Memo to Mike Krzyzewski, our beloved Coach K: Your rambunctious run as the dominator of Duke sports, the coy and cunning king of college basketball, the dictator of Durham, the owner of Krzyzewskiville, could be on its last legs. There's a new Durham Dazzler named Conner Vernon, and a new Duke athletic group known as Duke football.
Vernon is a super-smooth wide receiver who will likely this weekend break the ACC's all-time record for total career receptions (233) against Virginia. I imagine all over Duke's pastoral and undulating gothic campus are Duke co-eds (women) gawking about this guy who looks, with his wavy and lengthy brunette hair (sometimes dreadlocked), a bit like Bruce Springsteen when he made that slightly popular album called Born to Run. A south Florida native with 4.4 speed in the 40 yard dash, Vernon has Sticky Bun hands akin to Jordan Shipley and Wes Welker, now NFL receivers.
Lightly recruited out of high school-- talent scouts blew this one--the 6 foot 1, 200 pounder bolted down the middle of the field and caught a 47 yard skinny post last weekend against my alma mater, Wake Forest, on the first play of the game. He went on to catch 5 passes for 62 yards, catapulting the Blue Devils to a 34-27 upset win, one of the biggest in the school's recent history.
Since his freshman year, he's been more than a handful, in fact virtually impossible, for ACC cornerbacks and safeties to contain. A two-time All-ACC performer, he is the only player in ACC history to haul in 70 catches in two consecutive seasons (in his sophomore and junior years).
Vernon has brought street credibility, intrigue--and more attention--to the Duke football program that more or less forever has been one of the biggest losers among the nation's Division I programs. During the Coach K regime, as so many of us know too well that Duke hoops has ruled the campus and the college basketball universe. K and his boys have been annoyingly great.
Duke football has been akin to an intramural sport that hardly any of the students ever go to watch. Duke students, among the top one-percenters in academic prowess supposedly, come from all corners of the Earth with interests and intellects that extend well above the base levels of football. Soon after King K arrived, the ultra-annoying Cameron Crazies have been camping out in tents all night outside Cameron Indoor Stadium to get tickets to see the Dukie hoopies smoke another team out of the gray brick building. No one has ever camped out overnight to get a ticket to a Duke football game, I conjecture. Hardly anyone even attends; more probably go to the monthly on-campus international political awareness seminars than gridiron match-ups.
Since 1994, Duke's football program has not had a winning season. It had a 22 game losing streak in that time frame. From 1999 through 2007 it lost 90 of its 103 games. This program hasn't won an ACC football title in 23 years and hasn't been to a bowl game in 17. Meanwhile, coach K's hoopsters have won four national titles, 19 ACC titles, and gone to 11 Final Fours.
But change is brewing, fortunes are reversing. In fact, the university evidently cares about something other than hoops based on its recent announcement to spend millions renovating the Wallace Wade Stadium where the football team plays. Duke is off to its best record in football in 18 years, with four wins in its first five games. After losing to Wake 12 straight times, they finally got a win.
What is most striking about this Duke team, having seen in person last weekend against Wake, is how big and talented they are. Along with Vernon, they have massive, fast athletes all over their field, at wide receiver, at quarterback, at runninng back, on defense. Their linemen look as big and intimidating as those in the Southeastern Conference; Alabama probably should have recruited them. Quarterback Sean Renfree is completing 72 percent of his passes and has thrown for nine touchdowns. I expected Duke to be its typical smallish in size, limited in athleticism team; it was stunning to see how big and formidable these guys are.
They are the surprise team in Division 1 football this season. I know, typically not so good Northwestern is 5 and 0. But Duke would beat them; they have more talent and no one who could shut down "The Boss," Vernon. No one from powerhouses Florida State and Clemson has. Duke has won its other three games this season by scoring 158 points to their opponents 57. An offensive squad with all kinds of firepower.
Watch for Duke to finish this season with a t least eight wins and receive-for the first time in eons-a bid to a bowl game. I wouldn't be surprised if they beat any of the top ACC teams remaining on their schedule including Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech.
These guys are for real and will continue to be an improving football program during the next several years. One day we may think of Duke as a football school rather than a basketball school. Wouldn't that be a refreshing change of pace? I've never been a big fan of Duke sports. But with Vernon and this year's football squad, and the talented younger players on the roster, I'm becoming one for football. One day I hope the campus erects Cutliffeville in honor of head football coach, David Cutliffe. He really has this program on the rise.