BROOKS FOOTBALL BUILDING/DURHAM Sean Renfree gets the keys to the Duke offense for real on Saturday night, and if Blue Devil coach David Cutcliffe is correct it’s not going to be a cupcake assignment.

Duke quarterback Sean Renfree
  • Photo courtesy Duke athletics
  • Duke quarterback Sean Renfree

The Blue Devils (5-7 last season) will be taking on one of the best teams in the Football Championship Subdivision when Elon (9-3) makes the short trip over for a 7 p.m. matchup, the first time the now-Southern Conference member Phoenix has challenged Duke since 1926.

Duke leads that pre-Great Depression series 5-0-1, but this meeting with the Phoenix — ranked No. 7 in the preseason FCS coaches’ poll — has the potential to be a little more balanced. And the Blue Devils have had their troubles lately against top-notch FCS teams, having lost the season opener to visiting Richmond 24-16 last season with then-starting quarterback Thaddeus Lewis hobbled and about a third of the team coming off a camp epidemic of swine flu.

“We’re playing a good Elon football team,” Cutcliffe said on Tuesday at his weekly press luncheon. “I know that sounds like ‘coach talk,’ but you see the results of their games from a year ago and look who’s back. Understand that Scott Riddle is a big-time player at quarterback. He punts, he’s a good runner, he’s a good thrower and he’s extremely strong. They’ve got their tight ends back. They’ve got their receivers, and they led (the Southern Conference) in every defensive category a year ago. They averaged 30-plus points a game and gave up 13.

“So am I impressed with them? Yes. I’m also impressed with the fact Coach (Pete) Lembo has done some good recruiting. Usually (elsewhere) in the FCS you see a lot of transfers. They’ve developed their young men in a program and they know how to win. It’s great for us to play a quality team that knows how to win because we need to measure ourselves.”

A lot of what happens on Saturday will depend on the effectiveness of Renfree, who as a redshirt sophomore will be stepping into the shoes of Duke’s all-time passing leader Lewis.

Last season Renfree completed 34 of 50 passes for 330 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions, and his play was a big reason the Blue Devils recovered from the Richmond loss with a win at Army the next week. He suffered a knee injury against Georgia Tech in the 10th game of the season and missed the contact portion of spring practice, but now says he’s at 100 percent.

“I’m ready to go,” Renfree said. “I had a good camp I thought and feel real comfortable going into this game. You’ve got to be locked in no matter what team you’re playing. Richmond was a good team and Elon is a very good team as well. We’re going to come out ready to play. (Last year) a lot of guys missed a lot of camp. But this year very few missed practice and if they did it was with a minor injury. I think guys feel a lot more prepared and ready to go.

“Elon’s defense is very basic and very talented. They don’t do a whole lot of stuff, but they do it well. They look like they’re very well-coached. You have to give them a lot of respect because they’ve definitely earned it. We learned a lot from last year especially offensively, what we need to do to improve the run game and stuff like that. There’s no doubt you have to be ready for that first game. We’ve got to come out and be ready to play.”

Cutcliffe said he doesn’t doubt Renfree will be up to the job.

“Sean Renfree has been sharp and I expect him to be really sharp,” the coach said. “He’s a big, strong pro-style quarterback. He’s been very accurate up to this point in practice. He’s got great arm strength. I’m excited for him. He’s been looking forward to this opportunity. He’s a serious young man and I’ve got to find some way to relax him. He’s tuned in.”

Cutcliffe made a change from last season’s game-captain philosophy and has named permanent captains along with one game captain for this year’s team.

The permanent captains will be redshirt senior linebacker Abraham Kromah, senior center Bryan Morgan and redshirt senior cornerback Chris Rwabukamba. The game captain for Saturday will be redshirt senior tight end Brett Huffman.
The coach also said that three specially selected players from the “show team” each week will get a special honor, leading the team onto the field carrying flags of the U.S.A., North Carolina and the Atlantic Coast Conference.