DURHAM, N.C. - Under the direction of fifth-year head coach David Cutcliffe, the Duke football team will begin spring practice on Wednesday. Per NCAA regulations, the Blue Devils will have 15 total sessions including the annual Spring Game which is scheduled for Saturday, March 31 in Wallace Wade Stadium.
The Blue Devils return 44 lettermen and 17 starters from last year's squad.
Offensively, quarterback Sean Renfree and wide receiver Conner Vernon headline the list of returnees after Duke ranked second in the ACC in passing in 2011. Renfree, a two-year starter and rising redshirt senior, has thrown for 6,352 career yards and is the school's all-time leader in pass completion percentage (.634). A two-time All-ACC pick, Vernon became the first player in conference history with multiple seasons of 70-plus pass receptions last season and enters his senior season just 34 catches shy from matching the league's career record of 232 held by Clemson's Aaron Kelly.
In addition, four starters along the offensive front are back including rising redshirt sophomore guard Laken Tomlinson, who earned first team Freshman All-America honors from Sporting News last fall while helping Duke rank third in the ACC in sacks allowed per pass attempt. In the backfield, Duke brings back its top two backs in rising senior Desmond Scott (367 rushing yards & 25 receptions for 135 yards in 2011) and rising junior Juwan Thompson (team-best 457 rushing yards & eight total TDs) and welcomes the return of rising redshirt sophomore Josh Snead, who missed the 2011 campaign due to injury after compiling 704 all-purpose yards as a rookie in 2010.
On defense, rising senior safety Walt Canty and rising junior linebacker Kelby Brown spearhead the returnees after totaling 87 and 65 tackles, respectively, last season. Canty, who ranked among the league's leaders in both tackles per game (14th; 7.2) and caused fumbles per game (t3rd; 0.25), is Duke's top returning tackler from a year ago while Brown, who earned the program's Mike Curtis Award as the most outstanding linebacker in 2011, is back after pacing the Blue Devils in tackles for loss (7.0) a year ago.
Joining Canty in the backfield is rising junior cornerback Ross Cockrell, who had 56 tackles, nine pass breakups and one interception last year, as well as rising redshirt senior cornerback Lee Butler, who received a medical redshirt in 2011 after missing the final eight games of the year. Duke's most seasoned player, Butler has appeared in 38 career games with 113 tackles, 12 pass breakups and three interceptions to his credit.
Rising senior linebacker Austin Gamble is back after starting 11 games last year and carding 43 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and a pair of sacks.
Three starters along the line return in rising redshirt sophomore end Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo (17 tackles in 2011), rising redshirt junior end Justin Foxx (30 tackles) and rising redshirt junior tackle Sydney Sarmiento (32 tackles). Also back is rising redshirt senior end Kenny Anunike, who was among the ACC leaders in both sacks and tackles for loss before suffering a season-ending knee injury in week four.
On the special teams front, Duke must replace both its starting placekicker and punter while rising sophomore Jamison Crowder returns after leading Duke in both kickoff (38-814-21.4) and punt (13-122-9.4) returns last fall.