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February 15, 2010

Quarterback question looming at Duke

It's mid-February and the conference basketball races are heating up. It's also time for spring football practice.

Duke opens spring drills today, the first of the 120 FBS schools to do so. We will have spring previews for each of the Big Six conference teams, each Mountain West team and selected other FBS teams over the next six weeks. Each preview will run either on the day spring drills start or a few days before.

Donovan Varner led Duke with 65 catches for 1,047 yards and eight TDs last season.
Coach: David Cutcliffe
Last season: 5-7 overall, 3-5 in the ACC
Spring dates: Feb. 15-March 27.
Offense (9): T Kyle Hill, TE Brett Huffman, WR Austin Kelly, G Mitchell Lederman, G Brian Moore, C Bryan Morgan, WR Donovan Varner, WR Conner Vernon, WR Johnny Williams (moving to CB).
Defense (6): CB Lee Butler, SS Matt Daniels, E Patrick Egboh, NT Charlie Hatcher, CB Chris Rwabukamba, LB Damian Thornton.
Special teams (2): P Kevin Jones, K Will Snyderwine.
The biggest question facing Duke this spring is obvious: Who's going to replace quarterback Thaddeus Lewis? Duke fans may have to wait a few months to discover the answer.

The most likely candidate is Sean Renfree, who will sit out spring practice after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in November. Renfree's injury means Duke must look at its other quarterbacks this spring while also attempting to plug plenty of holes on defense.

Positions of strength

Duke's top four receivers return; each had at least 31 receptions last season. The quartet of Donovan Varner, Conner Vernon, Austin Kelly and Johnny Williams combined to catch 205 passes for 2,803 yards and 16 touchdowns. Duke has so many talented receivers that coaches are planning to move Williams to cornerback. The Blue Devils also return TE Brett Huffman, who caught three touchdown passes in '09. Duke should benefit from the return of former walk-on K Will Snyderwine, who earned a scholarship after going 17-of-20 on field-goal attempts last season.

Help is needed

Who's going to throw to all those receivers? The departure of four-year starting quarterback Thaddeus Lewis leaves Duke in the unenviable position of having to replace a guy who set 48 school records during his career. Sean Renfree's health status further complicates Duke's quarterback situation. Duke also has holes to fill in the defensive line as it attempts to replace Vince Oghobaase and Ayanga Okpokowuruk. Oghobaase was a four-year starter, while Okpokowuruk made at least five starts in each of his four seasons.

Three guys to watch

G Dave Harding: Harding was redshirted in 2009, but he could develop into a featured player this fall. Harding will get a long look this spring at left guard.

LB Damian Thornton: Thornton is moving to middle linebacker this spring after making 60 tackles as a starting outside linebacker last season. Duke coaches are hoping he repeats the success of former Blue Devils star Vincent Rey, who made a similar move last season and recorded a team-high 98 tackles.

CB Johnny Williams: After catching at least 30 passes in each of his first two season, this former wide receiver is moving to defense this spring. Williams' athletic background suggests he has the versatility to make the move. Williams was an all-county prep basketball player and star receiver who helped Leroy (Ala.) High School win two state football titles.

The pressure is on

RB Jay Hollingsworth: Although this junior heads into spring practice as Duke's most experienced running back, that doesn't necessarily mean he will get the majority of the carries -- or even be one of the top two running backs. Hollingsworth will compete with sophomore Desmond Scott, a former four-star prospect. Scott rushed for a team-high 262 yards on 70 carries last year, while Hollingsworth gained 179 yards on 54 attempts. Hollingsworth also will have to fight off a challenge from true freshman Josh Snead, who enrolled in time to participate in spring practice.

The buzz

Duke has made steady progress in two seasons under coach David Cutcliffe, who showed his faith in the program by deciding to remain in Durham after receiving overtures from Tennessee. Cutcliffe's biggest challenge this season will be grooming Lewis' replacement. Renfree's injury could allow redshirt freshman Sean Schroeder and early enrollee Brandon Connette to prove they deserve a chance to compete for the job. Although Cutcliffe decided to stay at Duke, defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre left to take the coaching position at San Jose State. The Blue Devils replaced MacIntyre by promoting former defensive line coach Marion Hobby. Cornell coach Jim Knowles also joined the staff, as safeties coach.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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