If you ask Thaddeus Lewis, Duke doesn’t have a quarterback controversy. It has a competition. In 2007, Lewis was a two-year starter when David Cutcliffe took over the program, but among the new coach’s first moves on the job was finding his quarterback of the future.
Enter Sean Renfree, a four-star recruit drawn by Cutcliffe’s reputation as a quarterback coach.
Lewis kept his job his junior year while Renfree redshirted. But at the start of this season, as the senior quarterback struggled early and recovered from an August ankle injury, Renfree got the opportunity to showcase the talent Cutcliff recruited him for.
Thus far, he has delivered.
The freshman’s college career started with a bang. Renfree saw his first game action midway through the third quarter of the Blue Devils’ second game with Duke trailing Army, 14-10. On the second play of the series, he lined up, took the snap, rolled left and delivered a dead-on pass to junior Brett Huffman for 17 yards, a touchdown and—most importantly—Duke’s first lead of the season on Renfree’s first pass as a Blue Devil.
“Army turned it over, and I didn’t get a chance to get any snaps or warm up,” Renfree said. “They were just like, ‘Go, go, go!’ I went in there, and Coach made a great call, a great bootleg. It was a lot of fun, but it kind of shocked me. I was nervous but confident. It was huge. It was a must, must, must win—just like all our games—but it was a great opportunity for us to go out and show people how we can really play.”
Duke would hold the lead for the rest of the game on the way to a 35-19 win. The freshman finished 7-of-8 passing for 106 yards and two touchdowns. In his first collegiate action, Renfree had already orchestrated a second-half comeback.
“I always like coming from behind at halftime and winning a game, I don’t care what the circumstance is,” Cutcliffe said after the game. “I was pleased with [Renfree’s performance]. It’s basically a statement of confidence in your backup. I had intended to play him last week and I didn’t. I made my mind up we would play him [this week] regardless of circumstance.”
While Renfree was the star of the day, Lewis was left frustrated on the sideline. But the senior knew all along that Cutcliffe planned to play Renfree for parts of the game. Lewis was pleased for his teammate, greeting questions about Renfree’s first collegiate touchdown with a wide grin.
“It was great. I tell you what, my first high school pass was an interception,” Lewis said. “My first college pass was an incompletion, an incompletion down the field to no one in particular…. But his first college pass was a touchdown. If I were him, I’d take that any day.”
As the Blue Devils prepared for Kansas the next week, everyone wanted to know what Renfree’s future would hold. Had he played well enough to unseat Lewis, the three-year starter? Cutcliffe immediately dismissed the idea; the questions momentarily ceased.
Against the Jayhawks, Renfree had another strong showing as the team’s backup. The freshman connected on 14-of-23 passes for 115 yards and threw Duke’s only passing touchdown in the 44-16 loss. To say that the offense ran smoothly would be an overstatement, for the Blue Devils scored just 16 points on 384 offensive yards. Renfree filled in during times when Lewis struggled, but didn’t quite eclipse his mentor, who threw for 184 yards of his own.
And then at Homecoming, Renfree had another first—this time, an interception. North Carolina Central’s Jeffery Henderson grabbed Renfree’s first pass out of the air and returned it for an 83-yard touchdown.
But the most important of all of Renfree’s numbers may be three—three years ahead as the face of the Duke program. Because regardless of the ups and downs of this season, the development of the freshman and Duke’s hopes to grow as a program will remain intricately linked.
“That’s what I what I want to see out of Sean,” Lewis said. “Just to let Blue Devil Nation and a lot of people know that once I’m done out here, the Blue Devils still have a great future in Sean Renfree.”
It seems that Lewis is correct: Duke doesn’t have a controversy. Renfree’s story doesn’t have to do so much with the present as it does with the future.