DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — One of the most prolific duos in Duke history could rewrite some record books this season.
Quarterback Sean Renfree — already the most accurate quarterback in school history — enters with an outside shot at becoming its leader in passing yardage. His go-to receiver, Conner Vernon, should become the Atlantic Coast Conference’s career leader in two significant stat categories by November.
After essentially turning the Blue Devils’ offense into their personal game of catch during the past three seasons, they’ve certainly put up big numbers. Now they want to cap their careers by completing the program’s turnaround and leading Duke to its first winning season and first bowl in nearly two decades.
Those on-field struggles have largely overshadowed their pitch-and-catch success, and that’s something both seniors have dedicated themselves to changing.
“It just really comes from working. It’s always Renfree-to-Vernon, but we’re always throwing together, always learning new things about each other — how he wants me to do this, how I want him to do that,” Vernon said Tuesday during the team’s media day.
“It really comes from behind-the-scenes stuff. A lot of people don’t really see what goes on Sunday through Friday. They just see the connection we have on Saturday, but we know there’s a lot of work that goes into that.”
It started in 2008 when Renfree was redshirting and Vernon was a senior at a high school in Miami.
The two had spoken before by phone, but their first face-to-face meeting came when Vernon says he was visiting the Duke campus and had just committed to the Blue Devils. Then-receivers coach Scottie Montgomery brought him into the tight ends’ meeting room. Renfree was watching film there, and the two had a quick conversation, with the quarterback offering cordial congratulations on joining the program.
Renfree says his first impression of Vernon was that he was a quiet but likable guy. Vernon was impressed by how intently Renfree studied the game.
“He was always in the meeting room, always watching film, always trying to pick up” things on film, Vernon said.
Three years — and countless 7-on-7 drills — later, they’ve rocketed up the charts in the media guides.
Renfree, who has completed a school-record 63.4 percent of his passes, enters in fifth place on the school’s career yards passing list with 6,352 — or, 3,713 behind Thad Lewis’ 3-year-old record. If Duke goes to a bowl game, Renfree would need to average 286 yards passing to break the record — and that mark is not entirely unreachable because he averaged 260 yards as a sophomore.
Vernon’s milestones are closer to reach. He’s 35 catches and 842 yards receiving shy of those ACC career marks held by Clemson’s Aaron Kelly (232 receptions) and Florida State’s Peter Warrick (3,517 yards).
Cornerback Ross Cockrell, who tries to defend Vernon every day during practice, says the receiver’s intelligence and knack for improvising make him difficult to stop. Try to force him into an inside route, and he’ll get you turned around while finding an opening on the outside — or vice versa, he said.
“Whatever technique you want to play, he does well in making that the wrong technique,” Cockrell said. “He sees that while he’s in the middle of his route and changes his route based on that. So that’s the thing that makes Conner such a great player — he’s a smart wide receiver, and he understands how to use his body and how to get in front of you and make the catch.”
Vernon says that’s just “a reaction thing, just something you pick up playing the game for so long” because he has to “change up your craft, being a receiver.”
And while Vernon is doing that, Renfree picks up a body cue from him — a skill he developed during all those throwing sessions.
“It doesn’t just happen all of a sudden in games,” Renfree said. “Just working, me and him … and then, when we do 7-on-7, stuff like that develops. … It kind of clicks faster.”
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