if the rains miss the Methodist Flats. That also means a perfect day for some tailgating. Get there early, as the team will conduct the Blue Devil Walk at 11:00 AM. Team BDN will be there in full force, so be sure to say hi. Here’s the information on the parking situation. Bring your wallets, even though admission is free (stadium gates open at 11:15), as there will be plenty of opportunities to get your Blue Devil gear, as well as stuff your face with Chick-fil-a, Domino’s, and Blue Devil Concessions. Oh, and the most important reason to bring your wallet is to purchase your 2012 season tickets. Ticket office reps will be on hand and help you pick your exact seats. Try before you buy. The game kicks off at 1PM and Coach Cutcliffe will address the crowd during halftime of the scrimmage. Spring practice awards will also be announced at halftime.
Scouting the Blue Devil Offense
The Duke offense will feature a number of familiar faces, but it’s likely to be the unfamiliar ones who will make an impression on Saturday. We all know what Conner Vernon is capable of at wide receiver, but as he’s been limited due to injury this spring, expect to see a lot of Blair Holliday and Jamison Crowder, both of whom have had very strong spring performances. Nick Hill is another young face who appears ready to contribute, and Corey Gattis and Tyree Watkins add a veteran presence to the receiving corps. With Jack Farrell and Braxton Deaver sidelined with injuries, the Blue Devils had concerns at wide receiver heading into spring practice. Coming out of spring practice, tight end is no longer a concern, and you’ll likely see why as Issac Blakeney and David Reeves are sure to impress.
Up front, the Duke offensive line returns all but graduating senior Kyle Hill, and that continuity should benefit the Blue Devil offense. This group has improved each year under Coach Cutcliffe, and they’re looking to take a big step forward this fall under new OL Coach John Latina. Expect to see a few holes opened for the likes of the now healthy Josh Snead and last year’s leading rusher Juwan Thompson, who have seen the majority of carries with senior Desmond Scott nursing injury. If that trio isn’t impressive enough for you, the Blue Devils will add two more big-time running backs in just a few months, as Jela Duncan and Shaquille Powell will push for early playing time.
Am I forgetting something? Ah, yes, quarterback. While Peyton Manning had been a fixture in the Duke practice facilities this offseason, he will not be taking snaps under center for the Blue Devils on Saturday. Sean Renfree remains entrenched as the starter, and he’s had yet another good spring running the Duke offense. While much of spring practice is situational, Renfree has shown the ability to get the ball downfield, averaging 15.7 yards per completion in the last scrimmage. But Renfree’s old news, right? Coach Cutcliffe and the Duke staff have been looking at ways to get guys like Brandon Connette and Anthony Boone more involved in the offense, and they’ve done well with running the ball and catching the ball in some unique schemes. But don’t get too excited. Knowing the Duke coaching staff, the Blue Devils are unlikely to show off anything particularly new or exciting on Saturday, so we’ll all just have to wait until the fall. Expect to see Connette, Boone, and freshman Thomas Sirk take several snaps under center in relief of Renfree; all have taken big steps forward in their command of the offense this spring.
Scouting the Blue Devil Defense
Somehow, it seems that Duke has had a perpetually young defense the past few years, and that remain the case this spring, though they are overall more experienced. The losses of Matt Daniels and Charlie Hatcher will be the biggest voids to fill, and there are a number of candidates looking to contribute. Up front, Duke will be without their top pass-rushers Saturday in Kenny Anunike and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, but will feature much of the same group of athletic ends we saw a year ago, led by Justin Foxx, Dezmond Johnson, and Jamal Wallace. Sydney Sarmiento, Jamal Bruce, and Nick Sink are likely to see the majority of time on the inside up front. The defensive line continues to improve under Coach Petri and has the benefit of going up against a big and experienced offensive line in practice.
At linebacker, the Blue Devils will be without Kelby Brown for the foreseeable future, but expect sophomore David Helton to continue to impress. The redshirt is off for Kelby’s younger, but bigger, brother Kyler, and it appears that a nose for the football is in their genes. Austin Gamble is the lone upperclassman, though sophomores C.J. France and Jon Woodruff have some experience. And before you get down on the Blue Devil linebackers, keep in mind that stud recruits Keilin Rayner and Deion Williams will be on campus in just a few months.
Coach Knowles’ 4-2-5 scheme relies heavily on the secondary, and the emergence of Ross Cockrell as a shutdown corner is key. He’ll be joined by senior Lee Butler at cornerback, though youngsters Jared Boyd and Tim Burton will see time. The leader of the secondary this year is most likely to be leading returning tackler Walt Canty, though hard-hitting Jordon Byas has also turned some heads with August Campbell sidelined this spring. Newcomers to look for at safety include the hard-working Chris Tavarez, Britton Grier, transfer Jeremy Cash, and former WR Brandon Braxton. All should see snaps on Saturday and overall, this group has some of the best playmakers on the defensive side.
Scouting the Blue Devil Special Teams
Will Monday. That’s about all you need to know. With Will Snyderwine and Alex King now graduated, Monday has handled all of the punting and kicking duties this spring, and handled them well. By the fall, incoming freshman Ross Martin may challenge him for the placekicking duties, but expect to see Monday handle the punting for the next four years in Durham. On the return side, Jamison Crowder remains the Blue Devils’ top threat, but he’ll be joined by incoming freshman DeVon Edwards this fall, who took more than a few kicks to the house during his high school career. In all likelihood, getting to see Monday punt and kick should be a refreshing sight for Blue Devil fans and the only real highlight on special teams Saturday.
Recruiting still sizzling
Who are all those people with lanyards and nametags? That would be the dozens of high school prospects and their families who will be on campus this weekend to take in the Blue Devil program. Several members of the Duke class of 2012 will be on hand Saturday, and they’ll be joined by a huge group of future prospects. With 3 commitments already on board in 2013, the coaching staff is flying high on the trail and will have in some of their top targets in this class, including a handful considered among the nation’s elite. Coach Cutcliffe and his staff work on recruiting every single day, and this weekend will be no exception. And just like the staff, we follow the recruiting trail here at BDN, so be sure to check out some of our recent interviews with the likes of TE Nathan Marcus, and OL Sterling Korona, and of course lots more to come. Don’t be surprised if the Blue Devils hear more good news by the end of this weekend.
In case you haven’t figured it out already, Blue Devil Nation is the place to be for Duke Football fans. We cover the team year-round, and would love to have you join our growing BDN Premium community. We can’t wait to see you all in Wallace Wade Stadium this Saturday. WE ARE DUKE.
The goal this offseason has been on finding the “best 22″ players to put on the field for the Blue Devils. Inevitably, this forces the Duke coaching staff to make some creative and difficult decisions to realize this goal. One of the most prominent changes this spring has involved Brandon Braxton, a once promising wide receiver who has selflessly made the switch to safety. Braxton’s strong play on special teams the past two seasons exemplified some of his potential as a defender and tackler, but the learning curve for Coach Knowles’ defense is steep. BDN caught up with Brandon after spring practice last week to get an update on his transition.
BDN: How did the decision to switch positions come about?
I had originally heard through the grapevine that they were switching me to defense. I gave Coach Cut a call and went and met with him, and it wasn’t for sure or anything at that point, and he said that they had been thinking about it. I told him I would be willing to switch if they thought that would improve our team, and I ended up switching and so far I like it a lot.
BDN: How do you feel your skill set fits on the defensive side of the ball?
I like the defensive side of the ball because it allows me to react instead of having a set play, so I definitely like that about defense. I also just like flying around and reading, so that’s probably my favorite part about defense.
BDN: You’ve played quite a bit on special teams over the past two seasons, so you’ve had some experience with tackling, but what have you found to be the hardest adjustment to playing defense so far this spring?
There really hasn’t been any really hard thing to pick up, but just learning the defense and knowing checks and seeing different things. Just being comfortable at safety is definitely a huge change from what I have been doing and what I’m used to. I feel like I’m a freshman all over again, learning a whole new system and getting back in the swing of things of college football. I haven’t played defense since junior year of high school, but so far I’m picking it up really fast and feel like every day I’m progressing.
BDN: Now that you’re on the other side of the ball, who’s the toughest receiver to matchup with in practice?
All of them are really good, honestly. Blair Holliday has been playing great. Jamison [Crowder] has been playing really good. Conner [Vernon], everyone already knows that Conner is a stud. Nick Hill is a new and upcoming redshirt-freshman and he’s been playing really good. All of them, really, there isn’t one that I can pinpoint that’s super difficult, they all have different attributes and different things that they bring to the wide receiver.
BDN: You may feel like a freshman all over again, but you’re actually entering your third year with the program. What’s your assessment of the team this spring, compared to when you first arrived at Duke?
This spring, well I’ve only been through two springs, but there was such a period when losing was acceptable, and I think that that whole air and people that were here when that was happening is gone. My teammates now don’t accept losing as an option. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve seen. We’ve all been working really hard and the coaches have been pushing us, and we’re all up to the challenge.
BDN: The secondary is obviously a key to Coach Knowles’ defense. Can you talk a little about some of the players that have impressed you and helped you make your transition?
All of them – Walt [Canty], Jordon [Byas], Anthony Young-Wiseman, they’re all veterans and they’ve all been here awhile. Ross Cockrell, we’re usually on the same side, and he’s been helping me a lot and he’s progressed immensely at the corner position. He’s turned into one heck of a cornerback. They’ve all done their part in helping me pick it up faster and teaching me tricks of the trade and making sure I do well.
BDN: Thanks a lot, Brandon, and best of luck this spring.
It has been suggested that writing a spring update on Duke Football might help make the nightmares about mountain hawks go away, so here it is. In fact, there’s actually a lot to be excited about with regards to Duke Football. Yeah, yeah, we always say that and then we’re all disappointed come the fall. But you’ve got to see the forest instead of the trees, people!
Recruiting off to a hot start
Ok, show of hands. How many of you just went and checked the Duke 2013 commitment list when you read that sub-headline? Or, another way of asking the same question, how many of you have been following Duke Football recruiting during basketball season? Well, either way, you’ve probably figured out that Duke has yet to secure a verbal commitment in the class of 2013. (Saturday afternoon edit: Duke landed a commitment from QB Quay Chambers and OL Austin Davis this morning)
So, how can recruiting be off to a hot start? Generally speaking, you’ve got to get a prospect on campus if you have any hope of landing a commitment, and Coach Cutcliffe and his staff have hosted an impressive list of visitors already this spring. In fact, Duke has already had more than 10 members of the ESPNU150 Watch List (an unofficial list of the top 300 HS rising seniors in the country) on campus in Durham. Most recently, the Blue Devils had 9 top targets in the class of 2013 on campus for the North Carolina basketball game, including Watch List members WR Marquez North, LB Peter Kalambayi, OL Mike McGlinchey, and OL Tyrone Crowder. The coaching staff has been in contact early and often with a number of other Watch List members, including several on the West Coast, and hope to host several more visitors later this spring and summer. As you know, we’ll continue to bring you the best coverage of Duke Football and Duke Football Recruiting around.
Spring practice highly competitive
The Blue Devils returned to the field this past week to start the second half of their spring practice, and the competition level has been at its highest in the Cutcliffe era. We checked in with WR Conner Vernon earlier this week, and he confirmed that across the board, Duke is a deeper and more competitive team. The Blue Devils return 17 starters this fall, but each of those players will be pushed by younger players on the depth chart. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
The Duke defense loses two of its leaders to graduation in S Matt Daniels and NG Charlie Hatcher, but there is real competition to fill their starting job. At safety, Walt Canty, Jordon Byas, and August Campbell will be projected to start heading into the fall, but they are being pushed everyday in practice by newcomer Jeremy Cash, former WR Brandon Braxton, and youngsters such as Chris Tavarez and Britton Grier. Also, it can’t be ruled out that Issac Blakeney won’t see some time on defense, as he has established himself as one of the team’s best pass-rushers last spring from the safety position. To fill Hatcher’s void up front, the Blue Devils have Jamal Bruce, along with two 300-pound players in Will Bryant (recently returned from injury) and Steven Ingram. To put it in March Madness terms, I wouldn’t “go Sharpie” on anyone’s starting job quite yet.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Blue Devils have struggled in the red zone in recent years. The coaching staff has utilized an option style attack with Brandon Connette or Anthony Boone under center. Fans and media alike have questioned the success of this approach, as it seemed to lack creativity and often stalled drives. This year, however, it appears that won’t be the case. Coach Cutcliffe has used the “best 22 players” mantra as a focus for this offseason, and the quarterback position has been one of the most impacted. With three players with significant game experience under center in Sean Renfree, Connette, and Boone, Duke is looking at ways to put all of their weapons on the field, especially in red zone situations. Based on early returns from this spring, both Boone and Connette will not only be used under center, but also at tailback and tight end. As two of the better athletes on the roster, these alignments, if nothing else, should have fans excited for the fall.
Kenny Anunike granted 6th year of eligibility
This is big-time news. Duke defensive end Kenny Anunike has been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. Based on the ruling, he is eligible to participate in the 2012 and 2013 football seasons.
A 6-5, 250-pound native Galena, Ohio, Anunike appeared in four games last fall before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Tulane. Prior to the injury, he was leading the ACC in quarterback sacks (4.0) and was credited with 13 total tackles including five for loss on the year. Anunike has not participated in spring drills while recovering from knee surgery performed last fall.
Anunike also missed the 2008 season while recovering from knee surgery. He played in all 12 games in 2009 as a reserve tight end before shifting to the defensive line, where he registered 23 tackles in 12 games during the 2010 campaign.
Kelby Brown undergoes 2nd ACL repair
Duke rising junior Kelby Brown underwent his 2nd ACL repair on February 22, putting his health for the 2012 season into question. The revision surgery was performed on Wednesday by Dr. Claude T. Moorman III, Duke’s head team physician and the director of Duke Sports Medicine. Brown originally injured the knee on November 20, 2010 against Georgia Tech, and underwent surgery weeks later. He re-injured the knee earlier in February 2012.
A 6-2, 220-pound native of Matthews, N.C., Brown has played in 19 games with 17 starting assignments over the past two years. Last year, he led Duke in tackles for loss (7.0) while posting 65 total stops and received the program’s Mike Curtis Award as Duke’s most outstanding linebacker.
Brown’s career totals include 128 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, four fumble recoveries, one caused fumble, three pass breakups and seven quarterback pressures. In addition, he is a two-time selection to the Academic All-ACC squad.
Should Kelby not be available to play this fall, he does have a redshirt year available, and would therefore still have two years of eligibility remaining. It should also be noted that WR Conner Vernon pointed to Kelby’s younger (but bigger) brother, Kyler, as one of the young Blue Devils who has been most impressive this spring.
Preferred walk-on program thriving
Ok, so I don’t leave you in Negative Town, let’s talk about another bright spot for the Duke Football program. Since Coach Cutcliffe’s arrival, he has built the walk-on program at Duke into an asset for Duke Football. First, allow me to give you some perspective.
A 5’10” 165 pound, slow-footed freshman from upstate New York enrolled at Duke a few (I mean several – ok, fine, it was over a decade) years ago, and within his welcome packet to the university, he received a letter inviting him to walk on to the football team. While I did not elect to subject my body to the punishment of collegiate football, I imagine several other equally qualified freshmen received similar letters back then, and some probably did. Flash forward to 2012, and Duke Football secures a commitment from one of the top 10 long snappers in the nation…as a preferred walk-on.
Slightly different use of the walk-on program, eh? Last week’s commitment from Thomas Hennessy was just the latest among several preferred walk-ons for the program. When Coach Cutcliffe arrived in Durham, he had one quarterback to get through spring practice. This year, he has seven, including two preferred walk-ons. That’s seven QBs to practice snaps under center, seven QBs to practice handoffs to RBs, seven QBs to practice routes with WRs, and seven QBs for defenders to pass rush. Across the board, the walk-ons that Coach Cutcliffe have brought in have improved the program by allowing for more reps and more productive practices. While many of these preferred walk-ons may not make a significant individual contribution to the box score, they make their teammates better everyday in practice.
Sweet, I knew I could make it through an article without mentioning Peyton Manning (he’s been working out at Duke, in case you’ve been living under a rock). So, I haven’t forgotten about Football Friday, but my schedule simply doesn’t allow me to commit the time needed to it. But I’ll make a deal with you, since we’re all feeling down today. This won’t be the last football update you read this spring. We’ll keep it coming, as time allows. And also, we’ll have lots of prospect interviews and several updates from current players and coaches as we head towards the spring game – March 31, Wallace Wade Stadium, 1:00 PM ET. Be there. I’ll be looking for you.
Duke senior WR Conner Vernon is poised to rewrite the Duke and ACC record books during his final campaign in Durham this fall. Vernon will enter his senior year just 34 catches and 842 yards shy of the ACC career record-holders. After flirting with the NFL Draft earlier this offseason, Vernon is committed to finishing what he started at Duke before moving on to the next level.
BDN caught up with the Blue Devils’ star receiver after spring practice earlier this week.
BDN: You’ve been limited by injury this spring. First of all, how is your health right now?
It’s better. I’m back out there, I was out there today for practice, and I’m looking forward to getting back out there.
BDN: Should fans expect to see you in the Spring Game on March 31?
Yes, that’s what I’m hoping.
BDN: After three All-ACC caliber seasons at Duke, you considered entering the NFL Draft this year. Can you talk a little bit about that process and ultimately, why did you decide to return to Duke for your senior year?
Really, it just came down to just trying to finish what I came here to do at Duke, and that’s to get them back to the program they once were. I really just wanted to jump start the new direction that Coach Cutcliffe has turned this program around in. Also, finishing up graduating and getting my degree was a really big thing for me and my family, so that also played a role into it.
BDN: As a rising senior, you now become one of the veterans and leaders on this team. What is your assessment of the team in spring practice so far, especially as you compare it to past seasons?
This team, we’re a really young team, but we have a lot of talent, which is something we’ve had in the past, but I think the difference now is that we have a lot more depth at each position, and that’s going to help us a lot. We have a lot of young guys who have grown up a lot this spring, who have shown that they can play at this level, which is a big improvement from prior years. We have a very good recruiting class coming in that will have some guys who can play right away, and we’re hoping that will push some of the older guys to keep working to keep getting better. Really, that’s what this spring is all about. The competition level has been a lot higher than it has been in the past.
BDN: You mentioned the youth on this team and the higher level of competition in practices. Who are some of your younger teammates that have impressed you this spring?
From what I’ve seen so far, some of the young guys who have really stepped up is Blair Holliday at the receiver position, he’s taken on a starting role and has been playing a lot with the 1 offense, he’s really stepped up. On the defensive side, Kyler Brown, Kelby’s younger brother, he’s been all over the field, flying around, so that’s been really good to see. I’m definitely missing a few, there’s been a bunch. Dezmond Johnson has really stepped up on defense. There’s been a bunch of guys I’m missing right now, but when we pull up the tape you’ll see flashes from some guys that are really impressive and things that they haven’t shown in the past.
BDN: Over the past couple of seasons, Duke has struggled to score in the red zone. Why do you think this is? What are you working on this spring to improve the red zone offense?
I think it’s really just an execution standpoint, for some reason down there we just lack execution. It’s something we have to fix because we have to score points down there, field goals aren’t going to cut it, we need touchdowns. Also, down there execution is very important because you don’t have a lot of room to work with. It’s difficult down there to throw the ball so we have to have our running game, which has stepped up a lot this spring. That’s something we’re looking forward to this fall, being able to run the ball down there as opposed to relying on the past.
BDN: You’re closing in on an historic career at Duke, and looking to lead this team back to a bowl game in your senior year. What are some of the things that come to mind as you reflect back on your decision to come to Duke and your career here?
If I could do it all over again, I would do everything the same. This has been home for the last four years and it’s been a great four years. I’ve been put in a position with this offense and Coach Cutcliffe’s game plan to be able to be successful and have these kind of records, it’s an honor. From the moment I stepped on campus to where we are now, the difference is monumental. From our new facilities, we have the new Pascal Indoor Facility. When I first got here, the Brooks Facility wasn’t up yet, so I got to see that develop. Then we’ve added to our weight room, and really just the buzz around town is that Duke Football isn’t an afterthought now. It’s what’s happening now around Durham, and that’s something that was nonexistent before Coach Cutcliffe got here. Getting to see that grow has really been fun to watch.
BDN: Thanks a lot, Conner, and best of luck this fall.
Duke Football is hitting the field earlier than most schools for spring practice and most of the players are ready to go. BDN went one on one with the Blue Devils star wide receiver Conner Vernon who is coming off an injury but you would never know it talking to him.