Duke begins spring practices today with an experienced quarterback in three-year starter Sean Renfree, one of the ACC’s most accomplished receivers in Conner Vernon, and an experienced, more athletic offensive line. So what can Duke fans expect in a season that should feature a wide-open Coastal Division race? I caught up with Vernon on Tuesday to get his take on the Blue Devils this season. Vernon is the only player in ACC history with multiple seasons of 70-plus receptions (73 in 2010; 70 in 2011). With 198 career receptions, he is now 34 catches away from matching the league record of 232 held by Clemson’s Aaron Kelly (2005-08). With 2,675 career receiving yards, Vernon needs 842 yards to equal the conference mark of 3,517 yards held by Florida State’s Peter Warrick (1996-99). He’s a key piece to Duke’s bowl hopes this year, but he’ll be limited a bit this spring because he’s still recovering from an ankle injury he suffered at the end of last season.
Here are the highlights of our conversation:
What’s different about Duke football this year? What can Duke fans be encouraged about?
Conner Vernon: Definitely just how young of a team we were last year, and how a lot of them have really grown up a lot and shown flashes of greatness early. That’s something Coach Cut [David Cutcliffe] has preached a lot about this offseason, about being great, and that good isn’t good enough anymore. A lot of guys have stepped up big, and a lot of young guys have stepped up big. My impression is that that’s created a lot of competition with the older guys and we’re looking forward to starting [today].
You mentioned that Coach Cut said good isn’t good enough at this point. What’s it going to take for you guys to take the next step?
CV: That’s something we’re going to figure out and we’ll find that out as a team. The competition level is going to keep going up at practice, which is going to push more guys. That’s what we need. We have a great recruiting class coming in and last year’s class, a lot of those guys have stepped up and it’s going to be fun. That’s what I think he’s trying to get at, letting guys know we have a lot of guys coming in who are great and are going to push us to the limit and it’s going to be good for all of us.
Just from a personal standpoint, how badly do you want to see all of this hard work finally translate into a bowl game this year?
CV: Oh, more than anything I’ve ever wanted. Not only do the players who have been here for the last four or five years, coaches, staff, Duke University itself, the fans and alums, it’s time to put Duke back on the map, get to that bowl and get over the hump. This whole university and the people around it definitely deserve it.
Because you guys have been so close under Cutcliffe, but it hasn’t happened, why is everyone still believing and buying in?
CV: Because it shows. It shows out there. I’m sure you can ask any team in the ACC that it’s shown and it’s something that they can’t take Duke for granted anymore. Even though the win-loss column may not show it, you can tell teams are respecting Duke a lot more. It’s only going to get better.
I look at what you guys have coming back on offense and it seems pretty good with Sean Renfree being in his third season as a starter. What do you think you guys are capable of this year offensively?
CV: The sky is the limit for us. We have some set offensive goals and we’re hoping to achieve them, but from a passing standpoint and running standpoint, we look very good.
Without [Donovan] Varner and [Cooper] Helfet it seems like you’re the main man out there. How do you feel your role will change out there, not that you haven’t been a productive part of Duke’s offense in recent years?
CV: I think I’m going to have to take more of a leadership role. Cooper and Donovan were leaders on the offense, along with Sean. Just them being seniors as a group and gone, it’s kind of like it’s my turn now. I would say just trying to take more of that role and it’s definitely going to be my biggest challenge this offseason.
You’re 34 catches away from setting a league record, and 842 yards away from another league record. How much do you think about those things and care about them, and are they goals of yours for the season?
CV: They’re definitely subplots of this trip, my four years here. But definitely my first and foremost goal is putting Duke football back on the map and getting to that bowl game and having more wins than losses this year. If the record comes, great, but the only record I’m really worried about is the one for Duke’s team at the end of the year. I’ll do everything in my power to make that happen, and I’m sure if we’re in a bowl game this year those records will be right there behind it. I’m looking forward to the challenge, but Duke comes first before the individual records.