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.
DURHAM, N.C. – Quarterback Sean Renfree completed 14-of-17 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns to highlight Duke’s 80-play gridiron scrimmage on Saturday morning in the Pascal Field House.
Renfree’s first two scoring strikes of the day went to tight ends David Reeves (30 yards) and Issac Blakeney (71 yards) before he found wideout Blair Holliday for a nine-yard touchdown. Five of Renfree’s completions went for 15 or more yards as the rising redshirt senior averaged 15.7 yards per completion.
Wideout Corey Gattis led all receivers with six catches for 81 yards including a 42-yard touchdown from quarterback Thomas Sirk. Holliday finished with five receptions for 65 yards while Reeves had three grabs for 51 yards. Sirk enjoyed the morning by completing five-of-nine throws for 75 yards, rushing four times for 54 yards and catching a pair of passes for 25 yards.
Quarterback Sean Schroeder hit on five-of-nine passes for 46 yards while rushing three times for 41 yards. Running back Josh Snead carried the ball seven times for 27 yards while Juwan Thompson contributed a three-yard touchdown run.
Safety Jordon Byas paced the Blue Devil defense with one quarterback sack and one pass break-up. Nose guard Jamal Bruce, safety Walt Canty and linebacker Austin Gamble each registered one tackle for loss while cornerback Garett Patterson logged two pass break-ups.
Duke will host the program’s annual Spring Game presented by PNC Bank on Saturday, March 31 at Wallace Wade Stadium. Kick-off is set for 1 p.m., and admission is free of charge.
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 Football will hold its annual spring game this Saturday at 3 PM in Wallace Wade Stadium. The event is free to the public and offers fans a chance to get a first look at the 2011 Blue Devils. Duke men’s lacrosse will host Georgetown at 1 PM in Koskinen stadium, so be sure to come out and support Duke athletics on what should be a fun Saturday in Durham!
Rejoice, Blue Devil fans! Football Friday is here. Ok, today is not a day for rejoicing. But let’s at least talk some football to take our minds off the…disappointment. And after today's day of mourning, maybe you can put that bottle down and head out to Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday afternoon to check out the 2011 Blue Devils? Think you could do that for me, sport? Sure, why not!
Well, if you do go, and I truly hope you will, here are five questions to think about as you watch the spring game in Wallace Wade on Saturday:
1. Can the Duke defensive line slow down the run?
I’m sure most have already determined that I’m an eternal optimist when it comes to Duke football. That being said, I have no delusions of Duke having a dominant defense in 2011. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and for a squad that finished 2010 ranking113th out of 120 FBS programs against the run, Duke has a long way to go. In 2009, the Blue Devils ranked 74th against the run, and I’m hoping that with the addition of Rick Petri and a group of young and athletic linemen, Duke moves back in that direction. The defensive line should benefit from going up against a pretty good and healthy Duke offensive line, so this is definitely a matchup to watch on Saturday.
2. Can the Duke defensive line pressure the quarterback?
I promise, all the questions won’t be about the defensive line – just most of them. In addition to struggling against the run in 2010, Duke finished 108th in pass efficiency defense, 113th in sacks, and 109th in tackles for a loss. These are not numbers we want to show potential donors when pitching the Wallace Wade upgrades. There is no question that there was room for improvement in the Duke secondary last year as well, but in general, opposing quarterbacks were way too comfortable throwing against the Blue Devils. The good news is that Rick Petri comes from a Miami defense that led the country in tackles for loss, so he may have a few tricks to help Duke find their way into the backfield. We’ll also have to see if new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has any new ideas for how to bring pressure from Duke’s linebackers and safeties.
3. Have Sean Renfree and the Duke offense taken a step forward this spring, especially in terms of taking care of the football?
In an earlier edition of Football Friday, I mentioned the key to 2011 success likely lies in the ability of the offense to take care of the football. The 2010 Blue Devils were turnover machines, finishing last in the ACC and 112th in the country in turnover margin. With a full year of starting experience under his belt, the hope is that Sean Renfree and his receivers will be able to eliminate many of their mistakes from a season ago. Of course, in the spring game, this is difficult to evaluate. If the offense takes care of the ball, is that because the defense didn’t apply pressure (see question 2)? These are things that the coaching staff, and fans, should keep a close eye on Saturday.
4. Will Duke be able to consistently run the ball behind a stronger, deeper offensive line?
If you’ve followed some of Duke’s spring practice reports, you might think that Duke has a stable of Heisman-caliber running backs, along with dual-threat QB Brandon Connette. Early in spring practice, many of Duke’s young defensive linemen were still getting their feet wet, and the defense as a whole was adapting to a new coordinator. By the spring game, many of those kinks should be worked out for the defense, and it should be a good matchup in the trenches. Duke’s running backs have been a little beat up this spring, but those who have played, have played fairly well. A consistent rushing attack will alleviate some of the pressure on Duke’s passing game and even the defense.
5. Who will step up and be the leaders of this year’s Blue Devils?
I debated whether to talk about leadership or surprise players in this last question, and I think leadership is more important. Some of the surprise players may not even be on campus yet, but this year’s leaders have to be. If Duke wants any chance of a bowl game in 2011, they will need a group of strong, vocal leaders on both sides of the ball. With a year of starting experience, I expect Sean Renfree to take control of the Blue Devil offense, aided by a group of upperclassmen at running back (Jay Hollingsworth and Desmond Scott), receiver (Donovan Varner and Conner Vernon), and the offensive line (Kyle Hill and Brian Moore). Defensively, leadership is much more of a question mark. Charlie Hatcher is a warrior and the lone senior along the defensive line, while seniors Matt Daniels and Lee Butler (who has missed all of spring practice) should anchor the secondary. Outside of those three players, Duke lacks significant game experience on defense, which means that players like sophomore Kelby Brown and junior Jordon Byas may have to assume leadership roles. On Saturday, keep an eye on the sidelines and in the huddle to see which players are ready to step up and lead this young Blue Devil team.
Even in the middle of March Madness, Football Friday is back to satisfy your weekly craving for Duke football. So far, we’ve covered Duke’s incoming freshman class, football recruiting 101, and a look at the fall schedule. While we love us some good recruiting scoop here at BDN, we think it’s also just as important to talk about the players we already have. With that in mind, this week’s Football Friday takes a look at the early reviews from Duke’s 2011 spring practice. [private]
Duke travels to Chapel Hill
This weekend is all about Duke vs. North Carolina. The Tar Heels have dominated the Blue Devils on the gridiron of late, and that’s a trend that we’d all like to see come to an end this fall. More importantly, however, is to come away with a victory and the #1 seed on the hardwood Saturday, and I think the Blue Devils have a great chance to do it. The two teams match up with each other poorly, and that should make for another very interesting game. In the first game, UNC had no answer for Duke’s guards, while Duke struggled to contain UNC’s bigs. Kyle Singler and Harrison Barnes essentially neutralized each other. I expect to see much of the same on Saturday, and if either team can get a boost from their bench, that could end up being the difference. It’s Duke and Carolina, with the ACC regular season championship on the line, which means we’re in for another thriller.
The Blue Devils hosted 26 prospects on February 19th for the second of their junior days. The prospects took in Duke’s practice, toured the facilities, and met with the coaches.
Current Duke commit Erich Schneider made the trip from Florida and got to spend a lot of time with Coach Middleton and the tight ends. The long distance award goes to QB Bart Houston, who flew in from California for the weekend. Houston’s recruiting has recently picked up and offers are starting to come in for the talented signal-caller. A few other prospects were in town this past weekend to take in Duke’s spring practice, including offensive lineman Andrew Jelks. Jelks told BDN he really liked Duke and had high praise for Coach Cutcliffe and Coach Luke. The top Tennessee prospect intends to make visits to Knoxville, Tuscaloosa, and Oxford, Mississippi this spring.
Congratulations are due for Duke TE commit David Reeves, who helped Greensboro High School capture a Regional Championship on the hardwood. Best of luck to David and Greensboro as they continue their quest for an Alabama State Title.
With only 12 seniors scheduled to graduate this season, the Blue Devils will be particularly selective this year with their recruiting. No new offers were extended this week, and the top targets remain the same as we discussed in our earlier Football Friday. Invitations have been sent out to prospects for the spring game on March 26, and it will be important for the Blue Devils to have a good showing, both on the field and in the stands.
Duke wrapped up the first half of spring practice on Wednesday, and will take a much-needed two-week break for spring break. No coach or fan wants to hear that Duke is banged up this spring, but it’s the truth. Duke has been practicing with about 55 players this spring, which can make it difficult to assess individual performances. In particular, the Blue Devils are thin on the defensive side of the ball, where Kenny Anunike, Kelby Brown, Lee Butler, and Quan Stevenson are out for the entire spring, and other key players have missed time. At this point, everyone is expected to be healthy for the fall, which obviously is most important, but with a young team, you’d like to see players play as many snaps as possible this spring.
Right now, the strengths of this team should be no surprise to most fans, and it starts with the play at quarterback and receiver. Sean Renfree has had a very good start to spring practice, and Brandon Connette and Anthony Boone have also made strides since the fall. Renfree told BDN last week that he feels as comfortable as he ever has playing football, and it’s shown on the field. For the most part, he’s been on the same page with his receivers and his offensive line, which has made things difficult for the Duke defense. As we mentioned last week, the Duke offense must take a big step forward in taking care of the football if the Blue Devils are to have any success this fall. So far, Renfree and co. look poised to do just that.
For those who have followed Duke’s spring scrimmage statistics, you’ll note that the running backs have put up some impressive numbers. Josh Snead has been out with a MCL sprain, but Desmond Scott. Patrick Kurunuwe, and Juwan Thompson have played well and shown the ability to break out big runs. The real credit here goes to Duke’s offensive line, where they lose only one starter in center Bryan Morgan. Brian Moore shifts over from right guard to take the starting center spot, and Duke has been working in Conor Irwin, Joey Finison, and Dave Harding as well. Overall, the line looks much improved, and projects to start Moore at center, Kyle Hill at left tackle, Harding at left guard, John Coleman at right guard, and Perry Simmons at right tackle. Redshirt-freshmen Laken Tomlinson and Tacoby Cofield have both played well this spring and will likely back-up Coleman and Simmons this fall.
As you can expect with several starters out, defensively, Duke has had mixed results this spring. The theme on defense seems to be athleticism and inconsistency; Duke is clearly stronger and faster than they have been in past years, but they are extremely inexperienced with only 5 seniors on the entire defensive unit. The key for the Blue Devils will be the play up front, and newcomers Jamal Bruce and Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo have shown some play-making ability and will compete for playing time this fall. New DL Coach Rick Petri is working hard with his young linemen, which include 10 underclassmen. Over the course of the spring and fall, the expectation is that this group, led by returnees Charlie Hatcher, Sydney Sarmiento, and Justin Foxx, will develop under Coach Petri into a solid ACC defensive front, but there will continue to be growing pains along the way. Among the defensive backs, the Blue Devils’ athleticism has been evident, as players such as Austin Gamble, C.J. France, and Jordon Byas appear ready to contribute this fall. Duke has the athletes on defense to improve from last season’s ACC-worst unit, and consistency will be the key to the group’s success this fall.
In summary, at this point in the spring, the offense is clearly ahead of the defense, which is what you would expect to see with a more veteran group. I think Coach Cutcliffe said it best with his assessment of the first half of spring practice: “I’m not disappointed at all. What you see is that we don’t have a lot of people who are ready to play 50 or 60 snaps of ACC football, so there’s a learning process to that.” Overall, the effort and energy from the Blue Devils has been excellent. The team continues to work hard this spring and improves each day, which is exactly what you want to see from a young team.
We’ve got lots more football prospect interviews coming your way, so be sure to check back during your March Madness downtime. Until next week, GTHC.