Tag Archives: Donovan Varner

Looking at the Stats: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Duke notched their first win of the season on Saturday with a 20-19 victory over the Boston College Eagles to improve to 1-2 on the season. The victory was Coach David Cutcliffe's third conference road victory and 13th overall win at the helm of the Blue Devils.

With three games in the books, season statistics start to have meaning by showing trends so here is a look at where Duke is shining and where they are in need of improvement. Even though this article is titled The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, there is no more relevant starting point than the ugly.

The Ugly

Duke's performance in the Red Zone has been abysmal! In fact, Duke is ranked 120 out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams having ventured into the Red Zone 10 times with a success rate of 40 percent. Duke has missed three field goals, thrown an interception, turned the ball over on downs, and had time expire to end the 1st half on the six unsuccessful possessions.

The need to solve the Red Zone woes cannot be overstated. The Blue Devils must capitalize and come away with points at a much, much higher percentage on future trips into the Red Zone.

Equally troubling is Duke's 0-6 performance on Field Goal attempts. A healthy Will Snyderwine back on the field should solve this problem. However, until Snyderwine is able to resume the kicking duties, Duke could be looking to try to convert fourth down into first down when in field goal range.

Enough discussion on the ugly stuff...

The Good

Defensive End Kenny Anunike leads the ACC in Sacks with four and is third in Tackles for Loss with five. An inability to pressure the quarterback has been a concern for the Blue Devils’ defense so Anunike's performance the past two games is an exciting development and a statistic worth watching closely the next couple of weeks.

Staying on the defensive side of the ball, Matt Daniels is fifth in the ACC in Tackles averaging 10.3 per game and Kelby Brown is 17th with 6.7.

A known strength of the Blue Devils offense is talent and depth at the wide receiver position. All three of Duke's starting wide outs are ranked in the ACC Top 10 in Receptions per Game. Conner Vernon is tied for third with 6.7, Donovan Varner is number six with 6, and Brandon Braxton is number seven with 5.7. Additionally, Vernon is tied for fifth in Receiving Yards per Game averaging 97.3.

Combining the Blue Devils’ wide receiver talent with quarterback Sean Renfree, results in Duke being ranked 25 of 120 nationally, and five of 12 in the ACC, in Passing Offense averaging 296.67 yards through the air per game.

Renfree set Duke’s single game completions record in the game against Boston College. His 41 completions this past Saturday surpassed Thaddeus Lewis’ previous mark of 40 completions set in 2009 against N.C. State.

Another noteworthy performer is true freshman Jamison Crowder who is ranked fourth in the ACC in Kick Returns averaging 21.2 yards per kick. Crowder has displayed good speed and looked good running the ball so fans should keep an eye on him because he has a good chance to break off a couple of long returns before this season is over.

Lee Butler is fourth in the ACC in Punt Returns averaging 7.7 yards per return.

The Bad

At 18.3 points per game, Duke is 11th in the ACC in Scoring Offense. With the arsenal of weapons available on offense, this is a statistic which must improve and a statistic everyone associated with the program expects to improve. Simply stated, Duke is too talented on the offensive side of the ball to continue to struggle scoring points.

Finally, the Blue Devils have failed to consistently run the ball in their first three games and are currently rank tied for 10th in the ACC at 96.3 yards per game. The struggles can be partially attributed to injuries sustained by Desmond Scott in the first game of the season and Josh Snead during preseason, but Duke needs to show improvement in the running game as the season progresses.

Juwan Thompson has been impressive averaging 5.4 yards per carry on the season but he needs help sharing the running responsibilities. The pending return to action of Desmond Scott in the next week or two will certainly provide Thompson the support he requires as Scott has been Duke’s leading rusher the past two seasons.

Moving Forward

The next two weeks will be critical as Duke faces non-conference foe Tulane (2-1), in Wallace Wade Stadium, followed by a trip to Miami to face the Florida International Golden Panthers (3-0). The expectation is Duke will build off the road victory over Boston College and play inspired football against the last two non-conference opponents this season. The objective is to reach Bye Week with a 3-2 record and then focus upon the tough ACC schedule in October and November.

Blue Devil Nation will be all over the action providing Duke Fans complete football coverage including an updated look at the statistics after the trip to play FIU.

BDN Rapid Reaction: Duke 20, Boston College 19

Duke emerged the victor in Chestnut Hill this afternoon with a 20-19 victory over the Boston College Eagles. It was an up-and-down game for both sides, but the Blue Devils were able to persevere.

No good!

Miscues in the kicking game were the story for both teams, highlighted by Nate Freese's 23-yard FG try off the left upright with 43 seconds remaining. Freese also had a costly missed extra point earlier in the game. Duke had more than its fair share of kicking struggles, headlined by a blocked Alex King punt, a missed 33-yard FG by Jeff Ijjas, and a kickoff out of bounds by Paul Asack. Duke may have come away with the victory, but the question marks in the kicking game persist, and one has to wonder how long Duke can leave freshman Will Monday on the sideline if Will Snyderwine remains injured.

Killer V's back on track

After an inconsistent start to the season, Duke's dynamic receiving duo returned to their All-ACC form on Saturday, finishing with 18 catches and 194 receiving yards combined. Both took a few hard hits from the BC defense, but managed to secure the football and move the chains. Junior Conner Vernon had two impressive TD catches and finished with 6 catches and 112 yards. Senior Donovan Varner had his best game of the season and a career-high 12 catches. Brandon Braxton added 9 catches for 60 yards and tight end Cooper Helfet finished with 6 receptions for 59 yards. Juwan Thompson had 104 all-purpose yards, and overall, the Duke offense racked up 465 yards of total offense.

Renfree gets his mojo back

The story of the day for the Blue Devils, however, was the play of Duke QB Sean Renfree, who finally put up the kind of numbers Duke fans have come to expect from the redshirt-junior. Despite hit after hit from Luke Kuechly and the BC defense, Renfree stood strong and finished with 40 completions, 359 yards, and 2 touchdowns. His 1 interception came on a tipped pass that certainly could have been caught. Perhaps most importantly, it was Renfree, and not redshirt-freshman Anthony Boone, who pushed his way far enough into the end zone for the go-ahead 1-yard TD in the 4th quarter. This definitely was a performance for the second-year starting QB to build on.

Costly mistakes

Duke fans have seen their share of close losses over the years, and it certainly seemed like this was shaping up to be another heartbreaker. Instead, the disappointment falls on Boston College, who squandered their opportunity to win in the final seconds. The Blue Devils, however, made things difficult on themselves with numerous costly mistakes. In addition to the kicking woes, the Blue Devils were whistled for 9 devastating penalties for 79 yards. At least three of those penalties negated first downs for the offense, and a personal foul on the final BC drive nearly cost the game. The Blue Devils will have to eliminate these costly mistakes if they hope to play winning football. Fans and players should enjoy this victory today, and carry the good vibes into next weekend against Tulane. Starting tomorrow, however, it is back to work for #dukegang.

Bring on the Green Wave! WE ARE DUKE!

BDN previews Duke’s season opener vs. Richmond

2nd and 10 from the Duke 35 yard line

Renfree drops back, completes a pass to senior Austin Kelly across the middle. Kelly tries to elude a tackle but is brought down by Quan Sturdivant at the Duke 41 yard line. The clock hits zero. The Tar Heels celebrate and reclaim the Victory Bell. Duke’s 2010 season is over.

That was the last we saw of Sean Renfree and the Blue Devils, all the way back on November 27, 2010. Over the past nine months, Duke’s coaches and players have shed blood, sweat, and tears in preparation for the 2011 season. The 3-win 2010 season is gone, but not forgotten. It’s week one of the 2011 college football season, and time for Blue Devil fans to recite their familiar credo, “this year has to be better, right?”

Sean Renfree is ready to lead the Blue Devil offense in his second year as a starter


Second-year starter Sean Renfree and the Blue Devil offense have the potential to be one of the ACC’s top units in 2011. In order for that potential to be realized, the Blue Devils must accomplish two things: take care of the football and establish a consistent, effective running game. After struggling with turnovers early in 2010, the Blue Devils showed dramatic improvement in their final five games. Turnovers have continued to be a point of emphasis all offseason. Junior Desmond Scott and sophomore Juwan Thompson will pace the ground game and have had an excellent training camp running behind a big, experienced offensive line. Dave Harding has stepped in flawlessly for the injured Brian Moore at center, and he will have to play at a high level in his first college game action snapping the football. With several question marks on defense, the margin for error for the Duke offense is slim.

Defensively, Duke needs to see big games from their returning stars in senior Matt Daniels, sophomore Kelby Brown, and senior Charlie Hatcher. These three players will be supported by a group of talented but mostly inexperienced Blue Devil defenders, a typical recipe for inconsistency. Similar to the offense, there are two primary goals for the Duke defense in 2011: limit explosive offensive plays and improve their play at the line of scrimmage. Duke has a deep group of high-level athletes in their secondary, and the new 4-2-5 defensive scheme will rely on their ability to make plays all over the field in an effort to slow opposing offenses. In his second year as a starter, Ross Cockrell will have to develop into a shutdown cornerback for the Blue Devils. Seven redshirt-freshmen will enter the rotation on the defensive line for Duke in 2011, and the maturation of these young athletes will be key to the defense’s success. Expect to see flashes of ability from players like Jordan DeWalt-Ondigo, Jamal Wallace, and Dezmond Johnson. If the Blue Devils are able to successfully execute their new defensive gameplan, this group’s results should be greater than the sum of its parts.

If Duke is going to make a bowl game in 2011, their special teams unit will have to be special. The Blue Devils have the talent in the kicking game to dominate special teams at times this season. Will Snyderwine has established himself as one of the top kickers in the country. Alex King is a proven veteran with experience and versatility. Freshman Jamison Crowder is a playmaker at kick and punt return. Improved depth across the roster should lead to better kick and punt return units. The pieces are in place for a solid special teams effort; the players simply have to execute.



To put it lightly, Duke was plagued by turnovers in 2010. Duke’s 28 turnovers, however, are eclipsed by Richmond’s 32 turnovers a season ago. Needless to say, the team that takes care of the football stands to have the best chance of winning this matchup. Late in the season, Sean Renfree appeared to turn a corner, throwing just three interceptions in the final five games. Limiting turnovers has been a point of emphasis for the Duke offense all spring and summer, while the Duke defense is hoping to create more turnovers than they did a year ago. If the Blue Devils can build a first half lead, expect the Duke secondary to make some plays when the Spiders are forced to pass. Duke should win the turnover battle.

Duke's young defensive linemen will need to pressure Richmond's Aaron Corp


Richmond plays a physical game of football, and in the last two meetings between these schools, dominated the line of scrimmage. The Duke defense has struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks. With youth along the defensive line and a pass-happy offense, Duke will rarely win the sack battle. The key will be to limit the loss of yards on offense and to make some timely tackles for loss against the Spiders. The Spiders did graduate their top 3 tacklers from 2010, but still have the players to apply some pressure. Richmond will win the sack battle.

3rd Down Production

Richmond converted just 34% of their 3rd downs in 2010, while the Blue Devils were able to convert 40% of 3rd down opportunities. With a veteran offense returning, Duke should again have success on 3rd downs, utilizing their deep receiving corps to pick up 1st down yardage. The Duke defense has struggled on 3rd down in recent years, but with an improved secondary and a better scheme, they should do a better job of limiting big conversions. Duke will win the 3rd down battle.

Ross Cockrell will have a tough matchup with All-CAA WR Tre Grey, BDN Photo

Explosive Plays

The game features a trio of All-Conference wide receivers, all capable of opening the game up with an explosive play. Tre Gray will be a challenge for the Duke secondary, and his matchup with Duke’s Ross Cockrell will be one to watch. The “Killer V’s” will be up to their usual tricks, but Richmond will have to pick their poison as senior Cooper Helfet and sophomore Brandon Braxton also have big-play ability. On the ground, the Spiders will utilize a committee approach, while Duke will feature a heavy dose of Desmond Scott and Juwan Thompson, two players who have dominated training camp with big plays. Duke has too many weapons on offense; they will win the explosive play battle.

Rushing TDs

Richmond will look to establish their running game early, and if they are able to control the line of scrimmage, it could be another long season opener for the Blue Devils. Duke will be able to counter with a veteran offensive line and three talented runners of their own in Desmond Scott, Juwan Thompson, and Brandon Connette. With a deep offensive line, Duke should be able to run the ball into the end zone when needed. The Duke defense will have their hands full with trying to keep Richmond’s Kendall Gaskins out of the end zone, but Duke has a deeper stable of proven runners. Duke will punch a few in on the ground.

Field Goals

Both teams feature outstanding All-Conference kickers. Duke’s Will Snyderwine has connected on 86.4% of his career field goal opportunities. Richmond’s Will Kamin has hit 90.9% of his career field goal opportunities. This matchup is a push.


Since the arrival of David Cutcliffe in Durham, the Blue Devils have been one of the most disciplined teams in the ACC. In 2010, Duke committed just 55 penalties for an average of 40.6 yards per game. The Spiders were even better, committing just 50 penalties for an average of 35.5 yards per game. That trend should continue under new Head Coach Wayne Lineburg. This matchup is a push.

Let's get this season started!


Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us. Fool us three times, not going to happen. Duke is ready for Richmond. There are sure to be some first-game jitters, but Duke won't get tangled in the Spiders' web. Sean Renfree has emerged as a leader on this Blue Devil team, and he will guide the Duke offense to a big night. The game will be won (or lost) along the line of scrimmage, and Duke’s linemen are bigger and stronger than they were two years ago. Desmond Scott and Juwan Thompson will have big days on the ground. Playing from behind, Richmond will be unable to establish a consistent power running game, forcing Corp to make plays through the air against the deep Duke secondary.  The Blue Devils should come away from this game with a lot of positives to build on and a lot to learn from, while Duke fans will leave Wallace Wade Stadium thinking, “this year will be better!”

Duke 34

Richmond 17

Renfree Highlights 60-snap scrimmage

Sean Renfree paced the Blue Devil offense in a situational scrimmage Tuesday evening. -BDN Photo

DURHAM, N.C. – Redshirt junior quarterback Sean Renfree completed 12-of-14 passes for 101 yards and one touchdown to highlight Duke’s 60-play situational scrimmage on Tuesday night at the Brooks Practice Facility.

Renfree’s scoring toss covered 10 yards to senior wideout Donovan Varner while senior tight end Cooper Helfet caught a scrimmage-high three passes for 45 yards.

“We got some good work in tonight,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said.  “We put ourselves in game-like situations to get a better feel.  This is the best camp we’ve had since we’ve been here.  It has been very competitive and very physical.  From August 8th until now, we’ve become a better football team.”

Sophomore running back Juwan Thompson headlined the ground attack with a 20-yard touchdown run.  The Blue Devils scrimmaged without the services of running backs Patrick Kurunwune and Josh Snead, and Cutcliffe expressed concern with the depth at the position.

“Josh Snead got hurt yesterday,” Cutcliffe said.  “We’ll wait for further evaluation by our medical staff before giving an update.  Patrick has missed some time.  Jay (Hollingsworth) has missed some time.  You do the math.”

Duke’s defense received a lift when senior safety Matt Daniels returned a fumble 29 yards for a touchdown.

The Blue Devils open the 2011 season at home against Richmond on September 3 at 7 p.m. in Wallace Wade Stadium.  Tickets are available online at www.GoDuke.com/tickets or by calling the Duke Athletics Ticket Office at 919-681-2583.

BDN Video – Donovan Varner just wants to win

Duke Football held it's first practice of the season in the sweltering North Carolina heat on Monday and BDN was there to bring you this one on one interview with Donovan Varner.  Going into his senior season, Varner is not concerned with personal stats or numbers.  "I just want this team to win," said Varner.  Check out his answers for yourself via BDN Video -

Duke Football 2011: Is Bowl Eligibility a Reality?

Renfree handing the ball to Scott should be a staple in 2011The fourth season with David Cutcliffe at the helm of Duke Football is just around the corner and optimism prevails. Is this the year Duke will win the six games necessary to qualify for a bowl game? The Blue Devils have posted 16 consecutive losing seasons since going 8-5 in 1994. In order to stop that streak, Duke will need better on field performance in all areas of the game.


Categorically the biggest unknown for Duke in 2011 is the defensive line as evidenced by Coach Cutcliffe’s recent statement: "The biggest question mark for us is the defensive front, we need to be much improved there compared to a year ago, and if we do that I feel we can be a good solid football team."

The interior line will be anchored by redshirt senior nose guard Charlie Hatcher and four additional returning lettermen: Kenny Anunike, Justin Foxx, Curtis Hazelton and Sydney Sarmiento. However, depth will be critical to keeping the defensive line fresh for sixty minutes and establishing depth will be dependent upon the youngsters stepping up and proving they are capable of performing.

Redshirt freshmen Jamal Bruce, Steve Ingram, Jamal Wallace, Will Bryant, Dez Johnson, Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo and Nick Sink need to prove they are ready to play quality downs along the defensive line.

Possessing a cornerback who can shutdown the opponent’s top wide receiver provides the defensive coordinator with opportunities to implement multiple blitz packages, which pressure the quarterback and create turnovers. For Duke, the cornerback with the talent to develop into a lockdown defender is sophomore Ross Cockrell.

Duke was minus 11 in turnovers in the 2010 season, which ranked last in the ACC. It is hard to win ball games when you turn the ball over more than your opponent. In 2011, the defense must generate turnovers and recent statements from defensive leader Matt Daniels indicate the 4-2-5 will be geared toward generating turnovers. Daniels stated, “We’re going to be applying a lot of pressure, with pressure come turnovers. The defense has become a lot more aggressive with its scheme, the scheme that Knowles has drawn up for us. We’re ready to get after it and show the world who we are as a defense.”

To be successful the new scheme will have to accomplish two things Duke did not achieve in 2010; pressure the quarterback and stop the run. Duke recorded only 12 sacks last season and allowed opponents to rush for 208 yards per game. Both those marks ranked last in the ACC.

Duke ranked last in the ACC in rush defense, pass defense, total defense, sacks, interceptions and turnover margin last season so the 4-2-5 defense must prove to be a more effective scheme in order for Duke to make the next step as a program and qualify for a bowl game.


In his first full season as Duke’s starting quarterback, Renfree passed for 3,114 yards and 14 touchdowns. Unfortunately, Renfree also tossed 17 interceptions, which cost Duke dearly in losses against Wake Forest, Army and Miami. Renfree recovered from his early season woes and only threw two interceptions over Duke’s last five games.

The media looked past Renfree, when casting votes for the Preseason All ACC team, giving Florida State’s unproven EJ Manuel the nod at quarterback. Hopefully, this omission will stir Renfree’s competitive juices and motivate him to go out and prove the talking heads wrong.

Duke’s offense is potentially the ACC’s most potent, but in order to convert potential into reality, Coach Cutcliffe needs Renfree to be superb week in and week out. Seeing as Renfree’s knee injury will be almost two full years in the past, he should be fully recovered both physically and mentally, which will facilitate his ability to lead Duke to victories.

Renfree has been named to the preseason Davey O’Brien Award Watch List. The Davey O’Brien Award is presented annually to the nation’s top quarterback.

This Dynamic Duo has led the ACC in receptions the past two seasons. Donovan Varner caught 65 passes for 1047 yards and eight touchdowns, in 2009. In 2010, Conner Vernon caught 73 passes for 973 yards and four touchdowns.

With Sean Renfree a year more experienced, expectations are high for the Duke passing attack so if Varner and Vernon are both competitive for All ACC honors, at the end of the season, it means Duke’s passing offense performed to expectations.

Both Varner and Vernon have been named to the preseason Biletnikoff Award Watch List. The Biletnikoff Award recognizes the nation’s top wide receiver.

Conventional wisdom states games are won or lost in the trenches and Duke has steadily improved along the offensive line since Coach Cutcliffe arrived in Durham. The line ranked third in the ACC in sacks allowed per pass attempt in 2010. In 2011, improved run blocking will allow the Blue Devils to execute a balanced offensive attack capable of both scoring points and eating up large chunks of the clock with sustained drives.

Depth should be a positive factor for the offensive line in 2011 as six lettermen, including four starters, return. Additionally, talented redshirt freshmen Laken Tomlinson and Takoby Cofield are expected to pressure the starters for playing time.

Center Brian Moore has been named to the Rimington Trophy Preseason Watch List. The Rimington Trophy recognizes the nation’s best center.

With the improvements being made up front, Duke should see improvement in the running game. Junior Desmond Scott has been the Blue Devils leading rusher for the past two seasons rushing for 549 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore. His 35 yard touchdown run, on a toss sweep, in the fourth quarter against Virginia, was one of the top individual plays in the 2010 season.

Sophomores Josh Snead and Juwon Thompson will see lots of time at tailback alongside Scott. Snead was plagued by minor injuries throughout his freshman season.


With a tough home schedule, it is paramount the Blue Devils take care of business on the road. The games at Boston College, at Florida International and at Virginia are all games the Blue Devils are capable of winning. Victories in two of those contests would go a long way toward securing the six wins required to qualify for a bowl game. Victories in all three would be preferred.

The Blue Devils also play road games against Miami and North Carolina. A victory in either of those games would be considered an upset. Speaking of upsets…

The Blue Devils will have ample opportunity to defeat a Top 25 opponent with home games scheduled against Stanford, Florida State and Virginia Tech who are all ranked in the various preseason polls. Is this the year Duke knocks off a ranked opponent? To reach bowl eligibility, the Blue Devils might need to knock off one of those big name opponents at Wallace Wade Stadium.

Duke has another opportunity when they face Miami on the road in Coral Gables. The Hurricanes are also ranked in the preseason Top 25.

Coach Cutcliffe is 1-12 in November at Duke. With a tough schedule during the middle of the season, which includes games against Florida State and Virginia Tech in October, the Blue Devils will need to take care of business in November, on the road at Miami (Nov 5), at Virginia (Nov 12), and at North Carolina (Nov 26), and at home against Georgia Tech on November 19.

The past two seasons, Duke has gone 1-3 and 0-4 in November games. In 2011, there is a good chance Duke will need to win at least two ball games in November in order to become bowl eligible.

Every Duke fan should breakout a fat red Sharpie and circle November 19 on their calendar as the game against Georgia Tech in Wallace Wade Stadium could be the make or break game for bowl eligibility in 2011. The Blue Devils might not pull off the big upset in 2011, with a win over Stanford, Florida State or Virginia Tech, but the game against Georgia Tech, in Wallace Wade, on November 19, is a game that should make Yellow Jackets’ fans nervous.