NFL Draft 2013 Preview: Duke Prospects

Will Duke Wideout Conner Vernon Be the First Blue Devil Drafted Since 2004?

Will Duke Wideout Conner Vernon Be the First Blue Devil Drafted Since 2004?

Leading up to this month’s NFL Draft, we’ll be taking a look at each ACC‘s school’s prospects and where they’re slated to be chosen. While 50 ACC players were invited to the NFL Draft Combine, those not in attendance also have ample opportunity to hear their name called between April 25 through 27.

After four phenomenal years at Duke, the school bids farewell to two of the cornerstones of David Cutcliffe’s rebuilding project. And, despite all of their accolades with the Blue Devils, there’s still a decent likelihood both could be waiting around until day three of the draft. Is it fair? Not exactly. But until Duke can churn out successful NFL talent on a regular basis (this would be the first time since 2004 that a Blue Devil is drafted), the program will have to deal with some doubt from the outside.

Conner Vernon, WR, Senior (Projected: Fourth/Fifth Round)

Vernon leaves Duke as the school and ACC’s all-time leading receiver — an accomplishment that has not gone unnoticed by scouts in the lead-up to the NFL Draft. While the 6’1″ 196-pound receiver may appear to lack the size and speed (4.54-second 40-yard dash) to be a consistent deep threat in the pros, it’s his route-running smarts and overall focus that have some evaluators really excited. With great timing, great hands and a keen understanding of pressure situations (shouldering the hopes of a program is no easy feat), he’s a perfect slot receiver that cold provide great value for whoever picks him on day three.

Sean Renfree, QB, Senior (Projected: Seventh Round)

Renfree may not have always put up the gaudiest numbers season-by-season as a Blue Devil, but when you look back at his resume and see over 9,400 passing yards and 50 touchdowns, that’s hard to overlook. The standout passer is the program’s winningest quarterback in well over a decade and despite a less-than-stellar offensive line, he’s shown himself fully capable of hanging tough in the pocket and delivering key passes in the right spots (see: last-minute victory over North Carolina this season). A shoulder injury in the lead-up to the East-West Shrine Game certainly set him back a bit, since he could not throw at the game, at the Combine or Duke’s pro day, but for for those who’ve watched tape of him over the last few seasons, he’s a no-brainer selection in the seventh round.

Previously: Boston College, Clemson

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Way-Too-Early 2013 ACC Football Power Rankings

Can Georgia Tech QB Vad Lee Lead the Yellow Jackets Back to the ACC Title Game?

Can Georgia Tech QB Vad Lee Lead the Yellow Jackets Back to the ACC Title Game?

It’s been a couple months since we last checked in on the ACC’s football teams, and in that time, we’ve been able to digest recent recruits, coaching changes and the new directions of each squad. And with spring practices in full swing, chances are we’ll get to know even more over the coming weeks. Until then, here’s where the ACC‘s 14 (15) teams stand in our way-too-early assessment:

1. Clemson Tigers (Last: 1): Clemson’s offseason focus is obviously on the defensive side of the ball, as they look to build upon the positives of last year. While Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins will be the motors that guide the success of the offense, it really is that defensive unit that will guide just how far this team can go, and if they can achieve their ultimate goal (a national title).

2. Louisville Cardinals (Last: 2): Far too many players are coming back for the defending Sugar Bowl champs to accept anything but another trip to a BCS game. But yet, it seems far too many critics see them doing just that. If coach Charlie Strong can keep that chip on the Cardinals’ shoulders, we may just be looking at a darkhorse contender for the BCS title game.

3. Florida State Seminoles (Last: 3): Can they effectively replace EJ Manuel at the quarterback position? That’s really the linchpin of FSU’s year, and the key question this spring as well. If they can come out of spring with a great handle on who their starting passer is, it means the offense also progresses faster come August, too.

4. Miami (FL) Hurricanes (Last: 4): Too much returning talent on offense for the ‘Canes to go anywhere but up. And while the continuing off-the-field nonsense certainly doesn’t help matters for this group, it could also work to their advantage. With new offensive coordinator James Coley now officially plugged in, I’d highly expect results to come in the form of big season from key playmakers Duke Johnson and Stephen Morris.

5. North Carolina Tar Heels (Last: 6): Technically, the Tar Heels are your defending Coastal division champ, so expectations should be pretty high right off the bat. But as year two of Larry Fedora’s offense takes shape, this team does have a pretty clear shot to challenge for the conference title. The difference-maker may end up being the defense, though, which struggled at times last season, and must replace several key starters.

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ACC 2013 Spring Football Preview: Duke Blue Devils

Anthony Boone Looks Prepared to Lead Duke at Quarterback This Spring

Anthony Boone Looks Prepared to Lead Duke at Quarterback This Spring

As the ACC‘s spring practices get under way, we’ll be previewing the big storylines for each of the league’s 14 (15, in this case) teams. Check back on weekdays for what to look out for during your school’s spring practices and spring game.

Team: Duke Blue Devils

Spring Practice Start Date: March 4

Spring Game Date: April 13

Following Duke’s bowl bid in 18 years, 2012 ended with a lot of question marks for the Blue Devils. Was this the end goal? If not, could this be sustained? And would they be able to quickly rebuild without program cornerstones Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon? Well, after one day of spring practice, it looks as if David Cutcliffe’s program may actually be just fine.

For all the naysayers regarding what this offense would be without the aforementioned Renfree and Vernon, they seemingly forgot about who’s stuck around for Duke. Former backup QB Anthony Boone is already more than capable of stepping into the role as starter, as evidenced by the limited time he spent under center last season. In the only game he started (a win over Virginia) he threw for 212 yards and four touchdowns. And yet, despite performances like that, he’s not taking his role as favorite for granted either, as evidenced by yesterday’s feature in the Durham Herald-Sun. Similarly, former second-option Jamison Crowder also has an opportunity to be one of the ACC’s standout receivers (some would say he already was last year). Both Crowder and Boone will have the advantage of dealing with an experienced offensive line (returning four of five starters), so now the big challenge revolves around the effectiveness of the new(ish) offense. If they can put in some solid work in the more sped-up, athletic attack this spring, it could be a surprising new fold against conference defenses come the fall.

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2012 ACC Football Season Recap: Duke Blue Devils

Thanks to Conner Vernon (And Others), Duke's 18-Year Bowl Drought Was Put to an End in 2012

Thanks to Conner Vernon (And Others), Duke’s 18-Year Bowl Drought Was Put to an End in 2012

Team: Duke Blue Devils

W-L: 6-7 (3-5)

Postseason: 48-34 Belk Bowl loss to Cincinnati

Top Offensive Performer: Conner Vernon, WR

Top Defensive Performer: Ross Cockrell, CB

It almost feels like two separate seasons for Duke. First there was the 6-2 start, culminating in their exciting last-minute victory over archrival North Carolina that gave the Blue Devils their first six-win season since 1994. And then there was the rest; an 0-5 finish that saw them outscored by a combined score of 246-130. So while we’ll certainly commend Duke for ending an 18-year postseason drought, it’s also difficult to look upon 2012 as a complete success in hindsight, considering how disappointing the end was. But when looking at the successful part of the equation, you don’t have to look past the offense.

Under David Cutcliffe, Duke’s program has mostly grown gradually as a result of their passing offense and the star tandem of QB Sean Renfree and WR Conner Vernon. However, in 2012, that improvement was sped up immensely, as the team scored 31.5 points per game (versus just 22.4 last season). The Blue Devils scored 35 points or more five different times, and most importantly, possessed one of the country’s best passing attacks. Whether it was Renfree or backup (and 2013 starter) Anthony Boone, Duke’s quarterbacks averaged over 280 yards per game through the air (good for 31st in the country). And while the passers were/are certainly a big part of that, there’s also plenty of credit due to the team’s expert wide receivers. Vernon and Jamison Crowder were outstanding this season, even by their elevated standards. Combined, they had 161 catches, 2,148 yards and 16 touchdowns — all among the most impressive figures in the country for a receiving duo. The running game, while underwhelming overall (ranked 100th in the FBS), also showed marked improvement over 2011 (115th), and was a big part of many of the team’s big victories this time around.

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ACC Football Top 25 Players of 2012: #18, Ross Cockrell

Duke's Ross Cockrell Was an Integral Part of the Blue Devils' Surprising 2012 Season

Duke’s Ross Cockrell Was an Integral Part of the Blue Devils’ Surprising 2012 Season

As part of our 2012 season review, we’re counting down the top 25 players in the ACC this season, from no. 25 to no. 1. Obviously these lists are always completely subjective — and thus completely bulletproof, obviously — so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, too.

No. 18, Ross Cockrell, CB/Duke (Preseason Rank: NR)

Going into 2012, it was thought that Duke’s offense, led by Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon, would impress, though most were unsure about the Blue Devils defense. In the season’s early goings, it appeared as if Ross Cockrell took that as a challenge, guiding the way during an impressive opening effort. Through the first six games, the junior corner had four interceptions, defended nine passes and scored a touchdown on top of that. Even in the admittedly rocky Stanford game, where I myself called out Cockrell and the entire secondary for their failings, he still managed a pick and six tackles. Possibly the biggest statement about Cockrell’s skill set, however, came from how the end of the season played out. Four straight miserable losses for the Blue Devils took some of the luster off their surprising season, and there’s two ways of looking at those defeats. Either that Cockrell, as a veteran leader, needed to step up and failed to (just one INT, 20 tackles in four games). Or he was such an integral part of their success, that they couldn’t come away with a victory unless he played at an elite level. I won’t take a guess at which situation’s true, but take a look at their final, and fifth loss in a row — to Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. Duke allowed nearly 70 passing yards above their already poor average (267 passing yards allowed per game) without him playing. Ultimately, it ended up being the difference in a close loss.

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Belk Bowl Preview: Duke Blue Devils vs. Cincinnati Bearcats

Can Duke's High-Powered Offense Lead Them Past Cincinnati's Aggressive D-Line?

Can Duke’s High-Powered Offense Lead Them Past Cincinnati’s Aggressive D-Line?

Duke’s back in the postseason for the first time since 1994. Cincinnati, after tying for yet another Big East title, feels a bit burned after the ACC‘s realignment decision to take Louisville over the Bearcats. Will they take out their anger on the reeling Blue Devils?

Bowl Game: Belk Bowl

Location: Charlotte, N.C.

First Year: 2002 (Continental Tire Bowl)

2012 Participants: Duke Blue Devils (6-6) vs. Cincinnati Bearcats (9-3)

Last Meeting: Never

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Duke (previous bowl game: 34-20 loss to Wisconsin in 1995 Hall of Fame Bowl)

Through eight games, the Blue Devils were the darlings of college football. At 6-2, they clinched their first bowl trip in 18 years all the way back in October. And yet, we’re looking at Duke much in the same way we normally do now, after four straight rough contests knock them down to 6-6. Simply put, Duke has one thing going for them: a prolific passing offense. Racking up over 277 yards per game, it’s hard to find a more impressive unit than this one, led by veterans Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon. Unfortunately, the defense has done little to stop other teams from putting up similar numbers in their own passing games. Ranked 97th in the country in passing yards per game, the Blue Devils have struggled mightily stopping big gains through the air (hammered home by the 25 passing touchdowns put up against them). When you make former Stanford starter Josh Nunes look like a Heisman contender, those numbers shouldn’t surprise you.

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Top 10 ACC Football Games of 2012

Could Jamison Crowder and the Blue Devils Claim the Top Spot For Duke's Impressive Win Over UNC?

Could Jamison Crowder and the Blue Devils Claim the Top Spot For Duke’s Impressive Win Over UNC?

In a season full of parity, it’s understandable that the ACC had so many memorable contests to choose from when compiling this list. So many last-second scores, one-possession ball games and overtime battles, it was truly difficult to decipher which really were the “best” the league had to offer. Nonetheless, we make an attempt below, nodding to the 10 contests that — more than any others the ACC gave us this season — really gave us a reason to remember them. Agree or disagree with our picks? Share away in the comments.

Top 10 Games of 2012

10. Syracuse 37, USF 36: Down 20 points at the half, this was supposed to be the tombstone in another disappointing Syracuse season. And yet, as they did all year, this Orange squad refused to quit, and battled all the way back in the second half. Down five with just seconds on the clock, Ryan Nassib delivered a gutsy touchdown pass to Alec Lemon on fourth-and-goal, sealing the win and adding to his reputation as a master of the comeback.

9. Syracuse 31, Missouri 27: We promise this is the last you hear about Syracuse on this list. Once again facing a late deficit — this time 27-24 — Nassib and Lemon would complete their furious comeback with a wide-open 17-yard touchdown pass. The strike, with just 20 seconds remaining, would end up being the game-winner, sending ‘Cuse bowling for the second time in three seasons.

8. Florida State 28, Virginia Tech 22: From sloppy, to boring, to inexplicable and then miraculous, this game truly ran the gambit of emotions for players and fans. What should have been a quick win over a lackluster Hokies squad would turn into a struggle for FSU; one they were certainly lucky to come away with. Even now, the final few minutes rush by like a blur: Devonta Freeman‘s idiotic safety, EJ Manuel‘s easy 39-yard TD pass, and then Logan Thomas‘s ultimate hero-turned-goat act. Just another Thursday night ACC showdown.

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