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October 21, 2011

In the trenches with Brian McLawhorn

Brian McLawhorn writes for Devils Illustrated, as a part of the Rivals.com network.

What is the injury report for the Blue Devils, and how great of an impact if any does it have this week? "Major, key injuries have been an issue for Duke all season long, particularly on the offensive side of the football. Heading into this weekend's game, Duke will be battling the same issues they have been for many weeks and that's a thin, and beat up offensive line. Starting center Brian Moore went down before the season began, and his replacement, Dave Harding, was injured heading into last week's game with Florida State. Moore, has finally been upgraded from doubtful to questionable and could potentially make his long-anticipated return this weekend. That would be a huge boost for Duke considering Harding is also listed as questionable for Saturday. Wide receiver Donovan Varner is also listed as questionable with a leg injury, and while losing him will certainly be tough to swallow should he not play, Duke's depth at wide receiver helps in this situation a great deal. Cornerback Johnny Williams is questionable for Saturday's game as well."

Sean Renfree has quietly emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC, being effective while under duress in most games this season. What's enabled him to rise above the fray and play so well? "Aside from two games this season - Stanford and Florida State - Duke has protected Sean Renfree well and given him the necessary time to throw the football. Those two games account for 11 of the 13 sacks Duke has given up all year - so through their other four contests Renfree has been brought down just twice. A big reason for that has been his quick release. The junior typically gets the ball out of his hands in 2.5 seconds, which makes it very difficult for opposing defensive lines to get to him. That's helped along a great deal by his receivers ability to get open in that time as well. But all in all, Renfree is a smart quarterback that has an ability to go through his reads quickly and isn't afraid to check down from his primary target. He is technically sound, and simply trusts in what he has been taught. He truly has all the tools to be a really special quarterback throughout the remainder of his career in the ACC."

This Duke team appears to be responding to adversity better than past Duke teams. An example would be coming back from a double digit deficit against FIU and finding a way to win. What's made the difference this season? "When a program has spent so many years on the losing end of the stick, it takes quite a bit of time to change the mentality and get everybody believing that they should win, not just that they can win. And I feel like for David Cutcliffe that has been one of the biggest challenges. Right now, the players and coaches all believe in the system and work hard to keep the fight in them no matter what the adversity is that they are facing. So, that's step one for the Blue Devils - they truly have a no quit attitude this year, and a belief that they should and can win games late. It's also a conditioning thing. Duke's approach in practice is one that prepares them to be strong in the latter half of the game, and it has paid off. It's still a work in progress for them, but they have made tremendous strides in becoming a team that can fight it out to the very end. It's all a mentality thing and Duke is starting to get there."

What matchup is David Cutcliffe and his staff most concerned about this week? "I think if there's one area Cutcliffe and his staff are most concerned about, it's not allowing Wake Forest to beat them with the big play. The Demon Deacons struck for big plays in last season's matchup, and that has again been an issue for the Blue Devils at times this year. Florida State did it to Duke, as did Stanford and even Richmond. They play solid football for 95-percent of the time and get hit with an explosive play and that's that. Duke knows that in order to win this game, those have to be eliminated, and in the very least limited."

Outside of Renfree and the receivers who are a couple of key guys Wake Forest fans should be on the look-out for? "When healthy, safety Matt Daniels is certainly one to watch. He took the blame last week for a huge pass play against Florida State that was in fact the result of one of his teammates not doing his job. Yet, he keeps going and making plays. He leads the team with 62 tackles and 10 pass breakups and is a threat to force fumbles. He's a big hitter and someone that can play the run as well as the pass. Tight end Cooper Helfet is another weapon for Duke that Renfree uses quite often. Helfet has 20 catches on the year and has found the end zone twice. He has the ability to be a nightmare for linebackers to cover because of his receiver-like athleticism. Then there is running back Desmond Scott, who just returned to full action last weekend. He has the ability to be a threat running the ball and catching it."

Do you see the tide changing in Cutcliffe's favor in rebuilding the program, or is it still a ways off? "There is absolutely some progress being made there, but they still have some work to do. They haven't quite gotten over the hump yet they were in transition from a team trying to establish themselves to a consistent squad that you know what you're going to get from week to week. Duke has shown signs of being a very productive team, and then it takes a step or two backwards. This Duke team was extremely bad off when Cutcliffe arrived, so for this program to even still be in the discussion for a potential bowl bid is a sign of progress. Duke just hasn't turned the corner yet, but the program is getting closer to becoming consistently competitive."


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