Despite Results, Duke Cites Improvement

A seven game season ending losing streak may not tell the whole tale in Durham for 2011.

The Blue Devils insist they're a better team than in recent years even though the 2011 season ended with a 3-9 record and a seven-game losing streak.

"It has obviously been a frustrating season for our squad, particularly for our seniors because we've played so many close games that we haven't been able to win," coach David Cutcliffe said.

Duke failed to defeat any of its rivals in the ACC Coastal Division. Its lone ACC triumph came by one point at Boston College when the Eagles missed a last-minute chip-shot field-goal attempt.

Three of the last four games resulted in losses by double-digit margins, including 37-21 at North Carolina.

"That taste is going to stay in your mouth," Cutcliffe said.

Despite these results, the senior class departed as Duke's winningest class since 1995. That wasn't nearly enough to produce a winning season, which hasn't happened for the Blue Devils since 1994.

The offensive infrastructure appears to be in place and QB Sean Renfree will be back for a senior season. The Blue Devils are adamant about throwing the ball and they tend to have some success doing so.

The defense made progress at times, but there's not enough depth on that unit to keep teams at bay for the long term. In Duke's nine losses, six times opponent scored more than 30 points.


GAME OF THE YEAR: Virginia Tech 14, Duke 10 -- The Blue Devils stood toe-to-toe with the eventual Coastal Division champions and had several chances to pull ahead late in the game. The outcome might have been fitting for a Duke team that continues to show strides but is unable to take the next big step. This outcome in late October also marked the last time the Blue Devils didn't appear to be in a total uphill battle to stay in a game.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: WR Conner Vernon -- Even with an influx of young receivers vying to make an impact, he made the most of his junior season and kept up a tremendous pace. He caught 70 passes for 956 yards and six touchdowns. He's a deep threat and also makes tough catches across the middle. He has to contend to defenses that aim to shut him down. He's part of a record-setting receiving duo with WR Donovan Varner, a senior whose records will be in jeopardy assuming Vernon takes part in a senior season.

FAST FORWARD: Coach David Cutcliffe has endured four seasons in which progress has rarely been measured in the win column. The Blue Devils are 15-33 under Cutcliffe's watch. Soon, more victories will be required to match the university's commitment to improve facilities associated with the football program. The Blue Devils put in a new defensive scheme for 2011 and that's an area that will need to be refined and stocked with more play-making athletes.

S Matt Daniels will be gone and DT Charlie Hatcher's experience will be lost. Those are holes that need to be addressed, though emerging cornerbacks could help stabilize the secondary. Even with record-setting WR Donovan Varner ending his college career, there's reason to believe that WR Jamison Crowder can step in without a drop-off. There has been an upgrade in conditioning and that will continue to be an emphasis. The rash of injuries that the Blue Devils take into the offseason could alter the coaching staff's preference for spring practice to start in February since there's no bowl appearance.

RECRUITING TRAIL: The Blue Devils have gained more early commitments than in many past years, but the depth of their classes is often questionable. There's an emphasis on speed because that's something the program needs to try to keep up with the competition. The Blue Devils need to make sure they land a pass-oriented quarterback in order to keep that position stocked with the type of offense they prefer to use.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "They are remarkable and they are resilient to the point each week we expected to have great practices and great focus." -- Coach David Cutcliffe on the Blue Devils' attitude despite another dismal conclusion to a season.


QB Sean Renfree -- He'll be the most experienced quarterback in the ACC as a senior and he continues to receive endorsements from his teammates and coach David Cutcliffe for his perseverance and his maturity.

WR Conner Vernon -- He's in line to be the program's most decorated receiver even though an injury in the 2011 finale limited him to two catches for 17 yards. He was the 2011 team leader in receptions (70), receiving yards (956) and receiving touchdowns (6). He's the first player in ACC history with 70 or more receptions in more than one season. He has 198 receptions through three seasons.

LB Kelby Brown -- He has established himself through two seasons as a leader on the defensive side. He played right away as a true freshman in 2010, so he continues to develop physically. He returned from an injury to play in the 2011, making six tackles against North Carolina and signaling that he won't be hampered with a long rehabilitation that he endured during the previous offseason.

WR Donovan Varner -- He's a long shot, but he is well-versed in a pro-style offense and that could help him. His school record-setting total of receptions is bound to at least give him a glance.

S Matt Daniels -- He's an aggressive player in the defensive backfield and constantly received raves from coach David Cutcliffe. If there's a defensive system he can fit in to, then he'll warrant a look.

TE Cooper Helfet -- He played two seasons with Duke as a junior college transfer and his athleticism could be a plus, though he's another long shot as a pro. His 43 catches as a senior ranked as the most for a Duke tight end since 1966.

--QB Anthony Boone, who was pegged mostly as a rushing threat, showed he could put some zip on passes when he was called upon for 20 pass attempts in the finale against North Carolina.

--DE Justin Foxx played through a hamstring ailment in the finale. He made a tackle for a loss.

--RB Juwan Thompson might be in need of offseason surgery to clean up issues with a knee injury despite a 70-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown against North Carolina in the finale.

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