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Renfree quietly carries Duke football

Sean Renfree has thrown a career-high 18 touchdowns this season, completing 66.3 percent of his passes.
Sean Renfree has thrown a career-high 18 touchdowns this season, completing 66.3 percent of his passes.

It is difficult to get Sean Renfree to talk about himself, but just about anyone else will give him a glowing endorsement. Not just the players and coaching staff at Duke, though they are also happy to talk about how much he has meant to the team, but national awards committees as well.

Among others, he has won the Jim Tatum Award, which honors the ACC’s top football student-athlete and the Pop Warner National College Football Award, given to athletes for their accomplishments in athletics, academics and community service. He has been a finalist for a number of other awards as well.

“Sean Renfree just keeps racking in, deservedly, honors,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “To have started as many games, to be as effective as he has been, as humble as he has been and accomplish so much for this University, we need to celebrate Sean Renfree. I think sometimes he’s taken for granted, not only in our midst but in this league’s midst. He’s a pretty special guy.”

Sean Renfree’s numbers ensure he will end his career as one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in Duke history. During his five years at Duke, he has set or tied a multitude of school records, and now holds the mark for career completion percentage. He is also is on mark to break the school’s single-season record, which he set last year.

He has also been instrumental in helping senior wide receiver and fellow co-captain Conner Vernon, his roommate the past two years, to establish conference records for career receptions and receiving yards.

“I had 55 catches my freshman year so, I’m not a math major, but the 200-whatever I have after that are Sean,” Vernon said. “So again I owe a lot of my success to him and obviously without him I wouldn’t be the player I am today. This program wouldn’t be where it is today without him either.”

And it was only by chance that Renfree even considered Duke. Renfree had originally committed to Georgia Tech to play for Chan Gailey, but Gailey was dismissed and replaced by Paul Johnson, whose triple-option offense did not have room for a pocket passer like Renfree. Just seven days after Johnson’s hiring at Georgia Tech, Duke hired Cutcliffe as its next head coach. Renfree had not previously considered Duke, but he was excited about the prospect of playing for Cutcliffe, who successfully sold him on his vision for success.

Renfree redshirted his freshman year but played the next year as a reserve, even splitting reps with then-starter Thaddeus Lewis, who later signed with the St. Louis Rams out of college. As a freshman, Renfree showed his potential, completing 34-of-50 passes with four touchdowns and two interceptions before tearing his ACL against Georgia Tech.

The next season, Renfree and the offense came out of the gate firing on all cylinders, putting up 99 points in two games against Elon and Wake Forest but coming away with only one win to show for it. The season took a downhill turn after a blowout loss to then-No. 1 Alabama left the team—including Renfree—shell-shocked. The young signal-caller committed 12 turnovers in the next three games, two of which came against beatable opponents. Renfree recovered to compile more than 3,000 yards passing for the year, becoming just the fourth Duke quarterback to do so, but he threw only 14 touchdowns compared to 17 interceptions.

Brandon Connette often replaced Renfree in the red zone as a Wildcat quarterback that season because of the team’s struggle in the traditional run game, depriving Renfree of the opportunity to throw short touchdowns. Although Renfree has always said that he felt secure in his starting role, he demonstrated his maturity at a young age by coming out of that season with his confidence intact.

As in his sophomore year, Renfree accumulated excellent passing numbers the next season, but he was able to cut down on the turnovers that plagued him the previous year. Once again, however, the team finished with a frustrating 3-9 record, including several painfully close losses.

But this past season, Renfree has finally put it all together. He is averaging 10 more passing yards per game than last year with improved decision making. This season he has set a career-best in touchdown passes and further cut his interceptions, with just eight picks in 11 games, leading his team to six wins and its first bowl game since 1994. As he usually does, Renfree shared the credit with his teammates.

“We’ve played much better as a unit [this year]—our offense, defense and our special teams,” Renfree said. “We’ve been able to run the ball more effectively, and that’s helped us gain more yardage and score more points. Our turnover margin has been very good for the season. There are a lot of people who have contributed.”

After the season, Renfree will return home to Phoenix to train for the NFL Draft, where he is projected as a possible late-round pick, but for now he’s focused on making the most of the final game he was so instrumental in helping Duke earn.


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