DURHAM – Duke coach David Cutcliffe was pleased with the play of new starting quarterback Sean Renfree during the team’s first scrimmage Monday night, particularly considering he was without some of his better receivers.
Starter Donovan Varner, a first-team All-ACC wideout last season, was on the sidelines in a black “do not hit” jersey because of a hamstring injury; fellow starter Austin Kelly had to be helped off the field during the scrimmage because of another hamstring injury; then the Blue Devils’ third starter, Conner Vernon, got “banged up” near the end, Cutcliffe said, and got taken out of practicing third-down situations.
In addition, junior Jon Needham, who is competing for the starting spot at right tackle, was not with the team because of a death in the family.
“Obviously, we’re working with a new quarterback, and those receivers need to be working with him,’’ said Cutcliffe, who is being careful with the hamstring injuries because he doesn’t want them to become more serious. “… But the good thing is, you see some of those young guys stepping up and making plays.”
One of those was a 48-yard pass play from Renfree to junior tight end Cooper Helfet – part of a 12-for-17, 153-yard outing for the redshirt sophomore who is taking over for Thaddeus Lewis. Freshman quarterback Brandon Connette, who took the majority of the back-up snaps, was 4-for-13 for 42 yards with an interception.
A pair of freshmen led the running backs: Juwan Thompson carried seven times for 23 yards, while Josh Snead carried seven times for 22 yards. Vernon caught two passes for 44 yards before he was hobbled.
Although the defense – led by an interception from safety Walt Canty, three tackles for loss by linebacker Damian Thornton and a safety by linebacker August Campbell – held the offense without a touchdown, Renfree said he saw a lot of positives out of the offense. Cutcliffe was particularly pleased with the positives he’s seeing out of Renfree, who tore his right ACL last November.
“Here’s the thing you’ve got to take your hat off to Sean [about] at this point,’’ Cutcliffe said. “Here’s a guy who has been out physically for a long time. What I can tell is he has absolutely studied and worked mentally, and he hasn’t missed a lick in that regard. He’s done a tremendous job in understanding what we want a quarterback to do, he’s throwing the ball well, he’s doing the physical things. But just the mental aspect of the game is what I’m most pleased with Sean about.”