DURHAM, N.C. – Duke quarterback Sean Renfree is a pretty smart guy.
At a prestigious academic institution such as Duke, he carries a double major.
His first discipline is Public Policy Science, in which he excelled this past year as one of 13 Blue Devils named Academic All-ACC.
His second course of study is football, actually quarterbacking, which he takes under the tutelage of Professor David Cutcliffe.
“Sean has learned that in the world he has chosen, the most important ability he has is time management,” explained Cutcliffe. “When we talked early on about his goals and what he really wanted to accomplish in football, he told me he wanted to be as good as there has ever been here. When you say that, we are going to ask you to back that up.
“He has totally thrown himself into being the best he can be. He goes through endless hours of videotapes — NFL game tape, Duke game tape, Tennessee tape — working with receivers on perfecting routes. He is totally immersed in being a quarterback as well as being an outstanding student.”
In his redshirt freshman season of 2009, Renfree played in five games, took 92 snaps and passed for 330 yards on 34-of-50 with four touchdowns and two interceptions. In his first collegiate action, he came off the bench at Army and led the Devils to a 35-19 come-from-behind victory.
He suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Georgia Tech game later that season. Surgery caused him to miss spring practice last year.
Still, he was ready for fulltime duty in 2010, when he became just the fourth player in Duke history to throw for 3,000 or more yards in a single season while ranking among the league leaders in completions per game (first, 23.75), total offensive yards per game (second, 257.0), passing yards per game (third, 260.9) and touchdown passes (sixth, 14).
“It has been a progression,” explained Renfree. “A learning progression — you have to learn to not only know everything on the offensive side of the ball, but you also have to know all about the defensive side of the ball and why they are in a defensive set and how that defense will affect what you do on the offensive side.”
Renfree believes very strongly in the system that Cutcliffe teaches. It’s the belief that if you understand the system, then you will have the opportunity to be a successful quarterback.
It is a system built on the belief in what your coaches are teaching you and that there are no short cuts to gaining that knowledge.
One of Cutcliffe’s favorite TV shows when he was growing up was “Kung Fu” with David Carradine — a show where the kung fu master taught a young protégée the skills of the art of kung fu and when and how to use this martial art form.
“There was a true understanding in this show,” Cutcliffe explained. “His mentor was about understanding and discipline. Before we ever talk about playing quarterback and what your abilities are, we learn defense. You may be able to throw the ball 50 yards with a perfect spiral. That doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the game.
“You have to learn all aspects of the game. We know what techniques a corner and safety are running, we understand zone concepts on defense, how teams play man-to-man, where the strengths and weaknesses are. If you commit yourself to learning the full meaning of being a quarterback, then you are on the path to being a truly consistent quarterback.
“Trust the system,” he added. “But first you must understand the system.”
Duke’s offense returns eight starters from last year’s unit that averaged 381.3 yards per game — the school’s highest total since 1989. The group features two wide receivers, Donovan Varner and Conner Vernon, who combined for 143 receptions in 2010. “There has been a lot of work off the field, maybe more than on the field to learn how to be a successful and consistent quarterback,” said Renfree, who totaled 3,131 passing yards. “The longer I have been in the system, the more I have learned.
“It really is like going to class and studying,” he continued. “You have to learn it and then know how to use what you have learned. You just can’t figure it out. You have to prepare. It takes a lot of study time in the film room and with the coaches. The more you study and prepare, the more you will be ready on the field when anything happens to you. It won’t be a shock. You can visibly see what is happening and make the correct adjustments to make positive things happen for the offense.”
Renfree’s roommate is walk-on Jeffrey Faris, a junior from Knoxville, Tenn., who plays safety for the Blue Devils and spends a great deal of time with Renfree in the film room.
“He is really a student of the game,” said Faris, who hopes to go into coaching one day. “He knows what defense we are in when he walks up to the line of scrimmage because he has studied us so much. He works hard on knowing more about you than you know about yourself on the defensive side of the ball.”
Renfree felt that the Blue Devils made some significant improvement this spring on the offensive side of the ball.
“The more I am in this offense, the more comfortable I feel,” he said. “Coach can now put more pressure on me to change plays at the line of scrimmage. The multiplicity of our offense gets the ball out of my hands quicker and into the hands of a running back or receiver to gain yardage and move us down the field.”
Last year Renfree’s touchdown to interception ratio was not good as he threw 14 TD passes and 17 interceptions, with many of them being tipped balls, or balls that just missed their target. It was a point of emphasis for him as soon as the season ended.
“I sat down with Coach (Kurt) Roper as soon as the season was over and wanted to know how I could improve on my passing,” explained Renfree, who hails from Scottsdale, Arizona. “We looked very closely at my interceptions — why did I decide to throw the ball where I threw it for it to get intercepted, and what caused the tipped interceptions? I found that a lot of the tipped interceptions were wobbly passes, not tight spirals, or maybe were at the wrong place for the receiver. So I worked this spring on getting the ball to the receivers so they could catch it.”
Cutcliffe believes that Renfree will improve on his interceptions this fall, by getting more opportunity to work this spring and summer with his receivers.
“You have to know who you are throwing to,” the head coach explained. “Know his speed, his ability to catch the ball and where he can catch the ball; know what kind of ball he can catch. You’re not just throwing to a position, you are throwing to a person. In the backyard growing up, you understood who could catch the ball with one hand or catch it over his head at the fence post. The more you learn about how your receivers catch the ball, how they like the ball thrown to them and in what situations you know they will make the catch, the better quarterback you will be. You can’t just play the game blind. You have to know what is happening on the field. You have to have awareness on the field. That’s what makes Sean Renfree a special quarterback.”
Renfree is looking forward to getting more time this summer with his receivers to gain that valuable passing knowledge.
“Last summer, because of my injury, I did not get to work with my receivers over the summer, but this year I will be working with them as much as possible,” he added. “I am lucky to have some of the best receivers in college football, so I will be working on timing and learning where to throw them the ball for completions and touchdowns.”
He is just as committed to being a good quality student as well. He is a spiritual leader on campus along with being a leader on the football field and a campus leader.
“If the NCAA were to define or draw up what they want a student-athlete to be, Sean Renfree would be their definition” said Cutcliffe. “You can call him a student-athlete or an athlete-student, it works either way.
“He really understands what it takes to be a successful quarterback,” he added. “Don’t overcomplicate the game. It is fundamentally right in front of you once you learn and understand the system. He has two years to really make an impact.”
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