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Class is now in session for Duke’s quarterbacks

One of the most important classes at Duke this fall semester can’t be found in ACES. It’s not on file at the registrar’s office. Its enrollment this semester is limited to just four students. There is no classroom available for its sessions, so the four meet nearly every morning at 7:15 in an office on the second floor of the Yoh Football Center. The instructor is quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper. Welcome to QB 101.

“A lot of learning goes on in there,” redshirt sophomore Sean Renfree, who will be the Blue Devils’ starting quarterback this season, said. “A lot of life lessons that Coach Roper wants us to learn.”

“The quarterback-quarterback coach relationship is a special one…. It had better run really deep,” Roper said. “That relationship has developed in that room.”

So every morning, Renfree wakes up early for the daily meeting. He’s joined by Roper, a student coach and Duke’s other three quarterbacks: redshirt freshman Sean Schroeder and freshmen Brandon Connette and Anthony Boone.

There’s a lot to learn. Among the four quarterbacks, only Renfree has even used up a single year of his eligibility.

“Right now… we have a lot of youth,” Roper said. “And youth, while it’s a good thing—it’s sometimes a process to bring it along.”

But progress is being made. The four quarterbacks and their coach have already developed a close relationship, and Renfree said all four look up to Roper.

Naturally, there’s plenty of competition between the four, but that doesn’t prevent a positive relationship from developing.

“They understand that they’re on the same team…. Their ultimate goal is the same thing,” Roper said. “And that takes a mature young man to really understand that, but these guys do.”

So meet Sean Renfree the man. His natural tendency is to deflect attention. When he introduces himself, it’s “I’m Sean.” A first-name basis from the start. No pomp or circumstance. Just Sean.

Ask him how he’s handling the expectations of following in the footsteps of Thaddeus Lewis, the most prolific passer in Duke football history. “There seems to be more pressure,” Renfree says, as if he hadn’t really noticed the heightened expectations until you posed the question.

Ask him what some of his strengths are as a quarterback. He stammers and talks around an answer. “I’d like to think I have a good arm,” he finally says. That’s as much braggadocio as you’ll ever hear from him.

Ask him what his goals are for the upcoming season. “We have a lot of older guys on the team, and just being able to let them make the plays,” he says. No mention of passing yards or personal accolades. “Just throw them the ball, let them run with it, and do simple things like that.”

He even admits a little nervousness heading into the start of the season. But as usual, he deflects. “Obviously, I don’t know why I’m so nervous because I know I have great guys on the offense and a great coach that’s going to make me feel comfortable out there. I think the nerves will be gone by the first series.”

Now meet Sean Renfree the quarterback. He was selected to the 2008 PARADE All-America team his senior year of high school in Scottsdale, Ariz., and ranked as the tenth-best quarterback recruit in the nation by Scout.com. He redshirted the 2008-09 season, and served as Lewis’ backup last season. He appeared in five games, playing a total of 92 snaps. He made his debut coming off the bench against Army and connected on seven of eight passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns, leading Duke to a 35-19 comeback victory. His season would end early when he tore his ACL in November against Georgia Tech.

The numbers he racked up before the injury were sparkling, though. He completed 34 of 50 pass attempts for 330 yards, four touchdowns and just two interceptions. His 141.8 passer rating would have ranked him fourth in the ACC and 26th nationally had he kept up his pace over a full season.

Renfree achieved his success by utilizing an excellent football IQ and lethally accurate arm.

“He’s been very accurate up to this point in practice,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “He has tremendous arm strength and vision and understands our offense extremely well.”

Added Roper, “He can put [the ball] into small spots and his accuracy has been really good.”

Renfree has an easygoing style that carries over onto the field.

“You could be in a room with him and not even know he’s there,” Conner Vernon, one of Renfree’s favorite targets, said. “But when he’s out on the field and in the huddle, making sure we’re getting to the line, making sure everyone’s set, making sure everyone knows what they’re doing—I’ve been in this offense two years now and there’s been times where I’m lost, but he knows.”

“I’ve never been a huge rah-rah guy who says a whole lot of stuff,” Renfree admitted. Rather than chew out a teammate with everyone watching, he’d rather approach them off the field.

He’s still got plenty to learn in QB 101, though. He wants to continue improving his consistency: Last year, he played some poor games, such as his one-snap performance against North Carolina when he threw a pick. And he’ll have some work to do to keep up with the speed of the game this season.

“You can never play fast enough,” he said.

Renfree’s not the only promising student in Roper’s QB 101 class. Freshman Brandon Connette has already taken over the role as Renfree’s backup despite setting foot on campus just last winter. He enrolled in January in order to participate in spring practice with the team.

“He’s an intelligent guy who’s working at being a quarterback too,” Roper said. “But one of his strengths is obviously his feet.”

Cutcliffe said that Connette could see some snaps as early as the first game to give the team a dual threat quarterback under center.

Behind Connette stands Sean Schroeder, whose work ethic and experience make him an ideal role model for Connette and Boone. He also possesses a tough attitude, and though he may not see much action this year, he prepares every week like he will play.

Roper’s newest pupil is Boone, whose physical tools have been evident ever since Scout.com rated him one of the top five players at North Carolina’s scouting combine for high school seniors. The team has expressed plenty of excitement about his raw ability.

“He’s got a rocket,” Renfree said. “He can really throw the ball around.... Once he understands the offense and how it’s supposed to work, his physical abilities are really going to take off.”

The final exam for QB 101 is still yet to come. Roper is excited for the season to start, but he’s not ready to make note of any benchmarks just yet.

“We’re still so young that I don’t know if we’ve defined anything,” he said. “There’s a challenge in front of us, and hopefully somewhere during the season we have a defining moment for these guys.”

The Duke football season will depend on their passing grade.

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