Duke Football: Inside Slant

Quarterback will be a major question mark for the Blue Devils as Duke begins the 2010 pre-season. Can Sean Renfree handle the job?

The Blue Devils made strides last season to post a 5-7 record. But achieving a .500 record or better was denied the Blue Devils when they lost their final four games.

So it's that losing streak that they take into the 2010 season. And each of those setbacks came by double-digit margins.

Coach David Cutcliffe won't allow those results to dispel the progress that had been made with consecutive victories against North Carolina State, Maryland and Virginia. The November decline showed that there's much more work to be done.

"I don't reckon any of them are looking forward to playing us anymore," Cutcliffe said of other ACC teams.

The Blue Devils will look different without Thaddeus Lewis, the program's all-time passing leader. That quarterback role belongs to Sean Renfree, who's coming off knee surgery.

Cutcliffe has pointed to a revived rushing attack as important to giving the offense more balance. He said the Blue Devils are equipped to do that.

The defense has taken on a more physical tone the past couple of seasons, but the issue of quality depth remains a concern. A reliance on the standard 4-3 setup on defense has been scrapped. Cutcliffe prefers to call the approach a multiple defense, so at the very least there should be new wrinkles.

The defensive line must become stronger, and the Blue Devils need to show they can handle opposing passing attacks.

But in each year under Cutcliffe there has been a growing anticipation surrounding the Blue Devils. Duke hasn't been to a bowl game since 1994, so that would be one of the goals.

"I'm really tickled with the work they've put in this summer," Cutcliffe said. "I have a great deal of confidence in their readiness."

--The Blue Devils have had time to adjust to defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who left his position as Cornell's head coach to take the job with Duke. Knowles will work with safeties as well. Cutcliffe said he likes having a former head coach on the staff. The opening developed for Knowles when Mike MacIntyre left to become the head coach at San Jose State after two seasons as defensive coordinator under Cutcliffe.

--The opener against Elon is sure to bring about some interesting connections, as these universities are located about 40 miles apart. Former Duke coach Red Wilson is a former Elon head coach as well. Duke assistant defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jimmy Collins was an Elon player in the early 1970s. This marks the first scheduled football meeting between the schools since 1926.

There's no denying that the Blue Devils will receive unusual attention when they take on defending national champion Alabama on Sept. 18 at home. But while they've been peppered with offseason questions about that matchup, they've been sticklers about referring to their first two games. There's an outing against Elon on Sept. 4 followed by a road game that serves as the ACC opener the next week at Wake Forest.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: The passing game must continue to click on offense. There are touted receivers on the roster, and the Blue Devils will want to make maximum use of those players. Duke has lots of options among the receivers and a steady tight end in Brett Huffman, so there will be few surprises as long as QB Sean Renfree is up to speed when the season begins.

AREAS OF CONCERN: The defensive line isn't very deep, and with Duke in transition from a 4-3 setup to a 3-4 alignment, there could be more pressure on those along the front to hold their own. "I think that's the biggest question mark we have going into our season is our defensive line," coach David Cutcliffe said.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Every game in the season is important. And for our first game to be against an established team in Elon, a team that arguably could've beaten Richmond last year (in the FCS playoffs), we know how crucial that game is." -- CB Chris Rwabukamba, recalling last year's opening loss to Richmond and that team's connection to Elon, which is Duke's 2010 opening opponent.

HEAD COACH: David Cutcliffe, third season at Duke, 9-15.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Sean Renfree -- He's a redshirt sophomore coming off knee surgery that cut short his 2009 season. Even though he was the backup last year and didn't go through regular practice routines during the spring, he has been dubbed the starting quarterback. The Blue Devils won't stray from their passing ways, so they're counting on Renfree developing good on-field connections with a talented group of receivers.

BREAKOUT STAR: LB Kevin Rojas -- He hasn't played a down of college football, but he earned the top spot on the depth chart at middle linebacker after spring drills. The Blue Devils have seen the departure of a few standout linebackers in the last couple of seasons and they need to replenish the position. But at 215 pounds, Rojas will have to show some durability to handle everything involved with playing this position.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: RB Josh Snead -- He arrived on campus for the spring semester so he could go through spring workouts. By doing so, he displayed some breakaway speed, giving himself a chance to break into key roles right away. The Blue Devils have constantly talked about finding ways to make their rushing game relevant, and Snead might be able to help.

Offense -- QB Sean Renfree, RB Jay Hollingsworth, WR Donovan Varner, WR Conner Vernon, WR Austin Kelly, TE Brett Huffman, LT Kyle Hill, LF Brandon Harper, C Bryan Morgan, RG Brian Moore, RT Jon Needham.

Defense -- DE Patrick Egboh, DT Charlie Hatcher, DE Wesley Oglesby, LB Kevin Rojas, LB Abraham Kromah, LB Adam Banks, CB Ross Cockrell, CB Chris Rwabukamba, S Lee Butler, S Matt Daniels.

ROSTER REPORT: --CB Johnny Williams will stay on the defensive side of the ball after moving in the spring from offense, where he was a receiver mostly lost in a deep group of players. He's listed as a backup at cornerback, but coach David Cutcliffe said Williams will have a role with the defense.

--P Kevin Jones enters his final season as the ACC's active leader in punts and punting average. He has punted 200 times for an average of 38.45 yards per attempt.

--WR Donovan Varner followed his All-ACC freshman season by landing a spot on the conference's preseason all-conference list. He's the only Duke player to earn that distinction entering the season.

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