The Blue Devils again failed to follow through on some good midseason stretches, and so this was another year without a postseason opportunity.
"It was not one of those that leaves a good taste in your mouth," coach David Cutcliffe said after the finale ended in a 24-19 setback to rival North Carolina. "... I didn't see us execute and perform at a level that I've seen us do. That's disappointing, especially with this being the last ballgame."
Still, Cutcliffe has been generally praised for the progress the Blue Devils have made; they're no longer pushovers within the ACC. Four of their seven conference losses came by six points or less.
Senior center Bryan Morgan said a different tone has been established within the program.
"We've come to a point now that we know we can compete with anybody," he said. "We're not a team that just gives it up. We're a team that knows how to fight adversity."
Nineteen seniors were on hand for their final game, so there will be some significant roster changes upcoming.
What's left behind should be a good foundation, particularly with quarterback Sean Renfree coming off a sometimes-splendid redshirt sophomore season. Cutcliffe has installed a passing offense that seems plenty up to speed, but bringing along other areas of the team will be critical to posting more wins.
The defense needs more depth and could use strengthening along the line of scrimmage because the Blue Devils held only three opponents to less than 27 points.
Cutcliffe has been adamant about sticking to the plan, and he isn't likely to make changes on his coaching staff. Other than after the finale, he has been steadfast in his belief that the Blue Devils are headed in the right direction.
Last year, Cutcliffe was so anxious about getting started that spring practice began in the winter, with the coach telling his team that if it reached a bowl game, then spring workouts would be pushed into a period when temperatures aren't so chilly.
It's uncertain if he will use the same offseason approach this time
GAME OF THE YEAR: Duke 55, Virginia 48 -- This Nov. 6 game gave the Blue Devils a rare November victory in what was one of the highest-scoring games in ACC history. The winning points came from RB Desmond Scott, who ran 35 yards with 40 seconds remaining, and then the Blue Devils tacked on a two-point conversion. The winning drive included a fourth-and-20 conversion when QB Sean Renfree hooked up with WR Donovan Varner for 32 yards. This outcome gave Duke its only ACC victory of the season. It's the only November victory in 13 outings across a three-season span for the Blue Devils.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: WR Conner Vernon -- He was the ACC's leading receiver for much of the season, and he racked up 973 receiving yards, accounting for nearly one-third of QB Sean Renfree's 3,131 passing yards. Vernon's further development gives the Blue Devils a strong 1-2 combination as he complements WR Donovan Varner. Vernon also handled kickoff returns for a span during the season.
FAST FORWARD: The Blue Devils will lose players along the offensive line, including C Bryan Morgan. This is an area that will need to be addressed. It might be easier to find a replacement for WR Austin Kelly, who was basically the team's third receiver. There's still the matter of bolstering the rushing attack, and the coaching staff will have to assess whether QB Brandon Connette, who was a change-of-pace option in short-yardage situations, is suited for a more expanded role. With QB Sean Renfree, the passing attack should be in good order. The 2011 schedule will include home games against Stanford and 2010 ACC championship game participants Virginia Tech and Florida State, so that's the foundation for a tough task ahead.
RECRUITING TRAIL: The Blue Devils were active with some early commitments, and that should have eased any negative impact of another losing season on the field. But coach David Cutcliffe was also apt to point out that the Blue Devils often looked like a team that could use immediate help, figuring that's also a lure for recruits seeking a place where they can be on the field right away.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Unfortunately, our record wasn't as good as we would like it to be. There were some growing pains that we didn't want to face, but I think it will help us grow next year." -- QB Sean Renfree, after the Blue Devils ended the season with three consecutive losses to finish 3-9.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL:
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2001:
QB Sean Renfree -- He made it through a midseason slump to become the fifth player in school history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season. It was his first full season as the starter and he seems to be an ideal fit in the pass-oriented offense that the Blue Devils use. His late-season development included a stretch of 173 pass attempts without an interception, with that streak ending in the finale against North Carolina on a desperation heave at the end of the first half.
WR Conner Vernon -- He's a play-making receiver, but he's also reliable in short-yardage situations. His versatility is a major asset to the offense.
CB Ross Cockrell -- He was vulnerable early in the season but made significant strides by the final month. As redshirt sophomore in 2011, he'll provide some experience in the secondary for a team that will need to be upgrades in that area.
LB Abraham Kromah -- Based strictly on his production, he might warrant a look for some role at the next level. He capped his college career with a 20-tackle performance against North Carolina.
--LB Kelby Brown, who made major contributions as a true freshman, needs knee surgery after an injury in the second-to-last game of the season. He should be ready to go by the start of practice in August
--K Will Snyderwine pushed for postseason honors, but he lost momentum for those with two missed field goals (albeit one of longer than 50 yards) in the Nov. 20 game at Georgia Tech. Still, he finished 21 of 24 on field goals as a junior. His has 35 career field goals, ranking fifth all-time at Duke as he enters his last season in 2011.
--WR Conner Vernon made five catches in the finale against North Carolina, giving the sophomore 73 receptions for the season. That's one shy of Wes Chesson's single-season school record set in 1970.