With Duke football sitting at 3-1 for the first time since 2008 and gearing up for a game against Wake Forest, who they have not beaten since 1999, The Chronicle’s four football beat writers sat down to hand out some awards now that we’re one-third through the 12-game regular season.
Our beat writers name offensive and defensive MVPs, the biggest surprise and the biggest disappointment on the team and predict Duke’s end of season record.
The only consensus pick? Ross Cockrell, the team’s defensive MVP.
Daniel Carp: Conner Vernon has been the Blue Devils’ most reliable offensive target this season, despite receiving frequent double teams as one of the top receivers in the ACC. Whenever Duke sends the ball his way, No. 2 is there to make the play.
Jacob Levitt: Conner Vernon, a senior and team captain, is the team’s best pro prospect and a preseason All-ACC pick. His best game (10 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown) came against Florida International, which was the only game whose outcome wasn’t entirely obvious before the game.
Michael Schreiner: Sean Renfree, the obvious choice for a 3-1 team that relies so heavily on the pass. Renfree is in the top three in the ACC in completion percentage, touchdown passes and yards per game despite throwing ceding almost a fifth of his team’s pass attempts to the combination of Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette.
Chris Cusack: Conner Vernon, who is just six catches away from the ACC all-time receptions record, has really carried the offense in the Blue Devils’ first four games with 29 catches for 400 yards.
DC: Ross Cockrell. As one of the leaders on a defense who got burned by the big play last season, Cockrell has taken his game to new heights. With three interceptions and 10 passes defended, Cockrell has become the Blue Devils’ biggest playmaker on defense.
JL: Another obvious choice, Ross Cockrell has the team’s only three interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. Even more importantly, he returned a blocked kick for a touchdown to put the FIU game out of reach. He is also third on the team in tackles and has a tackle for loss.
MS: Ross Cockrell. The defensive co-captain has been a game-changer on defense—he has been responsible for all three of Duke’s interceptions so far and is fifth on the team in terms of scoring with two defensive touchdowns. Also, with 10 passes defensed this season, Cockrell is the only Blue Devil to have been credited with breaking up three or more passes.
CC: Ross Cockrell. Cockrell has been the only playmaker in Duke’s beat-up secondary, with three interceptions and double-digit pass breakups. He and the Duke defense will be tested against Wake Forest tomorrow afternoon.
DC: Brandon Braxton. After making the switch from wide receiver to safety this season and playing defense for the first time in his life, Braxton has been nothing short of spectacular for the Blue Devils. He ranks second on the team in tackles with 28 and with his physical play has been instrumental protecting against both the run and pass.
JL: Jamison Crowder, who had to step into the second wide receiver position after Blair Holliday’s injury in a jet ski accident, has been nothing short of spectacular, with 29 catches for 367 yards and two touchdowns in four games. His emergence as a big play threat has also been invaluable in drawing coverage away from Conner Vernon. Crowder showed hints of his explosiveness as a kick returner last year, but after Holliday’s injury there were serious doubts about the second wide receiver position. Crowder has erased those doubts with his performance thus far.
MS: Brandon Connette. He has essentially played at four different positions for the Blue Devils so far this season. When was the last time you saw a player rank in the top four on his team in passing, rushing and receiving while also taking a few snaps on defense?
CC: Brandon Connette, who has played solidly all over the field. Cutcliffe wasn’t trying to throw anyone off the scent this summer when he said the sophomore would be seeing snaps at a variety of positions, and Connette has been up to the task.
DC: Juwan Thompson. He led Duke in rushing last year despite having very limited touches, so I thought he was poised for big things heading into his senior season. Instead, Thompson has been woefully ineffective, and I would consider him to be the third option on this team at running back behind Josh Snead and true freshman Jela Duncan.
JL: The traditional running game. Coming into the season, Cutcliffe boasted that this would be his most athletic, talented stable of running backs yet. So far, that hasn’t proven to be the case. The running backs are averaging only four yards per carry with a total of two touchdowns despite having played games against one of the weakest run defenses in the FBS and against an FCS opponent. While the team has had some success with Brandon Connette running the wildcat, but teams are eventually going to catch on. In ACC play, that won’t be a viable substitute.
MS: Blue Devil running backs. If you took away Jela Duncan’s 58-yard scamper from last game, no Duke back would have more than 100 yards on the season. Duke’s three main ball carriers, Juwan Thompson, Josh Snead and Duncan, haven’t done much better in the passing game either—the trio have a combined for just 13 receptions for 65 yards.
CC: The running game, but it’s unfair to pinpoint that on any one player. As a team, the Blue Devils have gained just 3.6 yards per carry this season, and their average of 112.8 rushing yards per game ranks 107th in FBS.
End of season record prediction
DC: 6-6. That’s right, Duke is going bowling this year. It’s going to be a tough road to get to six wins given the Blue Devils’ tough schedule, but with their offensive punch and the way they’ve stepped up on defense recently, this team has made me a believer.
JL: 5-7. This team is too banged up. It faces must-wins against Wake Forest and Virginia. If the team wins both of those games (a huge “if”) it will need to steal a game from a favored opponent. Even if no one else gets injured, Duke will be on the wrong side of the talent disparity in every game after Virginia. That matters least in a rivalry game (at home against North Carolina) but I can’t see this team winning against the Demon Deacons, Cavaliers and Tar Heels.
MS: 4-8. Duke has no more easy wins and few legitimate upset opportunities on the horizon. I think Duke goes winless for the meat of its schedule before finishing the season with a victory over Miami.
CC: 4-8. Too many injuries, not enough consistency on either end of the ball since the opening win over Florida International. The schedule just gets tougher from here on out, and the Blue Devils are stuck with a tough schedule that does not include Maryland, N.C. State, or Boston College.