Halfway point for Duke: Offense leading way

Duke coach David Cutcliffe has told his quarterback, Sean Renfree, that Renfree is a “really fine athlete and nobody knows it.”

It won’t be much longer before the secret’s out.

Cutcliffe said Renfree, who is entering his second season as a starter, has had a “tremendous” spring and made significant improvement from a year ago.

“His sense of timing, he’s taking better care of the football, he’s able to be aggressive but not take risks that don’t make sense,” Cutcliffe said. “Less of those marks against him on his grades. He looks so much more athletic. He’s completely healthy, his brace is gone.”

While the rest of the ACC has yet to take a spring snap, Duke has only seven spring practices remaining. A veteran offense has been the highlight in Durham, and naturally ahead of a young, injury-laden defense that’s under the direction of a third coordinator in as many years. The offensive line play is significantly better. All of the backs and all but one receiver return. With Renfree’s progress and a strong kicking game already in place, the key to Duke’s success this season will be how quickly the defense can mature and transition into Jim Knowles’ system. Cutcliffe said he has encouraged Knowles to install his system, change the terminology and make any adjustments needed.

“We gained Rick Petri,” Cutcliffe said. “He was with me for six years at Ole Miss, widely known as one of the best teachers of defensive line play in the country at any level and he’s been tremendous. And Jim Knowles is putting in a system he helped orchestrate at Ole Miss that helped us go 7-1 in the SEC and 10-3 in the year I had at Ole Miss. I’m excited and our kids are very familiar with coach Knowles since he was here as an assistant a year ago. We’re viewing it as a positive as opposed to something negative.”

The focus this spring has been less on schematics and more on fundamentals because of the youth involved. Twelve of the 15 defensive linemen are freshmen and sophomores. Overall, Cutcliffe said the majority of the scholarship roster will be comprised of freshmen and sophomores.

“If we don’t focus on fundamentals,” Cutcliffe said, “we’re making a mistake.”

That will continue to be the priority when the Blue Devils return from spring break this week. They have been getting in a lot of line work against each other, and haven’t been afraid to tackle.

Despite the inexperience on defense, Cutcliffe said “there’s no question” Duke will be a better team in 2011.

“We really haven’t been as far away as people want to make us,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s really what we believe.”