by Matt Waldman
The steal of the draft. That's what Duke head coach David Cutcliffe says about Blue Devils quarterback Sean Renfree, a 6-foot-3, 219-pound senior. Renfree is the latest in the line of Cutcliffe disciples that includes Peyton and Eli Manning. That list also has current NFL backup Thaddeus Lewis and former Jets reserve Erik Ainge -- both well below the Manning tier where physical talent, quarterback technique, and on-field savvy intersect -– but prospects coaches still valued.
At this time of the year, coaches will often do public relations work for their players who have faded into the background of a crowded class of prospects. During his first year at Stanford, Jim Harbaugh showed scouts and media game tape of his former starting quarterback at the University of San Diego, Josh Johnson.
Cutcliffe did enough to promote Lewis’ stock at Duke that the St. Louis Rams invited the quarterback into camp in 2010, where the rookie impressed Pat Shurmur enough in the preseason that the coach took a chance on the former Blue Devils player in Cleveland. Lewis actually started the 2012 finale against Pittsburgh and delivered a 22-of-32, 204-yard performance, with one touchdown and one interception, in his first NFL regular season action.
So is Cutcliffe’s steal of the draft spin justified? Are Peter King and Mel Kiper hitching rides on a sleeper bandwagon headed for a steep cliff? Or is there gold on the horizon?
Renfree, who backed up Lewis, was the more highly-regarded quarterback in Durham. After earning the starting job as a sophomore, Renfree had three seasons with at least a 61-percent completion percentage, and two at 65 percent or above. Although Duke has an active short-passing game, there’s a lot to share that illustrates why the positive buzz has merit.
Cutcliffe’s offense is rooted in a pro style, and Renfree has experience with a variety of drops and fakes where he has to manipulate the defense with his eyes and body while delivering throws with anticipation and accuracy against pressure. Renfree and Tulane’s Ryan Griffin and Renfree are two examples of why I believe this 2013 quarterback class may lack star power at the top, but its middle and bottom tiers have more potential than the 2012 group.
This opening play of Duke’s first offensive series is just one of many throws that you’ll see with strong anticipation and pinpoint accuracy.
Renfree takes a clean three-step drop from the pistol –- something that a prospect like Geno Smith can’t seem to do from snap to snap –- and finishes with his feet set at shoulder width as he looks to the route combination in the left flat.
There are three defenders in the area: the safety, the corner, and linebacker. All three have zone responsibility and Renfree makes it a point to force all three defenders to focus on the slot receiver working up the seam of the left flat while the outside receiver runs a shallow cross towards the middle zone.
The receiver Renfree is actually targeting is his backfield mate in the pistol, who is running a wheel route. In order to target the wheel route, Renfree looks off the safety and delivers a strong shoulder fake toward the slot man to force both the safety and the cornerback to turn and run.
The linebacker makes the correct decision to pick up the running back exiting the backfield to the flat, taking an angle where he has good inside position in the hip pocket of the receiver.
Renfree delivers the ball from a tight pocket at the Duke 13. Instead of throwing the ball over the head of the running back, he delivers a back shoulder fake to the left sideline, knowing that there’s a chance the cornerback with underneath responsibility on the slot receiver is close enough to peel to the sideline and defend the wheel route over the top. Renfree drops the ball into the bucket well inside the boundary of the Duke 41, and in a position where the back can make contact with the pass before he is hit.
This is excellent touch and timing, especially off a three-step drop that ends with a shoulder fake. The pass leaves Renfree’s arm with an easy motion that appears effortless.
Here’s another wheel route later in the quarter that should have resulted in a touchdown.
This is a first-and-10 at the Cincinnati 29 from a 20-personnel shotgun 1x2 receiver set versus a base 4-3 formation. The Bearcats have one safety 12 yards deep, just inside the slot receiver on the left, with 8:40 in the first quarter.
Renfree executes a play-faked shotgun sweep to the running back at his left. I like the care taken with the play-fake. He shows good extension with his arms and the ball while selling the play with his head and shoulders pointing downward. He retracts the ball while executing a three-step drop outside the right hash.
His main targets are the slot man working up the seam and the running back exiting to the flat on the wheel route. Renfree throws the ball off the final step of drop, delivering it with good arc and touch from the 37 to the back, who is working up the sideline to the five. The ball lands on his teammates outstretched hands in stride for what should have been a 29-yard score.
Where Renfree struggles is reading and anticipating coverage drops in the middle of the field. Here is a third-and-15 with 6:22 in the first quarter from a 2x2 receiver, 10-personnel shotgun set at the Cincinnati 16.
Cincinnati is employing a nickel look with its slot defender over the right defensive end rather than directly over the right slot receiver. The safety is the defender directly over the slot, at a distance of about 15 yards from the line of scrimmage.
Renfree executes a play-fake with a good sell to the running back moving left to right, then drops a step to release the ball to his slot receiver. The quarterback does not see that the slot defender has dropped into coverage during the early post-snap phase of this play.
Renfree’s pass would have been on-time and accurate without the underneath coverage, but the slot defender cuts off the pass. If not for the Duke receiver ripping the ball loose, this pass would have been intercepted.
Because there was no pressure on the quarterback during this play and the read was a post-snap mistake, I believe these types of errors will be correctable as Renfree transitions to the pro game.
The reason I believe the read made above is correctable has to do with the snaps I’ve see from Renfree when he’s under pressure. The Duke quarterback plays with poise and awareness that helps him make accurate throws in situations that project well to the NFL game.
Here is a third-and-9 at the Duke 48 with 4:00 in the third quarter. The offense is in a 2x1 receiver, 20-personnel pistol formation.
Renfree takes a three-step drop, hitches at the left hash, and sees the right slot receiver working up the right hash on a linebacker –- an excellent mismatch. Renfree slides a quarter-step inside to avoid just enough pressure to release the ball from the Duke 40 to the Cincinnati 18, hitting his receiver on the post route behind the corner and over the safety.
The 32-yard pass -– 40 yards from release point in a tight pocket to reception point -- arrives in stride to the receiver. Although the defensive back would have had a good chance to make a play on the ball if he hadn't stumbled, it was still a good throw.
The small adjustment with his feet reminds me of the kind of awkward-but-nimble pocket movement seen from the likes of Dan Marino, Bernie Kosar, and Philip Rivers. Renfree has that kind of downfield accuracy, too.
Here is another difficult throw with 7:38 left on a third-and-4 from a 2x2 receiver, 10-personnel shotgun set. Duke faces one safety 11 yards off the line of scrimmage, but directly over top of the right slot receiver. On this play, Cincinnati sends a double A-gap blitz.
Renfree drops three steps and looks left as the pressure enters the pocket. The Duke quarterback throws the ball from the Cincinnati 45 off his back foot with pressure in face, releasing the ball from the left hash, and hits his receiver up the sideline at the 16.
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What I love about this throw is the placement just outside the cornerback, who is recovering just in time to undercut the pass. The ball arrives on time, but the tight end drops this pass after contact.
This 29-yard pass hits the tight end’s hands after Renfree drops it over the defender flashing underneath. While the replay shows that the pass was possibly thrown a split-second late, this was still a very good throw from an off-balance position that he’ll have to make in the NFL in similar down-and-distance situations while facing similar pressure.
Renfree’s pocket presence is an ingrained part of his game. He slides away from pressure while maintaining good throwing form -- Ryan Tannehill at Texas A&M was one example of a player who showed this -– and he possesses a good internal clock to get rid of the football. Combine this with the other NFL-caliber pocket skills I've discussed and Renfree has the makings of a potential starter. One that has a shorter developmental time than many may realize.
Is he the steal of the draft? Who knows, there's a lot about transitioning to the NFL that goes beyond skill: injury, emotional-psychological transition, money, team politics, etc. But at a position personnel executives consider the most important when building a team, Renfree is at least a solid candidate for that potential honor.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, an online publication devoted to play-by-play analysis of offensive skill position prospects. Now in its eighth year of publication, the RSP provides pre- and post-draft rankings, analysis, and stylistic comparisons. Waldman also includes all of his play-by-play notes, grading reports, and a glossary that defines and explains his grading criteria. The RSP is available for download every April 1 and 10 percent of each sale is donated to Darkness to Light, a non-profit devoted to preventing sexual abuse in communities across the country.